Writing Johannesburg

As the World Cup arrives, South African authors are finding new ways to document their country’s biggest city

Illustration by Gail Geltner

Books Discussed in This Essay

Portrait with Keys by Ivan Vladislavić
Umuzi (2006)

Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe
University of Kwazulu Natal Press (2001)

Ways of Staying by Kevin Bloom
Portabello (2010)

Istand alongside Johannesburg’s foremost chronicler, under a summer sun so harsh that even the cicadas are silenced, and watch as a man with a backwards ball cap breaks into my car. Ivan Vladislavić and I are slack with awe, children observing a birthday party magician. We cannot ignore the irony: Vladislavić is this contested city’s literary break and enter specialist, who in his masterly work of non-fiction Portrait with Keys documented how the citizens of Johannesburg invade one another’s lives with all manner of prestidigitation, vehicular or otherwise. Two loud clicks, and the ball cap man has opened the passenger side door. He reaches for the ignition, frees the keys I’d left there half an hour earlier, and takes my money. At no point in the procedure does he ask me whether the car is mine.

Inside Vladislavić’s home, which smells of polished wood and books, I note that embedded into the architecture of Portrait with Keys—138 thematically linked segments detailing the author’s meanderings in and around his neighbourhood—is the tragedy of postmodern Johannesburg, a place where everything is locked up, bricked up, walled off, shuttered. This is a city, Portrait suggests, that can only be rendered in fragments, mostly because it was built to be broken. Sixteen years after the demise of apartheid, it is still the perfect articulation of that regime’s ethos: you on one side, me on the other.

“Fragments neither close nor open meaning: they may mean anything except wholeness, except certainty,” wrote Vladislavić’s mentor, the late poet Lionel Abrahams. They are a Johannesburg manifesto, these words. But the future arrives this summer (winter, if you happen to be South African) in the form of the FIFA World Cup Finals, not merely a soccer tournament but a multibillion-dollar piece of economic and infrastructural machinery. The high-speed, high-tech Gautrain will link southern Soweto, the once infamous township and hotbed of anti-apartheid resistance, with northern Sandton, the privately guarded sanctuary of the white and black hyper-elite. This is urban planning as politics as cultural reboot, the knitting together of communities that were built to be apart. And one wonders whether Johannesburg’s writers, long-time detailers of division, can help undo the work of apartheid’s engineers and contribute to a notion of collective belonging: to wholeness, to certainty.

We sit at a rustic dining table, Vladislavić and I, my newly recovered keys between us like a talisman. “I’ve always had an interest in how Johannesburg changes,” he tells me, “but in the ’90s my thinking started to shift slightly, and I became interested in how the city reflects South African society’s evolution.” He is, of course, referring to the tumultuous decade that followed the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990: an era of delirious optimism, low-level civil war, and a crime wave so brutal that it brought into question the prevailing theories of human nature, already under review thanks to apartheid. Everything changed. No position on the social, cultural, or moral compass was fixed.

Yet Johannesburg—frontier city, mining town—has shape-shifted continuously since it leaped, fully formed, from an impossibly rich vein of gold in 1886. The city went up (by 1897, it was the wealthiest and most industrialized in Africa), and the city went down: the razing of Brickfields slum in 1904, the destruction of the informal black settlement Sophiatown in the 1950s, the steady erasure of the mine dumps that mark the city like tribal scars. Things are built on top of things, millennia of human history précised in 130 years of expert bulldozing. “All gone into the unremembering dust,” wrote Herman Charles Bosman, Joburg’s first great chronicler. “There is no other city in the world that is so anxious to shake off the memories of its early origins.”

Bosman begat Lionel Abrahams, who in turn begat Vladislavić; they are figures on a Johannesburg literary continuum. Flâneurs all (and this despite Abrahams being wheelchair bound), they have engaged in what philosopher Michel de Certeau called “the long poem of walking,” the art of perambulatory map-making initially described by Charles Baudelaire. Yet Bosman—convicted murderer, womanizer, drinker extraordinaire—was not, in Baudelaire’s polite phrase, “a gentleman stroller of the streets.” His gumshoe reportage in the ’30s and ’40s amounts to an extended elegy for a mining town hell bent on extinguishing the first fifty years of its history. Bosman battled this collective impulse; he understood, even before apartheid’s ascendancy in 1948, that to forget was itself an act of evil. After Bosman’s death in 1951, Abrahams took up the torch, writing of “the ignored persistent residue of primitive Johannesburg.”

