3.2 Reading the Golden City

Fraser Hawkins


I was brought to Johannesburg this summer by my dissertation’s focus on Ivan Vladislavić, a critically lauded yet surprisingly under-theorized South African writer and editor. As Johannesburg is the setting for the majority of Vladislavić’s stories, making at least a passing appearance in the city would be prudent for any postcolonial scholar writing on his work who wished to avoid the label of armchair anthropologist. Vladislavić’s treatment of setting, however, is far from incidental, and my trip’s focus was significantly less cynical and performative in its conception than a “passing appearance.”  Nevertheless, my plans may have been a little naïve and my experience proved to be, in significant ways, a fruitful failure.


Point A: My interests…

Since 1994, South Africa has been legislating the collapse of apartheid and the attendant reorganization of movements of people through the built environment while simultaneously negotiating its re-entry into international networks of commerce and cultural exchange. This reconfiguration is nowhere more apparent than in the urban environment of Johannesburg, a city still in the throes of shedding its reputation as a paragon of apartheid era spatial organization.  In light of this, Johannesburg (or Joburg, or Jozi, or Egoli — the city of gold) can serve as a privileged vantage point from which to observe the connections between multifarious socioeconomic factors playing out in an urban environment during a period of transition. Martin J. Murray, an urban development theorist, has suggested in Taming the Disorderly City: The Spatial Landscape of Johannesburg after Apartheid, that properly understanding this facet of Joburg’s spatial reconfiguration “requires the adoption of an interpretive approach that is capable of acknowledging the interplay between surface layers and deep structural forms, that is between scenographic visionscapes saturated with aestheticized images and their underlying material conditions of existence” (ix). It is my contention that such an interpretive approach is exemplified by the works of Ivan Vladislavić, especially his interest in urban semiotics. Vladislavić’s fictional representations of Joburg, contained in The Restless Supermarket, Double Negative, Portrait with Keys, The Exploded View, Missing Persons and Propaganda by Monuments, acknowledge that the processes that bring the objects and spaces of a city into being involve struggles between conflicting elements along uneven exchanges of power. This acknowledgement provides a foundation from which to oppose the popular modernist representations of “urban renewal” and to dismantle the sanitized and simplistic representations articulated in the functionalist rhetoric favoured by urban planners and municipal authorities.  Such an opposition requires a “reading” of the city.


In The City and the Sign: An Introduction to Urban Semiotics, Gottediener and Lagopoulos begin by suggesting that urban semiotics can “be extended to include codes of property ownership, written texts of planning, the plans of designers, urban discourse by the users of the city, and real-estate advertising” (3). A number of things are important here, but for the matter at hand a particularly salient feature of urban semiotics is the textual treatment of urban spaces. Not only are streets and buildings imbued with signification, but the analysis of such signification can and should be extended to textual objects whose meanings reify or conceptualize these spaces. Urban semiotics holds that what we generally conceive to be buildings and texts overlap in their systems of signification and thus warrant direct comparison. Furthermore, and even more germane to my project, urban semiotics includes not just prescriptive texts drafted by city planners and architects, but also “urban discourse by users of the city.” Vladislavić’s works narrativize cities in a way that engages other acts and methods of spatial narrativization in intertextual dialogue.


While setting is a typical feature of narrative, Vladislavić places an emphasis on the socially constructed nature of space, granting location a prevalence that might be absent in works whose treatment of setting is more incidental. In choosing Vladislavić as a topic on which to hang a thesis, I had to ask myself why books about cities are worth reading and discussing. In a South African context, why are books that pay attention to how cities are imagined and represented worth special consideration, especially in light of the non-fictitious material realities that merit immediate concern and even action? Without getting into a larger, overreaching defence of poesy, the answer is that Vladislavić's texts identify particular narratives common to the discourse surrounding the contemporary re-representation of South African public and private spaces, illuminating and critiquing their ideological underpinnings and consequences, both potential and realized.  This is to say, Vladislavić not only highlights how large-scale acts of identity formation at the national level are fostered within social spaces, but also reveals the narratological and even performative nature inherent to the act of representing those spaces. His work is deeply concerned with how the ways we envision, plan, market and map cities manifest in the built environment itself.  He gestures toward the relationship between representation and actual, physical spaces, and his interrogation of this relationship illuminates the ways urban semiotical systems are connected to the material processes that produce them. The specific focus on a particular place, Johannesburg, makes all the more sense given the weight he affords this concern. However, if my thesis understands his work on Johannesburg as one of intertextual dialogue between two forms of representation, my work would only be half complete by reading Vladislavić. I was going to have to read Johannesburg as well.


Point B: My trip…

The core “problem” that had me packing my bags was understanding how Joburg is represented by the texts that proliferate within it, texts that are generated out of the everyday practices of the people that live and/or work within the space. If texts are interrelated and in dialogue with one another, how is Vladislavić’s work is in dialogue with these spaces / texts? I had carefully read Vladislavić’s oeuvre, but it was impossible for me to speak to how his work reflects South African sociopolitical and economic realities in terms of representations of urban spaces without access to or experience of the places themselves. The idea was that traveling to them and performing a firsthand reading of these spatial texts would bridge this gap. In addition to seeing, experiencing, and reading these city spaces, going to Joburg would also allow me to personally meet with and interview Ivan Vladislavić, to meet with several important South African literary scholars, and to visit several key locations that house documents important to my work, including the records at the Johannesburg Department of Development Planning and Urban Management and The National English Literary Museum (NELM), the major institutional resource centre on South African writing in English. The trip would take two months.


