The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Jeremy Tambling


  • Timothy WrightEmail author
Living reference work entry


Often thought of as a non-literary city, Johannesburg, the economic engine of South Africa, has in fact produced a wide variety of innovative literature. The city’s relatively recent origins as, effectively, a colonial mining town led it to develop over the course of the twentieth century into one of the quintessential expressions of the segregated city. This article follows a number of urban theorists in suggesting that the city’s most generative feature has been the forms of leakage between its internal boundaries. It suggests that literary texts from the city’s inception to the present have always been deeply attuned to both the city’s striation and – particularly in the post-apartheid period – its paradoxical fluidity.


The city of Johannesburg owes its existence to a geological accident. Sometime in the year 1887, on a patch of unclaimed land in the arid interior of the Boer Republic of the Transvaal, an Australian prospector by the name of George Harrison stumbled upon a gold deposit. He was not to know it himself (shortly after the discovery, he sold his claim on the land and disappeared from the historical record), but in doing so he had opened to human extraction the largest gold reef ever discovered on the planet, and had thereby set in motion the creation of what was soon to be, by a considerable distance, Africa’s wealthiest metropolis (and until recent decades its largest).

Harrison’s discovery set off a scramble for gold that drew to this unpromising patch of rocky veld an assortment of peoples from around the region and the globe: “Malays” from the Cape, Indians who had bought themselves out of indentured labor in Natal, poor white Afrikaners, and a vast pool of black Africans who had migrated from as far afield as Mozambique. From further afield streamed in English prospectors, American engineers, Jewish financiers, Chinese laborers, Eastern Europeans, Greeks, and Italians – many of them marginal figures, vagabonds, and hustlers (Mbembe 2008: 40). By 1896, only a decade after its founding, Johannesburg (it is not known which Johannes the city is named after) was the largest urban area south of the Sahara; by 1936, it had become “Africa’s Wonder City” (Kruger 2013: 26).

Early Johannesburg was, in Todd Matshikiza’s phrase, an “instant city,” a heterogeneous, polyglot assemblage of disparate migrant communities with no past and little sense of a future (Matshikiza 2008). As an idea, Johannesburg should have failed. But Johannesburg has never been a city of ideas. Rather, its propulsive logic has always been that of money – the question of how to get it, whom to get it from, how to display it, and how to conceal its vulgar origins. In the words of the Johannesburg writer Lionel Abrahams, it is a city with “no plan, no enduring form, no works of preeminent nobility and interest to express man’s freedom of choice” (Abrahams 1988: 190). Rather, the city mushroomed through the twentieth century in a blur of construction and destruction, following only the dictates of commercial necessity in its transformation from a late nineteenth century mining camp to what it is today: a sprawling and incoherent metropolis of somewhere around eight million inhabitants (exact figures are, for various reasons, impossible to ascertain). The city’s indubitably striking architectural heritage – a hodgepodge of the latest styles imported from the Northern Hemisphere (Edwardian, Art-Deco, Modernist, and Brutalist, with a smattering of Arts and Crafts designs in the suburbs) – has never quite managed to conceal this indelicate truth.

From its inception, Johannesburg was a racialized space. A “Coolie location” and “Kaffir location” were laid out in the earliest city plans, evidence of an urban planner’s fantasy in which the racial others working the mines could be confined to a handful of spaces from which they would not impinge on the imagined white city. The brute fact is that Johannesburg’s origins were violent and involved the instrumentalization, along racial lines, of the non-European peoples who flocked to the Rand providing a source of cheap muscular energy capable of extracting with profit the low-grade ore from deep below the city’s surface. Johannesburg became a spatially striated city, effectively two cities in one: the Arcadian fantasy city of the white bourgeoisie and its disavowed other, the impoverished black townships that supplied the city’s labor. The drama of these two cities, locked into uneasy codependence upon one another, is the primary drama of Johannesburg’s literature.

