Simon Gush & Bridget Kenny: How to Fix Your Lift

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Before first use

About your lift

Using your lift

Fixing your lift

Parts of your lift lift car buttons doors shaft motor ropes counterweight guardrail

Labour required verticality horizontality

Types of labour replacement repair servicing maintenance Troubleshooting/FAQs

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On the 16th floor next to the button for the lift is a small drawing of a home scratched into the paint. A double-storey house rotated 90 degrees so that it stands on its side. Above it is another drawing of a low, wide building that could equally be a drawing of a home. At first glance they look like children’s drawings, scratchy, proportionally imprecise and using signs that young kids use for windows and doors. There are also a couple of hints that they might not be drawn by a child. The drawings use perspective and while it might be crude there is a deliberate attempt to render the three-dimensional form of the buildings. They are also probably too high from the ground for a small child to comfortably reach and apply the pressure needed to make the marks in the paint.

There are only three apartments on the 16th floor but many people wait for the lift here. It is the last floor that the elevator reaches. Two more residential floors are above it, as well as the laundry room and the communal rooftop space. The lift is slow. There are two lifts that go to 16 but for years now only one has worked. There is no display for the lift showing which floor the lift is currently on, and only the sound of the creaking cage and bangs of the cables when it draws near indicate that it is (or might be) coming.

The lift is constantly breaking down. Waiting on the landing it is impossible to know if it will arrive. But the wait is not necessarily unpleasant. To one’s right the door to the fire escape is permanently tied open to prevent it from loudly banging in the wind. Through the door, views westwards across the inner city, Fordsburg and onwards are visible. At the right time it is possible to watch the sunset while waiting, observing the intensity of the colour as the light refracts brilliant orange off the dense pollution in the city air.

Waiting for the arrival of the lift is filled with uncertainty. There always remains a chance it will not come and one will have to take the stairs. Walking down the stairs is not too bad if you are not carrying much. Walking up is another story. To live with the lift is to incorporate uncertainty and unpredictability into one’s life.


Andreas Bernard. 2014.

Lifted: A cultural history of the elevator. New York and London: NYU Press.

Rem Koolhaas. 1994 [1978].

Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan

The Montacelli Press.

“More about the new bank,” Monday, June 19, 1933, Rand Daily Mail, p. 5.

Bridget Kenny. 2020.

“To protect white men: Job reservation in elevators in South African in the 1950s and 1960s,” Social History 45(4): 500-521.


A lift is infrastructure to transport a body up and down. Its ultimate job is not to fall. As with much technology, the origin story of the elevator begins with a performance, a miraculous unveiling. In 1854 at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York City, Elisha Graves Otis let fall a platform on which he stood 50 feet above his audience. But plummet it did not, stopped by the safety device that he invented. The true innovation was not the ability to raise up a platform, but the surety of being able to stop it if it fell.

The lift sustains the city, making living and working possible in high-rise buildings. The skyscraper inscribes the elevator shaft at the centre of its design. With the elevator and the steel frame, the skyscraper comes into existence as a model of modern life. The technology of the lift is determined by the limit to building height and new efforts to build up require new experiments in lift technology.

Elevator design signals progress:

The lift service consists of three high-speed geared unit _multi-voltage lifts, all of which may be attendant driven, and two of which are fitted for changing over to full collective automatic control when it is desired that the public should operate them. The lift cars, which are handsomely constructed of polished brown mahogany, are fitted with special mirrors, unique lighting and automatic electrically operated bronze safety gates.

The wood finish, the reflection and the lighting combine with the lift’s mechanics to prove Johannesburg’s status in 1933.

Despite the technology for ‘full collective automatic control’, the lift attendant drove downtown elevators in Johannesburg for decades. In 1960, the job of passenger lift operator was reserved for whites in Johannesburg to protect employment for ‘infirm white liftmen’ and to preserve an effective order of racialised control. A passenger lift was defined as one ‘solely or partly [used] by white persons’, in contrast to ‘goods lifts’, used by black South Africans or for goods transport. Johannesburg building owners and employers began to use automatic operation features generally, and


new buildings installed automatic lifts directly by the 1970s. In 1977 the job reservation was cancelled. The self-service of lifts has a history that tracks the city’s racialised labour regime.