I became a visiting scholar at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, and stayed at a graduate residence called Trematon House at the Wits School of Business in Parktown, a neighbourhood just north of Braamfontein in the downtown core of the city. I was shown around Johannesburg by many of its long term residents, from Professor Gerald Gaylard and Professor Michael Titlestad (both accomplished academics with an interest in Vladislavić), to other Witswatersrand University students, to cab drivers and random people that I encountered. Being escorted to various locations by people of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds helped to open the city to me and allowed me to experience at least some of the versions of Joburg that exist. Perhaps most significantly, I was able to meet with Vladislavić on numerous occasions, joining him for coffee, attending book launches, poetry readings and gallery openings with him, accompanying him on a walk through the neighbourhood of Kensington, where his book Portrait with Keys is largely based, and sitting down with him in his home for an extended formal interview that I recorded. These experiences were very significant for my research, and alone justified the expense and effort of undertaking the trip. I have a lot to say about these encounters, and much of what I will say will be included in my thesis. I would like, however, to take this opportunity to address another aspect of my experience, which are the ways my expectations were defied. I’d like to document this because I think my failures were, in some ways, as valuable to my current understanding of Johannesburg as my successes.


As I’ve indicated, to a significant degree my trip was a “failure,” and perhaps in ways that I should have been more aware of before setting out. It was a failure in the sense that I did not have access to the spaces that I imagined I would, and as a result my idea of reading the city’s textual surfaces in relation to Vladislavić’s representations of them (engaging in something of a compare and contrast between two inter-texts that were involved in a kind of literary dialogue) was not possible. This impossibility exists for a number of reasons, but can largely be explained by the mercurial nature of Johannesburg itself, a metropolis whose vicissitudes and variations fluctuate with a rapidity that is surprising even when compared with other cosmopolitan urban environments. Johannesburg changes with alarming speed and, simply put, the Johannesburg I thought I could explore in relation to Vladislavić’s writing no longer exists. This lack of foresight is especially embarrassing, given that so much of Vladislavić’s work is devoted to the shifting composition of post-apartheid built environments. While I understood that the city would not remain the same, the extent to which these changes would alter and limit my own movement within Johannesburg caught me by surprise. This limitation is due to a variety of factors, most of which stem from the influx of previously marginalized African peoples into the core of the inner city and the effects that the suddenly apparent socioeconomic inequities fostered under apartheid had in altering how people navigate public spaces in post-apartheid Johannesburg. A neighbourhood like Hillbrow, which is the setting of Vladislavić’s novel The Restless Supermarket and right in the downtown core of the city, is not accessible in any immediate sense to someone like me, who is culturally encoded as an English-speaking white male. I am, and will continue to be in the foreseeable future, a visible target for physical violence and theft in much of Johannesburg, to the extent that going for a walk in many parts of city would pose a very real risk to my wellbeing.


Of course, one might counter that any city past a certain size possesses such areas, but, at the risk of relying on anecdotal information, I have traveled to well over thirty countries across Asia, South America, and Africa, and have never experienced a city whose physical make-up was so entrenched in concerns over security and personal safety. From the moment I entered Johannesburg, I couldn’t help but notice that every residential area is ensconced in physical barriers that bring to mind the tools of defensive warfare: concrete walls, gates, guard dogs, fences composed of metal spikes, rotating beams of steel spears, shards of smashed glass glued to the tops of walls in makeshift attempts at creating jagged obstacles, barbed wire, razor wire, electrical wire, and sign after sign pronouncing the occupants’ access to armed response by the corporate defence sector that has blossomed in the wake of the violence following the collapse of apartheid. For racists, this is the violence that apartheid prevented, the chaos that merited a systemic control of human behaviour and movement based on racial designations. For the rationally inclined, this is the legacy of apartheid; this is what happens when people have been denied basic human rights for generations under a system that inevitably collapses, exposing grotesque material disparities between groups of people now inhabiting the same social spaces.


While I had gleaned this knowledge previously from reading about the city, actually experiencing the spatial dynamics in terms of my personal navigation was an invaluable experience. In learning about how the public transportation system works (or does not), where I could go and when (demarcations that were connected to my gender and race), and how systems of human movement, such as the flourishing minicab industry, operate according to an underground economy and systems of signification, I discovered as much by what I couldn’t do as I did by what I could. In short, my “failures” only further convinced me of how essential my experiences in Johannesburg have been to my work.


Works Cited


Gottdiener, M. and Alexandros Ph. Lagopoulos, eds. The City and the Sign: An Introduction to Urban Semiotics. New York: Columbia U P, 1986.Print.

Murray, Martin J. Taming the Disorderly City: The Spatial Landscape of Johannesburg after Apartheid. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008. Print.




Fraser Hawkins is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University. His thesis is on the work of Ivan Vladislavić, and specifically how Vladislavić’s unique take on the urban semioscape of post-apartheid Johannesburg forms a critique of contemporary urban development practices and urban spatial representation, one that proffers a critical and reflexive (re)imagining of the social spaces of South Africa. 



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