For much of its history, scholars have seen the city as simply the pathological manifestation of racial capitalism. But what has lent the city its restless energy and its aura of possibility is a central contradiction. On the one hand, it is a city obsessed with the regimentation and control of space. On the other – and contrary to many accounts of the city as purely a space of subjection – it has always also been a space of transgression and spillage (Mbembe: 47; also Bremner: 2). My central contention in what follows will be that Johannesburg literature – by which I mean literature that takes Johannesburg not simply as a setting but rather as a structuring logic – draws its imaginative energy from the city’s inherent propensity to spatial transgression. A city lacking a romantic origins story or a sense of purpose grander than the simple pursuit of gold, Johannesburg has nevertheless generated a literature that is every bit as distinctive as its brutalist skyline: a literature of broken promises, precarity, and pain, but also of leakage, rupture, fluidity, and possibility.

Mining Johannesburg

Johannesburg has not been a propitious locale for that dominant literary form of modernity, the novel (one would be hard pressed to name a classic “Johannesburg novel”). Yet it has yielded an exceptionally fertile output in a variety of other genres: the short story, the poem, the urban legend, the non-fiction chronicle, the memoir, the song – forms more mobile and improvisatory than the novel and thus better adapted to the ceaselessly metamorphic and destructive nature of this “edgy city” (Kruger) and its restless population of migrants. One should note the radical form of newness Johannesburg represented in late nineteenth century Southern Africa, surrounded as it was by the two Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and two British colonies, Natal and the Cape Colony. Much of the city’s upstart originality was due to the teeming heterogeneity of its populace. The Cape writer Olive Schreiner was an early witness: “Here are found the diverse and many-shaded body of humans, who appear wherever in the world gold is discovered...On first walking in the streets, one has a strange sense of having left South Africa, and being merely in some cosmopolitan centre, which might be anywhere where all nations and colours gather round the yellow king” (qtd in Hofmeyr 1978: 6). Cape Town was of course also a cosmopolitan city, but its cosmopolitanism had emerged from long, entangled, colonial histories. Johannesburg, by contrast, was shallow and brash. The mines, and the disparate people they drew to the Rand, made for an improvisatory, shallowly-rooted culture directed foremost to the exigencies of survival. The earliest fictional narratives to be found in Johannesburg were the subaltern ones of the digger community. Disseminated through newspaper, broadsheet, pamphlet, song, and fable, this was a literature that saw “life as a constant battle against fortune, an inscrutable force external to man” (Hofmeyr: 4). Its social function was quite simple: to endow the fractured and precarious life of the digger – overwhelmingly men in a town with scant domestic stability – with some sense of cohesion and meaning.

As surface deposits of gold ran dry, mining became a subterranean affair presided over by vast mining monopolies. Johannesburg, with its vast reserves of untapped wealth and its proximity to British interests, quickly become an imperial theatre. Accompanying the shift in power away from individual prospectors and towards corporations was the arrival of the “mining novel,” produced and consumed by the mining industry’s ruling classes. The new attitude is visible in Anna de Brémont’s The Gentleman Digger (1899), which portrays mining Johannesburg as a “parched and drought-stricken world, with one half starving while the other half feasts” (Hofmeyr: 9). De Brémont’s novel proffers an idealized image of the digger: a blond, blue-eyed British prospector, rugged and good-hearted, a sales-pitch for British imperialism. This sentimentalized figure populates the fiction of the fin-de-siecle Rand, including most famously that of Percy FitzPatrick. The image of wholesome Britishness smoothed over the city’s ethnic heterogeneity and obscured the elements of exploitation, foreign capital, and military force that were essential components in the formation of early Johannesburg (Hofmeyr: 6).

Some mining novels did engage critically with this sentimentalized vision of Johannesburg. Douglas Blackburn, an English journalist and editor, wrote two important satirical novels in this vein. Richard Hartley, Prospector... (1905) critiques the fantasy of the genteel pioneer; Leaven: A Black and White Story (1908) continues this but expands its scope to treat the elided experience of black life in the mines. Leaven follows the struggles of an early migrant laborer who is subject alternately to the “benevolent paternalism of the missionaries” and the “coercive paternalism of the mining company” (Hofmeyr: 13). The best he can do in this situation is to “learn the art of survival and cunning” (13).

