Tag Archives: Johannesburg

Loren Kruger, Imagining the Edgy City: Writing, Performing, and Building Johannesburg (2013)

City from the South (undated). Photograph copyright by David Goldblatt.

City from the South (undated). Photograph copyright by David Goldblatt.

As Johannesburg’s history shows, the city provoked extreme responses from the very beginning…Reflecting on developments around 1896, English observer William Butler displaced the already popular epithet “golden city” with the disparaging label: “Monte Carlo on top of Sodom and Gomorrah.” In 1926, William Plomer mixed aversion and admiration when he recalled the Johannesburg of his childhood as the “upstart city…Even the outright boosterism of “Africa’s Wonder City” on display at the Empire Exhibition in honor of Johannesburg’s 50th anniversary in 1936 jubilee was accompanied by stories of embezzled funds and other scandals…Rather than distinguish emphatically between a positive spin on the “Afropolis” and an allegedly long tradition of loathing”, as do Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall, the archive compels us instead to balance the history of fear and loathing with an equally long tradition of bullish appraisals, and thus to recognize that the persistent mixture of aversion and admiration, rather than loathing, has been the dominant response to the edgy city.

Working against the willful amnesia that has passed for memory in Johannesburg, this book excavates the history of the city and builds new links among recurring themes and forms in the literary, visual, and built representation of the urban imagination, in this city and in others with which it invites comparison. These themes, forms, and projects remind us that, even in twelve decades, Johannesburg’s answers to urbanist Kevin Lynch’s suggestive question “What time is this place?” multiply across temporal and spatial coordinates, as they produce images and echoes from half—remembered periods and buried strata.

Bringing together models, moments, sites, stories, and the networks, both real and imagined, that link them…this book wagers that the juxtaposition of different genres, forms, and representations of urban spatial practices in this edgy, fragmented, but still distinctive city will provide affective and critical links among hitherto separate realms of experience and fields of study and shed new light on some of the city’s darker corners. Retracing the edges between lived-in districts and their conjured others, as well as between and among the domains of urban history and design, and literary, filmic, and performance analysis illuminates not only zones of conflict but also the practices and people engaged creatively in reimagining Johannesburg. The edgy city has throughout its history balanced precariously between enchantment and disenchantment, aspiration to great heights and wonders and pedestrian navigation of the ground below, but a sustained precarity has testified, and continues to testify to the tenacity of those who persist in urban spatial practices from formal building to informal trade, from political parades to public art, to pedestrian negotiations as yet unnamed, and in temporal practices of narrative and storytelling in old and new media—in writing, performing, and building Johannesburg.

Although focused on a singular case, this exploration has not been bound by it. Johannesburg’s ambivalent mixture of cosmopolitan and xenophobic elements, and transnational and intensely local moments and representations, invites comparison across regions and continents. Rather than simply replace the self-conscious adaptation of northern models from London, New York, or Chicago with a mandate to privilege south-south contacts in the mock-belligerent manner of the Australian cartographer of the “corrective map of the world” who asserted “south is superior” more than thirty years ago…we should look beyond the confines of this particular project to other cities north and south that other points of comparison, such as Berlin, Bogotá, Chicago, Dakar, Los Angeles, or São Paolo. Readers of this study of one city to take to heart Anthony King’s remark that “all cities today are ‘world cities’”, with the understanding that their citizens aspire in unequal but nonetheless significant measure to inhabit the world and to imagine and re-imagine that habitation as their right to the city.

—Loren Kruger, Imagining the Edgy City: Writing, Performing, and Building Johannesburg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Peter Abrahams, Mine Boy (1946)

Peter Abrahams. Mine Boy.

Malay Camp. A row of streets crossing another row of streets. Mostly narrow streets. Mostly dirty streets. Mostly dark streets. A row of houses crossing another row of houses. And so it went on. Streets crossing streets. Houses crossing houses.

Leaning, dark houses that hid life and death and love and hate and would not show anything to the passing stranger. Puddles of dirty muddy water on the sandy pavements. Little children playing in these puddles. Groups of men gambling on street corners. Groups of children walking down the streets carefully studying the gutters and vying with each other to pounce on dirty edibles, and fighting each other for them. Prostitutes on street corners and pimps calling after them.

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Peter Abrahams, Mine Boy (1946)

Peter Abrahams. Mine Boy.

He neared the heart of Johannesburg and the people grew fewer. There were more white people now and they were different. They did not walk or look like his people and it was as if they were not really there. He stepped aside for them to pass and he heard their voices, but they were strangers. He did not look at them or watch them carefully to see what they said and how their eyes looked and whether there was love in the eyes of the woman who hung on the arm of the man. They were not his people so he did not care.

He passed the window of a restaurant. Inside, white people sat eating and talking and smoking and laughing at each other. It looked warm and comfortable and inviting. He looked away quickly.

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Phaswane Mpe, Welcome to our Hillbrow (2001)

Phaswane Mpe, Welcome to Our Hillbrow

Refilwe was to observe, in Oxford, that people there talked about Africans and South Africans. These Oxfordians who talked so distinctly about Africa and South Africa were themselves a hybrid of native Oxfordians and those who had acquired citizenship by other means. All those we called by the term Oxfordian, without distinguishing whether they were, indeed, born Oxfordians, or English, or something else. It was no different to the way we generalised about Hillbrowans without venturing to clarify what we meant. […] She learnt that to come from South Africa and to come from Africa were not the same thing at all in the estimation of numerous Oxfordians. She also learnt that when people talked about South Africa, they meant Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Continue reading

Phaswane Mpe, Welcome to our Hillbrow (2001)

Phaswane Mpe, Welcome to Our Hillbrow

And when you finally come to this part of your journey that ends in the blank wall of suicide… with the spinning of cars the prostitution drug use and misuse the grime and crime the numerous bottles diving from flat balconies giving off sparks o red and yellow from mid-air reflections of street and flat neon lights only to crush on unfortunate souls’ skulls the neon welcoming lights the peace of mind you could see in many Hillbrowans the liveliness of the place and places collapsing while others got renovated new concrete and brick structures standing up where you thought there was no longer any space for anything Quirinalle Hotel changing names and you hoped activities to Badiri House Chelsea Hotel closing down Continue reading