In 2000, the new City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality announced its goal of becoming ‘an African world-class city’, with increased prosperity and economic growth for all. Subsequent planning documents reiterated the tagline: ‘a world-class city, with service deliverables and efficiencies that meet world best practice’—‘a world-class African city for all’.footnote1 Who defines what ‘world-class’ means? The annual Global Cities report put out by estate agents Knight Frank conflates it with ‘global’, which in turn glorifies cities that prioritize profit-maximization and attracting talented professionals. The ‘global city’ rankings put out by the American management-consultancy firm A. T. Kearney rank urban conglomerates in terms of business activity, human capital, innovation and personal well-being. The key word is competition. ‘The race for global city status is accelerating’, enthuses atk. ‘While European cities prevail today, North American cities show greater potential, especially in innovation. And although top cities in China significantly outperform those in India, competition is tightening.’footnote2

The sporting metaphor is telling. ‘Catch up’, or competitive modernization, has a long history, from the ‘rise’ of would-be imperial powers in the nineteenth century to that of their former colonies in the mid-twentieth. But it has taken new forms in the era of globalization. In the 1960s and 70s, the rites of passage involved the national acquisition of steel plants and hydro-electric dams. Today, succeeding at the modernity game involves building a different sort of infrastructure—a high-rise financial district, or the spectacular architecture of a mega-sports stadium, to host international competitions. The principal player is no longer the nation as a whole but enclaves within it: the ‘central business district’ (cdb) of a city, plus what global real-estate agents call its ‘creative halo’. This typically involves the ‘hipsterification’ of a former industrial district, on the edge of the business area. As the agents explain:

The upshot of this vertiginously uneven development is the production of what we might define as different micro-spaces or ‘cultural time zones’ within the nation-state.

Fittingly, the international tennis circuit furnishes an example of the creation of a cultural time zone. The development of the game—from aristocratic pastime under Europe’s absolutist states to the ‘lawn tennis’ exported by imperial Britain and the international tournament in the age of tv—has involved increasing spatio-temporal standardization. From Japan to Morocco, Johannesburg to Melbourne, professional tennis today requires a whole infrastructure of highly regulated space. The courts—whether ‘hard’, grass or clay—must meet minutely specified standards. While the ball will still bounce differently, due to variations in altitude and temperature, the courts, the seating, the restroom facilities, the carbonated drinks for sale, the souvenirs and so forth all adhere to a particular ideal, breeding dull sameness that globalization theorists lament as the homogenization of the world. Thus, the tennis tour allows professional players to circulate globally while remaining inside a specific cultural time zone that is more or less the same everywhere. Even if the food in Chennai might be slightly spicier than what’s on offer in Cincinnati, the rules of the game and the basic infrastructure—a court with certain lines painted on it, a net of standard height—do not vary.

For ‘rising Africa’, as for ‘rising Asia’, competitive catch-up poses the question of whether ‘global’ and ‘Western’ modernity are one and the same thing. The notion of multiple or plural modernities is undeniably appealing, and historically one can distinguish a series of development paths.footnote4 But what is the evidence that the current phase of the modernity game is producing something new as it plays out on the terrain of the cityscape, or in the creation of global-standard sports stadiums? The very adjective ‘rising’ suggests a uniform measure, whether applied to the intensification of capitalist-modernity as symbolized by growing gdp or, more metaphorically, the newly built phallic skyscrapers thrusting up into smog-covered skies. Zooming in on Johannesburg, this essay will investigate what’s involved on the ground in the making of a ‘global city’.