Indeed, unlike the other peoples in mining Johannesburg, who had arrived of their own volition in pursuit of wealth, black migrant workers were in effect coerced into mining work, forced from rural life by a newly implemented land tax (the Glen Grey Act of 1894) aimed at supplying a pool of cheap labor for the nascent mining industry. Lacking both literacy and access to printing presses, black miners expressed their experiences in song. Migrant songs (lifela) were sung by “eloquent ones” (likheleke) and dealt predominantly with two interlinked themes: the hellish experience of the mineshafts (“Men, it’s those of the shaft – how they tear into it. / They tear into it with shovels there. / Khati! Those in-a-file people!”), and the homesickness that is the existential condition of the migrant worker (“As night was ending, some of us saw wonders: / we saw beautiful ghosts, / fires burning for hours but warming no one”) (Quoted in Coplan 1994: 131).

Jim Comes to Joburg

The experience of the mines inaugurates one of the most recognisable tropes of Johannesburg fiction: the “Jim Comes to Jo’burg” plot. The trope involves some variation on the following basic protocol: a young black man from the countryside arrives in Joburg, an earnest naif. Once in the city, he enters a world of licentiousness and deceit diametrically opposed to his rural world. He may be swindled, he may be mugged; he may succumb to the world of casual sex, drink, gambling, and prostitution; he will certainly sense his exclusion from a world ruled by a white elite.

The locus classicus of this trope is the film African Jim (1949), in which, unusually, Jim ultimately prospers, revenging himself upon his swindlers and finding success as a nightclub singer. However, in the dominant form of the narrative, “Jim” will return to the countryside, humbled and chastened. W.C. Scully’s Daniel Venanda (1923), RRR Dhlomo’s An African Tragedy (1928), and, most famously, Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country (1948), all rendered the city as destructive to black life. Apartheid policies, it must be remembered, actively discouraged black people from identifying with the city: while the “village native” represented social stability, ethnic purity, and cultural authenticity, the “town native” was associated with disorder and disease (Robins 1998: 458). The urbanophobia structuring these narratives thus contributed to the horror of the ethnic melting pot that underpinned Johannesburg’s racial segregation, and ultimately to the wholesale destruction of mixed areas under apartheid.

A strong revision of the Jim-to-Joburg trope can be found in Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy (1946), the first fully-fledged novelistic representation of black urban life in Johannesburg. The story of a migrant to the city, Xuma, who finds work in the mines, it gives some sense of the vitality and complexity of one of the city’s original black districts, the Malay Camp. The urban world sketched in this novel is a Fanonian one: the stone and steel edifices of the white city sit alongside a precarious native town, from whose pool of expendable labor it draws. The novel lauds the “warm, thick, dark blanket of life” in the Malay Camp; the white settler town is by contrast cold and ghostly (Abrahams 1963: 112). The emergence of new peripheral “townships” – the very name indicating their symbolic exclusion from the city proper – is alluded to throughout the novel, foreshadowing the era of high apartheid, during which black life was expunged from the city center.

Bosman’s Johannesburg

Johannesburg has no singular creative giant looming over it in the way that London has Dickens. Herman Charles Bosman is an example of what might have been. Although Bosman’s most famous stories are set in the sleepy, insular Afrikaner town of Groot Marico, Johannesburg is a constant presence hovering on its edges. By Bosman’s time, a cultural gulf divided Johannesburg and its sleepy, rural surrounds. In Bosman’s Groot Marico stories, small-town dwellers leave for the city: some find unimaginable success, becoming names of legend; most return, tail between legs, objects of bemusement and incomprehension for the townspeople.

Bosman’s most significant Johannesburg achievement was a body of essays in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. These essays forged a durable poetics that captured something of Johannesburg’s rawness and brutality. Bosman’s vision is, at bottom, of a city of migrants trying, with dubious results, to shake off its crass mining past. He is fascinated by Johannesburg’s relentless and utterly unsentimental transformations, as successive new waves of metropolitan style are imported wholesale from the Northern hemisphere. “They are trying to make Johannesburg respectable,” he wrote, “They are trying to make snobs of us, making us forget who our ancestors were...a lot of roughnecks who knew nothing about culture and who came here to look for gold” (Quoted in van Onselen 2001: xvii). In Bosman’s essays on the city (he wrote regular newspaper columns for various venues), one finds a continual worry about how to make poetry of so raw a city, a place indifferent to its past and shamelessly oriented to the pursuit of money and glamour. If we only, he muses at one point, “possessed the keys for disentangling, out of figures and names and dates and statistics, the warm and living realities of human hopes that turned to desolation, of aspirations that crumbled, of toil and hardships that were alike in vain” (Bosman 1986: 59).