And so, lift engineers punted their mechanical systems to pilot lifts most efficiently. The scientists sought to eliminate waiting time for a lift. Today’s fast elevators rely on elevator banking and algorithms to determine their courses up and down. The objective: minimise the ‘delay ratio’. Algorithms map elevator behaviour, expected time and spent time, accounting for floors and queue discipline.

The history of Johannesburg’s modernity traces such tropes of technology’s futures and begs questions of the ‘ruins’ of these infrastructures for everyday city life now.

Consider the continuous and enduring labour of repair, servicing and maintenance required to keep lifts functioning. The lift becomes both a landscape in itself, mapping an architecture of the city, and an object in the landscape that grounds particular relations at a given time and place. The vectors point upwards with elevation and also outward again into the city. In this way, lifts offer an infrastructure linking fragmented places of home and work/non-work, interior and street, private and public, past and present in ways that raise questions about futures.



The lift links the ground floor, the outside, the street and the public to private spaces. A circumscribed community uses it: tenants, owners and approved guests. Waiting at the ground floor lobby and at its landings feels mostly public while its closed interior is more private and intimate, an intimacy that is often shared with both strangers and, more often, familiar acquaintances and neighbours.

A slow unreliable lift can create a sense of something shared by the users. Those who use it often have a sense of collective insider knowledge of the lift’s everchanging quirky workings. A knowing look and muttered comment between two riders when it stops on 9 for no reason, or two separate hands reaching simultaneously to pull the outside door that extra centimetre closed on the ground floor, or the necessary but aggressive forcing shut of the inside door to the acknowledgement of regulars and the horror of guests. The gentle request for one’s temporary companion to press the button for 11, and the momentary smile or mention of the season or the weather, until the doors open again and passengers separate. The lift has an interiority, a space within its enclosed walls, which brings together some in community of residence or of errand.

The lobby of a bank of lifts marks a waiting room. People walk up and down the street, and some turn into the doorway. The glass doors of the building with their heavy brass handles? signal the building’s finer design past. Those entering push the broad handle and push again to get the door to dislodge from the cardboard laid down to soak up rainwater on the chipped tile floors. They enter then, and the doors slowly fold back over the entrance, quieting the noise from the street. These people go straight to the elevators. They look up, checking if today there is a problem. They lean forward and press the button, a simple round button that no longer lights up. They stand back and fold their hands demurely in front of them. They wait. They might wait with impatient children, tired after a day of errands. The children hang on those same hands pulling them from their order to attend to their needs. They might look over to the others who wait with a common tiredness and disposition of resignation, nearly home, but not quite. They might offer a smile or a nod or a collaborative


effort as both attendees reach out to push again the modest button. They have come from their days out and have returned to their homes, with next thoughts of food and cleaning and baths and rest.

Lifts can include ones with hand-operated closings like the one in an old building in Doornfontein held in the stock of Suresh Rajmoney, Sales and New Development Director of IFE, an elevator company, or those with stateof-the-art technology in the tallest building in Africa, the Leonardo in Sandton. The historical geography of how and when lifts are replaced and repaired produces a fragmented and piecemeal landscape across the city. Obtaining contracts for specific office blocks and apartment buildings, lift companies service and maintain the lifts they know, named by their addresses in Rissik Street, Loveday and Pritchard. They map Hillbrow and Braamfontein, Sandton and Midrand. As blocks are refurbished in town, the contracts for the lift maintenance might change. A company holds a stock of properties which it services.

All lifts have a lifespan. As each one gets older the labour that keeps it running will change. The servicing of it, the upkeep and maintenance will start to incorporate repair as parts break and different problems appear. Without this work the lift will become increasingly dangerous, unreliable and eventually stop working. While a few younger and fitter users might be able to bound up a couple of flights of stairs when the lift is out of order, the lift breaking down completely will largely render the up-stories of the building unusable or at least extremely impractical.

The lift’s dimensions thus expand up and out, and sometimes its height or depth is stopped or stuttered. It funnels people to home and to work and to homes and works entangled. It punctuates the city as when its instalment, repair and maintenance map the routine labour of infrastructure. It is a place of proximity and of distance. The parts of a lift build a moving puzzle of wear and care ever shifting these geographies with the indeterminacy of their mechanics.