These men told the unfolding history of a dusty mining town at the foot of Africa. Flâneurs in a city in which walking is a contact sport, they were ignored by their Commonwealth peers, perhaps because their work was searing yet ambiguous, written in an idiom that was not quite ours, and not exotic enough to be charming. They detailed the enduring, ineradicable stain of the white man in Africa, but refused to deny themselves Africanness. They lamented the impossibility of belonging; they warned of the dangers of remaining unmoored.

Born in the nearby city of Pretoria in 1957, Vladislavić moved to Johannesburg in his early twenties. He lives in the hilly Kensington neighbourhood that Abrahams called home, ten minutes’ drive from the central business district, Johannesburg’s battleground of a downtown. His oeuvre is resolutely urban, in contrast to the empty, biblical Cape—white South Africa’s birthplace, the bitter anvil on which André Brink, J. M. Coetzee, and Damon Galgut forge their work.

Vladislavić’s astonishing debut collection, Missing Persons (1989), tragically difficult to find outside of South Africa, contains a story that has come to define his career. In “Journal of a Wall,” a man obsessively diarizes his neighbour’s home renovation project. At first, he is a gushing cheerleader: “The wall… I began to see it not so much as a barrier between us, but as a meeting point. It was the thin line between pieces in a puzzle, the frontier on which both pieces become intelligible.” Slowly, as the wall goes up, this flim-flam disintegrates. “The world beyond the wall was empty: there was not even a world there.” The story is an elegy not just for missing neighbours, but for an errant country.

In his absurdist novella The Folly (1993)—a reference, perhaps, to the chilling Abrahams line “enough folly is necessity”—Vladislavić returns to this idea. He details the building of a house by an oddball named Nieuwenhuizen (Newhouse), who is both observed and aided by his terrified, titillated neighbours. It’s a fine rendering of Vladislavić’s twinned themes, both linked ineffably to apartheid: the brittleness of community; architecture as a barrier.

“The inspiration for Portrait with Keys,” he says, “was to take these thematic fixations just a little bit further. I was co-editing a comprehensive architectural study of South African space”—here, he is referring to the excellent Blank: Architecture, Apartheid and After (1998)—“and after writing some segments for the project, this idea of an ‘architected’ non-fiction look at Joburg was born.” The resulting text is a towering classic of South African literature. It suggests Croatian authors Danilo Kiš and Dubravka Ugresic, whose fragmentary style underlines their obsessions with personal and national balkanization. (Vladislavić’s grandparents are from Brač, and he has had a long-standing interest in writers from the former Yugoslav republics.) While the fragmented world in Portrait poignantly strains against disconnection, we cannot escape the feeling that our flâneur wanders alone, uninsured, at peril. Vladislavić, who has an uncanny ability to cull the telling detail from the mess of Joburg life, hints at the stakes involved in utter dissolution.

Portrait reminds us of the often-hilarious indignities that arise when protecting oneself from a city that demands walls. Vladislavić locks himself out of his bedroom; he locks himself inside his car. He watches a wall get painted, and painted again. He watches buildings die. The book is a series of do-overs, demolitions, erasures. The past is buried, the present a palimpsest that belongs to no one. While Portrait pulsates with his generous humanity—and is therefore necessarily hopeful—it does not offer bromides:

The places where our thoughts and feelings have brushed up against the world are not just for ourselves. We are like tramps, leaving secret signs for those who come after us, whom we expect to speak the same language. Our faith in the music of this double address, in the echo chambers of the head and the street, helps to explain why apartheid deafened us to the call of home.

For all its brilliance, Portrait with Keys comes with a built-in defect. Its fragmentary style admits defeat; the reader is reduced to peering through a literary keyhole. If Vladislavić’s Johannesburg is a city that can only be glimpsed in pieces, where then can we go for a larger view?

Were Phaswane Mpe—academic, poet, young black literary hope—to answer that question, he’d perhaps offer the following: Welcome to Our Hillbrow. His 2001 novel is another landmark text in post-apartheid literature, a God’s-eye view of several young black lives in Johannesburg’s most contested suburb. Hillbrow is Joburg’s squirming, ever-changing heart, a place that defies the historical narrative of the city, laughs in the face of prognostications. Its high-rises are still a vertiginous admixture of late-Victorian pomp and tail-end Modern, but this once middle-income ’hood no longer speaks to its origins. It was the first part of the city to go “grey” (mixed race) in the early ’80s. Now it is black, poverty stricken, mostly filled with new arrivals from all over Africa. It is the city’s gateway—and, too often, its graveyard.