One path this might take is visible in Bosman’s small trove of unpublished Johannesburg fiction. In the story “Johannesburg Christmas Eve,” the city is a coarse, rough-and-tumble world, a kind of Wild West in which a veneer of culture does not quite conceal a feral nature. Black and white, English and Afrikaans, men and women: all are locked into a struggle for survival and, when possible, dominance. Bosman relished Johannesburg’s potential for the carnivalesque intermingling of what were imagined to be pristinely separate bodies: the sweat of a black baker’s assistant seeps copiously into the dough that will be consumed by whites; later, staggering home after having been beaten by a group of drunken white louts, he comes across a white man passed out in the street and urinates on him.

Bosman’s was the last creative vision able to see Johannesburg as a cohesive city: a navigable, interlinked hub of commerce, civic institutions, and public life. Even as he wrote, new legislation was expelling black city-dwellers from the municipal bounds, while the centrifugal spread of the wealthy began to draw municipal institutions and corporate entities out of the city center and into the suburbs. A literature of fragmentation was to follow.

Township Modernism: Sophiatown and Soweto

A series of government proclamations, most notably the Urban Areas Act of 1923 and the Slum Act of 1934, legally ordained the city a white space. The former prohibited “non-whites” – black Africans, Indians, Asians, and Coloureds (those who did not fall into the other recognized categories) – from owning property in white areas and required them to carry the notorious pass book at all times. The latter gave a legal pretext for the physical destruction of black neighborhoods. Black life in Johannesburg was thus made fugitive and abject. As Achille Mbembe puts it, “crossing boundaries, transgressing them, or eluding them became the main modality of action for blacks in the city” (50).

Ian Baucom has aptly given the name “township modernism” to the brilliant, jazzy literature that emerged from the “shadow life” (Baucom 2005; Themba 2006: 72) of those urban blacks who did not belong to the countryside yet were barred from the city. Its birthplace was the suburb of Sophiatown, situated a few kilometers to the north-west of the city center. Sophiatown’s proximity to a municipal sewage works made it undesirable to the white populace and so allowed it to escape the prohibition on black freehold tenure. It flourished, becoming a racially mixed district unprecedented in the rest of the city: black, colored, Indian, and Chinese inhabitants all made homes here. Paul Gready notes that Sophiatown “lacked a geography of class. One could not choose one’s neighbours”; it was thus “possible to live, or create the illusion of living, in all layers of society at once” (141). For one of its most famous inhabitants, Bloke Modisane, it was “the most cosmopolitan of South Africa’s black social igloos” and “perhaps the most perfect experience in non-racial living” (16).

For black communities, the city had traditionally been seen as a workplace rather than a spiritual home. In its glorious decade, the 1950s, Sophiatown served as home to a brilliant and innovative cohort of black writers who decisively changed this attitude: Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Nat Nakasa, Henry Nxumalo, Lewis Nkosi, Es’kia Mpahlele, Todd Matshikiza, and Arthur Maimane. This group orbited around Drum magazine, which had started out as a purveyor of ethnic kitsch but soon turned itself into an outlet for cutting-edge black urban expression. For these writers, Sophiatown offered “a self-consciously new style of being” (Nixon 1994: 13). Their literary aesthetic, an “unsteady mix of immersion and elevation” in Sophiatown’s sordid but vibrant world, was most brilliant exemplified by Themba, who, in a stylized embrace of the tsotsi (gangster) life of Sophiatown, fashioned himself as an “intellectual tsotsi.” The “turbulence of urban African life,” wrote Themba, “was like the stage of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan world – the action, the passion, the lasciviousness, the high drama, the violence and then: ‘Exeunt with corpses’” (131). Themba’s life imitated his dramaturgy: he produced a series of fleet-footed and jazzy pieces that combined populist melodrama with psychological nuance and stylistic flair, engaged in a number of scandalous love affairs across the color line, and died young of alcoholism.