Interviews with Suresh Rajmoney by Simon Gush and Bridget Kenny, 17 July 2020 and 7 August 2020, Johannesburg.



Like most forms of infrastructure, lifts can go largely unnoticed until they break down. With an unreliable lift there is a constant reminder of its presence. Just functional enough that on average it will be an uneventful journey to the top, just dysfunctional enough for the trip to be memorable. What breaks down is the parts of a lift, the buttons, the door, or a part of a motor. When a lift is out of date, sourcing these parts can become more complicated. Only sometimes can a part be replaced with a new one.

The most efficient solution is to replace the lift entirely. This however is extremely expensive. A wealthy old building might put in place a special levy, with the residents, owners or tenants experiencing a period of frustrating discomfort while the replacement is in progress but ultimately benefiting with increased reliability. Alternatively a property developer might evict the tenants and refurbish the building with the inevitable increase in rent. Or, as is the case with many of the City Property buildings around Johannesburg inner city, buildings previously disused above the ground floor might be purchased and refurbished with a new lift and a multitude of small apartments. The apartments are often fitted with thin walls and cheap fittings. With a visit to the City Property office downtown one can request the long list of available apartments. Turnover and demand both high, the buildings are geared to speculation with an overwhelming sense that one would rent here temporarily on the way to something else.

Many buildings however rely on a different approach of repair and maintenance that goes beyond just servicing. A constant fixing and replacing of parts that are broken. The maintenance of the precarious functioning of a lift that is old and always on the verge of breaking down. A network of companies, including IFE, Logic, Kone and others specialise in this kind of work with old lifts. Although costly, the lifts will most of the time run. The lower investment and inconvenience make these buildings liveable and workable for a different group of people.


A lift is an expensive investment, requiring the construction and provisioning of the shaft and its gears, the car and its functions and aesthetics, and the entrance platforms. These features must meet state standards for safety.

A.C. Drive, geared 1:1 roping 900 lbs. equal to six passengers 100 ft. per minute, single speed Automatic push button without attendant ‘In Use’ lamps on each landing board

This lift would be able to travel 40 feet and cover five floors. Its one car would serve Ground-First-Fourth floors.

Lift shaft to be “5’6” wife [sic] x 10’7” deep Shaft dividing girders will be supplied by Schindlers

Platform to be 12.3 sq. ft. in accordance with Government Regulations

Door openings to be 2’8” x 6’6 ½ Machine to be directly above the lift shaft Current supply to be 380 Volt. 3 Phase 50 Cycle.

The body of the car will be securely braced in a steel sling complete with guide shoes and safety gear, in accordance with Government Regulations.

‘Annexure A: J. 340: Lift Installation’, 25 July 1955, South African National Archives Repository, Transvaal Province, TAB WLD 1920/1958.



Lift Car

The interior was redone but the bones of the cage are old. The most visible aesthetic components of the lift are from the 1990s, with a worn and used feel. The floor is covered in rubber tiles, now smooth with one new replacement. At the front the edge of the stained MDF base peaks through. Plastic veneer on chipboard panels surround the bottom half of the inside of the cage. The chipboard is visible, the swelling of the moisture over the years, humidity, cleaning, and the occasional puddle of urine from a small child, has lifted the edges of the veneer.

The interior is all metal. Years of repainting have left layers of thick enamel paint. The top layer, chipped and covered with graffiti. A handrail is missing and all that remains are the holes for the bolts.

The interior is newer than the lift. The mirror on the back wall has a corner broken that looks sharp and dangerous but the break is old. A large crack shoots up diagonally across its surface distorting the reflection of the riders.

The interior is old. The panels that surrounded the bottom half have been discarded and the exposed metal painted grey.

The interior is covered in a faded canvas. The letter to the editor suggests that this cloth layering be removed from all Johannesburg lifts so as to prevent the spread of TB, which it argues is a scourge exacerbated by closed lift cars where strangers breathe on each other.

The interior of the lift gleams with competing light. The sleek metal panels frame the smooth mirrored glass refracting the endless futures of one’s own image infinitely.

The interior warms with its wooden sides. The reddened walls blanket the passenger in surety and quiet. The railing rounds in her palm and carefully ushers her into the carpeted entryway.