Indeed, things don’t work out well for Mpe’s characters, mostly because they start the book dead. Written in the second person, Welcome to Our Hillbrow is a relentless elegy for what Mpe, with gallows wryness, calls “the new democratic rainbowism of African Renaissance.” It tells of a student named Refentse, recently arrived from rural Tiragalong, who must negotiate the streets of Hillbrow and try to make a life for himself. He meets and falls in love with a foreigner—a makwerekwere. After several acts of sexual betrayal, the misuse of drink and drugs, and unending gossip from home, he flings himself from the ledge of a ten-storey building. The narrator relates Refentse’s story back to him, and to us, which leads to some uncomfortable questions. Who, one wonders, is the “our” in the book’s title? Who does Hillbrow belong to?

Welcome is an extraordinary exercise in empathy, and a tricky postmodern reinvention of an old South African literary trope: black bumpkin leaves village, arrives in Sodom, is ruined by city. Along with these so-called Jim Comes to Joburg novels, Mpe is consciously referencing Es’kia Mphahlele’s Down on Second Avenue (1959); and, of course, the primary white liberal text, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1949). We sense, too, Bosman’s steady hand; and that of Lionel Abrahams, who mentored one of Mpe’s heroes, the Soweto poet Mongane Wally Serote. The book’s DNA also contains strands of William “Bloke” Modisane’s splendid Blame Me on History, a riveting autobiography set in Sophiatown and its surroundings, in the years before it was bulldozed into the dust and replaced with an all-white suburb called Triomf—Triumph. Welcome to Our Hillbrow is ballasted by such bitter ironies.

Mpe, like Vladislavić, allows form—in this case, the use of the second person—to define narrative. Yet he explodes the perspective. The all-seeing narrator is a heavenly flâneur, an über-Bosman, gliding unbidden along Hillbrow’s streets. He allows us a sweeping view of Johannesburg, far beyond the city limits into Tiragalong, farther afield in Africa—and even into Oxford, where the book’s tragic coda takes place. Welcome’s genius is its refusal to let pastoral South Africa off the hook. Mpe implicates Tiragalong in the tumult of Hillbrow, and flings that hubbub into the world. Johannesburg is married to the countryside, to Africa, to everywhere, linked through blood, semen, love, death, and a universal need to belong.

The narrator reminds Refentse that “a conscious decision to desert home is a difficult one to sustain. Because home always travels with you, with your consciousness as its vehicle.” The “we” and “our” in Mpe’s work (one encounters the pronoun “I” only in dialogue) are a defining part of his elegiac style. They speak mockingly to individuals that can no longer properly form communities, and of broken communities that can never form a nation. This collection of selves, of increasingly rootless “I’s,” is an aberration that will be the death of the “African Renaissance.” As Refentse hurtles toward the sidewalk beneath him, his narrator reminds him that home is not a place, but the telling of stories. But how to access those stories when you’re decorating a Hillbrow sidewalk with your brains?

This question of dead Africans, and dead African stories, vexed Mpe greatly. In 2004, he scaled back his writing and academic responsibilities to concentrate on becoming an ngaka, a healer. The vocation, according to Mpe, is not restricted to curing the ill. “Beyond using herbs,” he once told an interviewer, “[the ngaka is] also interested in stories.” Sick for some years—with what, no one is sure—he died later that year, before he could properly explore the confluence between healing and storytelling. One cannot help but wonder what he may have found there. He was thirty-four years old. His loss cannot be measured.

Five kilometres north of Hillbrow, I walk through a Johannesburg tableau alongside a journalist who is a veteran of just such scenes. The rains have stopped; the dusk bristles with febrile energy. Ancient jacaranda trees send droplets onto our heads, while the gutters run blood red with rich Joburg mud. A carjacking occurred just minutes ago, and the victims stand hugging themselves; a man lies in the street, his leg sprawled behind him like a fallen bough. As we have many times over the course of a long friendship, Kevin Bloom and I walk quickly toward the door of the justly famed Radium Beer Hall. Manny Cabeleira, the proprietor, fills us in on recent activities: “I tell you,” he says, “it’s time to go get my gun.”