Starting in the mid-1950s, in response to petitions from neighboring white suburbs that felt threatened by what Themba called the “swart jowl” of Sophiatown (54), apartheid police moved in to forcibly relocate its residents. They were followed by bulldozers. Sophiatown literature’s afterlife became deeply elegiac and tended to the memoir form. Bloke Modisane’s Blame Me on History (1963) and Don Mattera’s Gone with the Twilight: A Story of Sophiatown (1987) not only chronicle the emotional devastation wrought by forced removal but also recreate the Sophiatown of their authors’ youth; in their works, the romantic image of Sophiatown is set in place: “we sang our sad happy songs, were carried away by our erotic dances, got drunk and killed each other” (Modisane 1986: 9). Modisane’s description hints at the dangers of over-romanticizing Sophiatown: for all its vibrancy, it was also crime-ridden and heavily slumified, “a black heaven glowing with sparks of hell” (Dougmore Boetie quoted in Gready 1990: 145).

One of the persistent criticisms of the Sophiatown generation was its indifference to political commitment. There is certainly truth to this. But the importance of Sophiatown writing lay not in its politics but in its forging of a black urban voice, in the way it “gave a solidity to...that outlaw condition [of] the urban African” (Nixon: 41). By contrast, in the township of Soweto (an abbreviation of “South West Township”), a far more politicized urban literature was formed.

The township that emerged on the dusty outskirts of Johannesburg between 1940 and 1976 was immense, housing around a third of the entire population of the entire city, although tellingly left off its street maps (see Gevisser 2014: chapter 1). Its colorless, unimaginative government housing and lack of a civic center, parks, shopping centers, or industrial complexes rendered it effectively a “residential outpost on the veld” (Beavon 2004). Yet Soweto was to become the engine room of resistance to apartheid. While the quintessential literary genre of Sophiatown was the short story, that of Soweto was poetry. Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Oswald Mtshali (for Gordimer, the “Villon of Soweto” [Mtshali 2012: xvii]): the Soweto poets were highly political beings, their work bound up with the emergence of Black Consciousness in South Africa (Much of this poetry’s charge came from its position at the boundary between poetry and politics; a central debate was whether it should strive for aesthetic value or whether it should be instead “a work of anarchy” [James Matthews, quoted in Penfold, 13].). Soweto poetry was the expression of a resolutely urban people made foreigners in their native city (Kruger: 111). One of Serote’s most anthologized poems is the savage and melancholy ode “City Johannesburg,” which viscerally imagines the speaker’s daily expulsion from the city: “I travel on your black and white robotted roads / Through your thick iron breath that you inhale / At six in the morning and exhale from five noon.” A concern with the sense of existential displacement at the heart of black life in Johannesburg also animates the writing of Miriam Tlali. Tlali’s novel Muriel at the Metropolitan and her short stories in Footprints in the Quag deal with what Lauretta Ngcobo (in her introduction to the stories [Tlali 1989]) aptly calls spacelessness: a sense of having nowhere to turn in a world detached on one hand from certainties of traditional rural life and excluded on the other from the possibilities opened up by the city – a sentiment accentuated by Tlali’s doubly marginal position as a black woman in a patriarchal and racist world.