Design of lift car: All steel Passenger Car in attractive and neat execution with a sound proofed and duco finished 16 gauge furniture steel body with luxury fittings, consisting of curved canopy containing wagon wheel type ventilation grill, fluorescent indirect lighting contained in curved troughs on the two sides extending through the full depth of car, vertical wall panelling joined with decorative beadings, kick plate skirting on four sides, rubber tiles floor covering to match general colour scheme which is to your unlimited selection. Optional Extras: Handrails on three sides; Canvas Cover: Turnbuckles for canvas cover; Ceiling Fan.


The buttons are touch sensitive. An arm leaned against the panel in an overpacked lift will light up multiple floors delaying the slow progress of the lift. Sometimes they stop working, more often it’s just the light. It is hard to know the difference.

The buttons are old and round and have to be pushed in to activate. Some are missing and some are broken on the edges. Occasionally one gets stuck and someone will have to come to fix it for the lift to move from that floor.

The GSM system uses a sim card. If someone pushes the emergency button it rings directly to the call centre.

A ‘Destination Control’ system offers faster moving of traffic by registering a passenger’s destination at the start and using an algorithm to schedule lifts. This type of system is used in high-rise buildings especially. In these lifts there are no buttons at all on the inside.


The doors are a source of endless frustration. A wooden outside door that swings outwards and a stainless steel inside sliding door, both of which are prone to not making contact with the safety switch and causing the lift to halt in its progress.

The interior and exterior doors are both metal. After years of use the interior door does not sit completely straight when it closes. Through an open crack left by the door the rider can watch the floors pass.

‘Annexure A: J. 340: Lift Installation’, 25 July 1955, South African National Archives Repository, Transvaal Province, TAB WLD 1920/1958.

Interviews with Suresh Rajmoney by Simon Gush and Bridget Kenny, 17 July 2020 and 7 August 2020, Johannesburg.

8 9 5 6 2 -1 7 3 4 G 1 9

‘Annexure A: J. 340: Lift Installation’, 25 July 1955, South African National Archives Repository, Transvaal Province, TAB WLD 1920/1958.

The interior door is a metal gate. The lift was once a goods lift but now is also used by the residents on the top floor. The open concrete and exterior doors that scroll past could be touched by an extended finger inducing a feeling of vulnerability in the rider.

Design of Car Door: Fully automatic hollow metal two speed one-way horizontal sliding type, with sound deadened panels, glass visors and ball bearing suspension gear. Finished in sprayed duco, colour to selection.

Design of Landing Doors: Single panel side hinged selfclosing swing doors, panels in laminated timber both sides veneered in pressed steel frames and architraves, finished in sprayed duco. Panels fitted with push plate on inner side, handle bars and yale closer on outer side for manual opening and automatic door closer and concealed pre-locks.

There are two doors: one on the lift and one on the floor. The lift has a door operation motor controlled by a system of magnetic conductors


The lift shaft gives the lift its travel, its verticality.

The lift shaft tracks the lift and holds it through its breaks. It gives the lift its velocity.

The shaft is 16 floors. The shaft is 6 floors. The shaft is 8 floors starting in the basement parking lot.

There are two shafts in a 5 storey building. Each lift goes to all 5 stories.

There are two shafts in a 7 storey building. One lift goes to floors ground to 4. One lift goes to floors ground to 7. An operator welcomes those going above the trading floors of this department store, and takes the executives to their offices higher up.

The shaft extends two floors above the roof, built with the possibility that the building could be expanded in the future.


The shaft is transparent so that the mechanics of the lift may become part of the aesthetics of the tallest building in Africa.


The motor is old and parts are hard to source.

The motor is refurbished. It is reasonably reliable but parts are hard to source.

The motor is a DC motor. Electric motors convert electrical energy to rotary motion.

The motor is a permanent-magnet gearless motor and therefore more energy efficient. It uses a magnetic field generated between a fixed magnet and a rotating field to create torque, which turns the motor.

Spare motors are a useful resource in case a lift requires its motor be replaced.


The ropes are underslung and act to stop the lift.

A single rope is called the governor. It is hitched to the safety. If it is activated, it pulls the safety device in.


