Hunting Another Joburg

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One of the primary motivations for the novel I am writing is to portray an aspect, a notion of Johannesburg that is routinely left out of conversations about the city. It is a deeply fascinating place with origins that encompass the globe, many tribes, languages, ideas and cultures. We tend to spend so much time focussed on its role as a money capital and source of greed and craziness that we forget the human, experiential side of the city.

But in order to portray the Johannesburg that I have always experienced, as opposed to the one that say, you average Cape Tonian, thinks exists, I felt I first had to delve into its actual past. Thus I interviewed academics at WITS, I bought lots of books thusly recommended and I toured around the city visiting sites and spoke to a lot of people about their anecdotal recollection of the city’s origins.

What began to emerge from these conversations and readings was the Johannesburg has never been drab, dull or cultureless. Rather it has always been wild, woolly and experimental. That easily discounted notion of Johannesburg being the modern Sodom and Gomorrah obscures a very real city that offers its residents chance s to become more than they were, to discover what they are truly capable of and unleashes greatness from seemingly ordinary people. Of course at the same time, it is like a dormitory town of hopefuls, sleeping in their identical almost prefabricated housing in suburbs and townships, dreaming of the time when they too shall soar.

As you can tell, this reading galvanised me. Not much of it will really appear in the book in any recognisable form. It was more about discovering an emotional and social landscape that explains and underpins many of the modern attitudes you encounter in the city… both from residents and outsiders. But if you like that kind of thing, I have compiled a reading list here for you, complete with e-commerce links, so that you can also share in my discoveries about the city. These were without doubt the most influential non-fiction books I read about Joburg, gold and the pre-history of the area.

New Babylon New Nineveh – Charles Van Onselen

Bleakness and Light – Alan Morris

Taming The Disorderly City – Martin J Murray

Johannesburg – The Elusive Metropolis – Sarah Nuttal and Achille Mbembe

A Search For Origins –Bonner, Esterhuyzen, Jenkins

Temples of the African Gods – Michael Tellinger

But even prior to beginning this book, my notions of an almost private, different city had already been fuelled and coloured by some awesome fiction about the city. Therefore I also heartily recommend Ivan Vladislavic’s The Restless Supermarket and the late Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome To Our Hilbrow as well!

The Restless Supermarket – Ivan Vladislavic

Welcome to Our Hilbrow – Phaswane Mpe

Enjoy reading, I certainly did. Hopefully this will keep you busy until I can finish my contribution to the JHB cannon!

  1. Chantal Dawtrey

    The Joburg of today is being rediscovered after companies and corporates rabbited out of the city centre in the mid 1990’s and headed for the glass and steel emptiness of Sandton. I love that there is rejuvenation and activity in corners and crevices previously thought forgotten and given-up on.

    Thanks for the book list, a great idea to share this!

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