Ways of Staying, Bloom’s essential memoir of a year on the Joburg beat, pauses occasionally at the Radium, “land of hope and glory,” where the writer catches a drink and his breath between stories of xenophobic violence, rape, electoral shenanigans, and the unfolding drama of his cousin’s senseless murder at the hands of nascent gangbangers. We recognize in Ways of Staying Mpe’s grim litany, and indeed this is another book about belonging, only from the perspective of a white Jewish writer from the suburbs. Spare, lean, and occasionally brutal—a bastard child of Coetzee and Rian Malan’s Afrikaner lament My Traitor’s Heart (1989)—it is in every sense a Johannesburg book, and stands alongside Portrait and Welcome as a modern classic.

In Ways of Staying’s most revealing scene, Bloom is on assignment at an AIDS orphanage in Soweto. A black man asks, “How long will you be in the country? ” To which a nonplussed Bloom answers, “I’m a South African. I live maybe fifteen kilometres from here.” This occurs roughly halfway through the book, and it wrenches open a gaping hole through which all the murder, rape, violence, love, and beauty swirl into an inchoate muck. It’s a tiny, heartbreaking moment that represents both the death of a city and the manner in which it may be reborn. It poses Johannesburg’s oldest question: who does this place belong to? And answers it: no one, when the divide is so vast.

“I’m not writing about why I stay,” Bloom tells me. “I’m writing about how. I will never leave this place. It’s not about patriotism. It’s because this place is a core part of my identity. I’m not a flâneur. I live here, man. It’s not like I’m visiting Paris.” But Bloom is, of course, the quintessential Joburg flâneur, literary descendent of Bosman, who acknowledged that he could never be entirely at home on these streets, where history was erasable. In the fifteen-kilometre gap between Bloom and his Soweto interrogator, a universe lurks. And for seventy years, the Joburg writer has made it his job to limn that chasm.

While Bloom is not explicit in describing how he would fill that gap, he suggests that doing his job—telling stories—is one sound way of going about it. Ways of Staying occasionally pauses to imagine a future in which the hole is filled, a future in which his dead cousin once again sits at the Shabbos table, a future in which “we will have new means of embracing the world, new limbs in place of the figurative ones we have lost—just from being here, just because these are our ways of staying.” It is a spectacularly radical notion, that “just from being here” a sense of belonging can arise, that links with the dead—that oldest of African traditions—can be re-established. Staying, then, is an action, and must at its heart involve a refusal to deny history.

There are a number of reasons to love the Radium—the excellent Portuguese food and cheap beer among them—but one of the attractions must be that Johannesburg’s recent history hangs from its walls. It is a local tradition for newspapers to print the day’s headlines on placards and suspend them from the country’s trees. Decades’ worth now line the Radium’s walls. “Given [the] careful placement of the posters in ordered and descending rows,” writes Bloom, “the eye reads the items left to right, top to bottom, as if a page in a book.” He continues:

So it inevitably happens that after a few pints a narrative emerges, and although that narrative may change from one night to the next, it is always uniquely and wholly and uncannily South African. It is always a narrative that points to things that divide us, and beneath that, always, to the intractable irony that this is where we unite… They are bewildering and illogical, impossible and bizarre, and they still cohere…

Home is where stories are told. This city will be steadily knitted together and re-formed by the World Cup party that arrives this June. When the streamers and drink cups are cleared away, atavistic Johannesburg will still be here to lay claim on its citizens and ask them the same old question: can you belong? Its writers have answered: belonging is a matter of time, because we will not allow this city’s story to fade into unremembering dust.

More beers are pulled, and Manny Cabeleira joins us with some good news. The carjackers were caught, by dint of some high-tech security device, in the nearby township of Alexandria. Manny is not mollified: “I tell you, I see this shit again, blood’s gonna flow,” he tells us. “I haven’t shot anyone on this street in fifteen years. But it’s gonna happen soon, boet. I swear to you.” For the meantime, then, we are all Vladislavićs, marvelling at walls, figurative or otherwise.

This appeared in the July/August 2010 issue.

Richard Poplak
Richard Poplak (richardpoplak.com) is a political reporter currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Gail Geltner