The counterweight is controlled by the variable frequency drive. The variable frequency drive slows down the lift, but subtly so passengers do not feel it.

The counterweight is 140% heavier than the full load of the lift.


There are two types of guardrails. Those in taller buildings use roller grid shoes. It depends on the speed and height of the building. There are two limits in place: a ‘slow down limit’ and a ‘policeman limit’. The policeman limit is the second limit reached. If the lift overruns this one, the final limit will stop the lift.




The lift is the physical site of the intersection of multiple forms of labour. The vertical shaft links the spaces of home and work, the sites of reproductive and productive labour. A separation in the categories of work imposed on us by capitalism. Reproductive labour is often located in the site of home, a site of unpaid labour. It is the labour that sustains us and makes work possible, the raising and caring for children who might one day enter the workforce. The work of maintaining the life and sustenance of workers, employed and unemployed. The care of the bodies that have been broken by work and capitalism. It sustains not just life but the possibility of waged labour. Without reproductive labour, productive labour is not possible. They are inseparable. They are both work.

Capitalism traditionally devalues reproductive labour. But, both produce value. Waged work and unwaged work intertwine. Waged labour increasingly relies on emotional labour in the worksite. Reproductive labour trains us in these skills. We both recognise the ‘work’ of care and denaturalise it, breaking with gendered understandings of this labour and acknowledging that reproductive labour can often be alienating.

The lift is a site where the work of thinking outside these categories can be done. On an average morning in a lift in Johannesburg city centre one might share the lift with numerous people on their way to work leaving their homes in residential buildings or going to their offices in commercial properties. Officially or unofficially these buildings might be mixed use. In a residential building one might share the lift with piles of boxes as stock for a business is taken to be stored in the home. Or one might accompany a street trader as they carry the wares, sweets and loose cigarettes to the ground floor for a stall outside the building. Or later in the day accompany the same trader or their colleague as they return to the home to use the bathroom.



The labour implicated in the site of the lift spreads outwards too, drawing in interconnected networks of labour through supply chains. In particular the old lifts require a diverse set of possible labours and technologies. Like all lifts they require checks, maintenance, upkeep and servicing but when something breaks the parts present a range of possibilities.

In the simplest repair a new part might be used. That part, manufactured by workers in China, would have been shipped, passed through ports and customs, loaded onto a truck, driven to the storeroom before finally making its way to the hands of the repairperson who would fit it into place.

Alternatively the old lift might not be compatible with the new part. In this case a part might be drawn from the storeroom of the lift repair company that keeps secondhand parts of these older lifts in stock. These parts might be salvaged from a lift that has broken beyond repair. Parts go unofficially missing from lifts in disrepair. The part might have been sourced from an informal market for parts in the city. Linking work across another separation of informal and formal.

Sometimes a part that has been broken could be refurbished, made to work again through a particular set of skills and technologies. Another part that does not quite fit might be reworked, adapted and used.

For some particular parts the only option is to manufacture the part from scratch. An electrician or fitter and turner might build the part in a workshop drawing on their expertise and the available technologies to produce what could not have otherwise been sourced.

Although these horizontal networks may seldom, unlike their vertical counterparts, present themselves in view of the passenger they are what makes the lifts continue to run in precarious and uncertain times, making possible the forms of living and working that these lifts support.



The lift presents a physical site of the intersection of multiple forms of work. From the lift, labour connects upward and outward. This is an expansive definition of work. Yet not all forms of work should be collapsed into one type.

The labour of the lift points to different possible types of work. The lift is therefore not just a physical site but a point from which we might understand work itself. The forms of work that lifts suggest are distinguished not by the usual categories, productive/reproductive or formal/informal or by the industry that they fall into. They are interconnected networks of labour distinguished by their differing temporalities and rhythms. They are types of work that respond to failures and precarity, responses to a breakage or an ever-present possibility of a future breakage. They are forms of work within a broken system. They are the labours of the broken system of work.

These categories are not ideals but frameworks through which to understand work as it is. They are part of an argument for work that understands work not as an individual’s relationship to it but how work is always contingent on others. These types of work reflect and reproduce inequalities of gender, class and race constituting capitalism. The conditions of all are historically produced.