The White Suburbs

While the spatial segregation of the apartheid years lent energy to black literary culture in Johannesburg, the white suburbs – increasingly detached from the vitality of urban living by a slow drift into an Arcadian nowhere land – had become arid ground for the artistic imagination. The most notable fictions to emerge were the incisive social anatomies of Nadine Gordimer. Gordimer’s first novel, The Lying Days (1953), establishes her mastery of the white suburban home, its tics, habits, and self-reinforcing power dynamics. Her second, A World of Strangers (1958), based loosely on the history of Drum magazine, brings the deadening insularity of the white suburbs into contact with the different world of black Johannesburg. As political resistance turned militant over the course of the 1960s, the suburban home became a more fraught place. The novella Something Out There (1984) distils this mood, as a roaming chacma baboon terrorizes the world of white placidity while a militant anti-apartheid cell hides out in the suburbs. There is no need for imagined monsters, Gordimer’s story suggests: what the white suburbs have to fear is History itself, and its threat to their world of cloistered privilege. In Gordimer’s later novels, July’s People (1981) and My Son’s Story (1990), the houses white people live in “can no longer function as stable means of ideological reproduction, but are burnt down...or abandoned and exploded” (Barnard 2015: 943). Similarly acute explorations of the white suburban household as a claustrophobic microcosm of the psychological (and physical) violence of the apartheid state are present in the stories of Dan Jacobson (see especially “Stop Thief!” (1958)), while the opening chapters of Rian Malan’s memoir My Traitor’s Heart (1990) chronicle the self-aggrandisements of suburban teenage rebellion.

Post-Apartheid Johannesburg

As the apartheid regime collapsed during the early 1990s, Johannesburg underwent an immense spatial transformation. The weakening of the apartheid state’s spatial control over the inner city set off a wave of white flight (For a detailed account of the complex factors at play in these changes to the inner city’s fabric, see Beavon: 213–224.). Capital, along with the middle-class, mostly white Johannesburgers who dealt in it, flooded out of the inner city into the increasingly fortified enclaves of the northern suburbs, where the shopping mecca of Sandton became the new de facto financial capital. Massive new shopping and “lifestyle” developments such as Montecasino and Melrose Arch – as well as countless securitized residential “golf estates” – created a Mediterranean-themed fantasy world in the suburbs. Meanwhile, the inner city and its surrounds (Hillbrow, Berea, and Yeoville) were effectively repurposed by a new black population, many of them immigrants from other African countries, and began to take on the look and feel of a more properly African city, particularly in its widespread economic and social informality. (Informality is a key term in post-apartheid urbanism; it signifies semi-legal or “extra-legal” practices of trading, dwelling, land-use, and construction.) Skyrocketing inequalities of wealth, spiralling rates of violent crime, mass immigration from other African countries, and a dwindling municipal apparatus combined to create a citadelized world of mutually suspicious communities governed by an architecture of fear.

Post-apartheid Johannesburg has thus become a polycentric, atomized city. While nominally an open city, it cannot be strolled in the style of the flâneur. Novelists such as Niq Mhlongo, Ivan Vladislavic, Kgebetle Moele, and Nthikeng Mohlele have imagined it as a place of a jostling, staccato kind of mobility, in which those unlucky enough to need to walk are deflected by barriers, mugged, and generally affronted by the ugliness and hostility of the city’s splintered worlds. Any literary gestures at symbolically repairing the fractures of the apartheid city are faced with the challenge of understanding how its disjunctive parts work as a whole – or if they do. The most successful attempts to do this have embraced formal innovation. See for example Ivan Vladislavic’s The Exploded View (four interlocking stories of the city’s nondescript peripheries [Vladislavic 2004]) and Portrait with Keys (a collection of 138 numbered non-fiction vignettes of the city with an index that suggests various “itineraries” through the book/city [Vladislavic 2012]), as well as Mark Gevisser’s innovative memoir/personal history Lost and Found in Johannesburg (2014).

Perhaps the most imaginatively generative feature of the post-apartheid city has been the emergence of new forms of life – often based on scavenging, petty theft, or the creative repurposing of city infrastructure – that have filled the vacuum left by the receding institutions of urban governance in the inner city. As Abdoumaliq Simone has noted, while often viewed as a “place of ruins,” the inner city and its surrounds are in fact the site of a “highly urbanised social infrastructure” (Simone 2008). Gangster films such as Tsotsi (2006) and Jerusalema (Ralph Ziman 2008) have followed enterprising criminal figures who have emerged from these zones. Indeed, a fascination, not always salutary, with those “forbidden” parts of the city where top-down urban governance has collapsed marks most post-apartheid Johannesburg literature. This is especially true of the suburb of Hillbrow, formerly a bohemian oasis for the culturally adventurous white middle classes, now an overcrowded and crime-ridden epicenter of pan-African Johannesburg (and occasionally the destination of “urban safaris” for the well-heeled). Hillbrow is the setting for two classic post-apartheid novels, Ivan Vladislavic’s The Restless Supermarket and Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (both 2001). The former features a stock comic figure in Vladislavic’s work: the ageing white man who cannot come to terms with the changing city that surrounds him. The black Hillbrow dwellers in Mpe’s novel, by contrast, possess a greater capacity for adapting to a seemingly hostile environment, reinscribing the city with their own meanings, their sense of their own “nowness” (Nuttall 2004).