Replacement is work emerging from the belief in profit and progress, that new technologies are better than what preceded them, that initial investments will be offset by future gains. It is an endless drive forward, linear, into the promise of the future. It includes partial forms of replacement such as restoration and modernisation.


To repair is to fix. It is the labour that responds to a break seeking a solution to that singular problem. Fixing what is broken in order to sustain the promise of continuity, it wants what is broken to work post-repair as it did before. It acknowledges the past, the conditions that caused the break, but looks to a future where the break has been resolved.


Servicing is the work of sustaining and upkeep. Here precarity is looming rather than urgent, a sense that crisis remains on the horizon but is not necessarily immediate and can be delayed by the work of servicing. Servicing is work that makes living possible. It is cyclical and repetitive. Servicing struggles to promise a future but contains some traces of a present that can be sustained.


Maintenance is work in sites of high precarity, an anxious labour. It is responsive to ongoing real breaks and challenges as well as daily wear and tear. It contains elements of both repair and servicing. The work of maintenance is sustained by others. The geography and economies of a single network of maintenance might be wide, incorporating the sites of home, waged work, informal work, unemployment and state support. It aims for stability but is always precarious. It is cyclical and constant. Maintenance is out of time.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Manifesto For Maintenance Art 1969! Proposal for an exhibition “CARE”.


How long should I wait for the lift to come?

When the lift does break down and after an extended wait it is best to take the stairs. Going downwards often one sees others waiting sometimes patiently, sometimes with a look of frustration for the lift on the floors below. Some will ask if the lift is broken, others will remain in place determined that it will still come. As one gets closer to the bottom one passes more and more people making their way up the stairs, mostly out of breath and often carrying shopping, boxes and bags as they make their way to their homes.

What should I do during periods of load shedding?

In times of load shedding lifts will remain inactive. If you are caught in the lift, try not to panic. Cellular reception may be unstable and this will reduce the chances of successfully calling for help. Nevertheless numbers for the lift emergency service will be found in the lift. In the situation that one does become stuck, call the emergency number. Alternatively call the building manager or anyone that might be able to help. It is possible that if one is stuck in the lift during this time that there will be no way to be freed until power is restored.

It is best to avoid the lifts completely during this time and to be aware of the schedule of the electricity cuts. Never use the lift during a scheduled time even if the power remains on. The cuts can often happen significantly after the stated time.

Taking into account the load shedding schedule, one may also ensure that return or exit from the building happens with the cut off in mind. It is encouraged to plan one’s return (especially) if it requires ascending up many floors well before the anticipated scheduled cut off. Otherwise, one finds oneself climbing flights of stairs in the cold and dark.


It is recommended to avoid a lift accident when possible. If a lift is being repaired, and there is no warning notice on the floor from which you would enter the lift, please be attentive to stepping inside if the lift doors open without first checking to see if the car is present. Otherwise, you may find yourself falling into the lift shaft and meeting a grave outcome.

If there is a warning cone and sign informing you that a lift is in repair, regardless of whether the repairperson is there or not, it is advised to use the stairs.

If you are in a lift and the car begins to fall, do not panic. One of several safeties should catch and stop the descent. Ensure that you calm yourself, perhaps by using deep breathing, and push the emergency button. In good time, depending on the lift, someone will come to the rescue.

If the lift car stops suddenly and the lights or electricity go out, do not panic. Press the emergency button. If the lift has an attendant, the attendant will be trained to ensure the safe travel of her passengers. In this instance, you may find yourself trapped in the lift with other members of the public. It is advised to remember that when under duress people often resort to their most elementary psychological strategies. It is suggested to remain calm for those around you.

What should I do in the case of an accident in a lift?

Simon Gush and Bridget Kenny

2022 Published as part of “How to fix a lift” Stevenson, Cape Town, October 2022

Research was supported by a grant from ‘The Everyday and Public History’ History Workshop, University of the Witwatersrand, Thanks to: Suresh Rajmoney Ruby Julius-Jackson IFE Elevators, South Africa Antonette Gouws Zakara Raitt Sumayya Mayet Prishani Naidoo

Society, Work & Politics (SWOP) Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Sound installation Andrei van Wyk

Additional Photography Alexandra Greenberg

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