The dissolution of “whiteness” (by which I mean a certain insulated, middle-class urban habitus convinced of its own centrality, rather than a fixed racial identity) in the face of more vital, inventive, and resilient black modes of life is a running theme in post-apartheid Johannesburg literature. Marlene van Niekerk’s mock-epic Triomf (1994), a dark carnivalesque novel about an incestuous family of “poor whites,” takes place over the buried debris of Sophiatown (over which the white suburb of Triomf [“Triumph”] was erected). The recent explosion of speculative fiction in Johannesburg has proven especially adept at exploring anxieties around the dissolution of identity. In Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9 (2009), a middle-aged Afrikaner bureaucrat suddenly finds himself turning into one of the insectoid alien refugees he has been tasked with evicting. Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City (2011) follows a young black journalist who finds herself psychically bound to a sloth (“animalled,” in the parlance of the novel). These mutations result in ostracization: middle-class characters are thrust from their insulated suburban worlds and secure identities into the phobic extremities of the city. A host of other genre works exhibit a similar fascination with the city’s drama of metamorphosing identity: the graphic novel Rebirth (2012) imagines Africa’s last remaining vampires dying of AIDS; the comic book series Kwezi (Mkize 2016, launched in 2014) engages with the contending pressures of postmodern black identity on a young black township dweller who discovers he possesses superpowers; Imraan Coovadia’s A Spy in Time (2018) imagines survivors of a global apocalypse living in old mining shafts under Johannesburg (in Coovadia’s post-apocalypse, black people hold sway and whites are a stigmatised minority). These are all quintessentially Johannesburg tropes that internalize the city’s mutant logic of sudden and unpredictable becoming-other.

Post-apartheid Johannesburg thus constitutes a vortex of transformation – both emancipatory and reactionary – seldom visible elsewhere in the country. In the South African imaginary, it has come to serve as both a laboratory of new forms of life as well as a repository for all the nations’ fears about change. Its most interesting film and literature have used these phenomena as spurs to narrative invention, finding both possibility and terror in its deeply fractured and ever-mutating cityscape. Part of Johannesburg’s appeal – particularly in the present moment of political stagnation – is the openness of its future and the transformational possibilities it offers. Will it develop along the lines of remaking and fluidity that are the utopian undercurrents of its recent fiction? Or will it assume more than ever the characteristics of the fortress, with ever-higher walls, larger mansions, and ever more rigid demarcations of its splintered populace? As of 2019, it contains the seeds of both possibilities.


A survey like this must inevitably omit a great deal. Two omissions in particular need addressing. I have paid little attention to Johannesburg’s film and drama. Excellent studies of these can be found, respectively, in Parker (2016), and Kruger (2013). Additionally, in my focus on the drama of black and white, I may have been guilty of a “zebra politics” that has (with the exception of Abrams and Mattera) neglected writers of other ethnic groups, particularly Colored and Indian, as well as Afrikaans-language writing. In this respect, the writings of Chris van Wyk, Achmat Dangor, and Ahmed Essop are well worth visiting. The Afrikaans writer Harry Kalmer’s novel A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg (2017) is a fictional interweaving of a century’s worth of “hidden histories” from some of Johannesburg’s less recognized communities: Afrikaans, Chinese, German, and Congolese, among others.



I would like to thank Isabel Hofmeyr for introducing me to the literature of early Johannesburg, and Valerie Kennedy, for her eagle-eyed comments on the final draft of this essay.


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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bilkent UniversityAnkaraTurkey