Welcome to Futureburg

They are the editors of a very different city guide. They write about cityness, about Africanness, future, and about an Afropolitan nation. They see a very different map, they tell you very different things. Things you never heard about Africa. Things you never heard about the US or Brazil either. Now they research the traces of the poor through the city. Through Johannesburg. Through the Elusive Metropolis. This is the title of their book. They are the It Couple of postcolonial thinking. They are SARAH NUTTALL and ACHILLE MBEMBE.

He was impossible to get through to. We tried everywhere, even talked to his assistant at Duke University in the US, where they teach one term each year. She answered our first email. Great, come by, to the Wits. There we are, on our second day in Johannesburg. The Witwatersrand Uni­­versity is built on a hill. There are people at the gates, very many parking spaces, very few free. Happy students who may or may not be in California or Florida. This is not America, but this is not Africa either. Or is it? We look for Sarah Nuttall and the Wiser building. It turns out to be a stylish-looking place, made of concrete with distinctive cracks in it.


DIEZ/ROTH: What is African modernity?

SARAH NUTTALL: This is a very problematic term, because the question of African modernity still gets framed in terms of what is traditional and what is modern. There’s a projection, particularly from Europe, which requires Africa to be traditional and, at other moments, far less frequently, wishes it to be modern. There is a degree to which Africa assumes that position. It seems as if it is always speaking to the outside, because the outside has so powerfully determined what Africa is. What’s been really interesting about the work that Achille and I did on Joburg, is the effort to identify an Af­rican metropolitan space and assert it in its ­fully “Afropolitan” potential. If you watch BBC, CNN or Sky News, you never see Africans in business suits. You barely see the city as city.

Sarah Nuttall is a very attractive and confident person. She is wearing pur­ple pants, a pink sweater, and sunglasses pushed back into her blond hair. She is the wife of Achille Mbembe. We tell Sarah that we have been trying to get in touch with her elusive husband for months now without any response. “Oh,” she says, “he’s just down the hall, I’ll go and get him.” She is away for a while, comes back, tries to reach him on his phone, and looks for her ­mobile. Later she will realize that she has given her mobile to Achille. We start without him. She is smart, fast, and she won’t let you interrupt her.

You use an interesting term in this context: You say you try to disentangle the city.

SN: It works like this: On the one hand you want to undo some of the generalities that come from the narratives that are shaped by a notion of the city on Euro­­pean terms. But on the other hand you want to extract a place like this from the de­­mands of the anti-apartheid struggle, which were incredibly invested in reasser­ting the ­segregated nature of our ­rea­­lity and, again, were projected onto a global poli­tical space for global political ends.


SN: Meaning, Let’s think about this space as a metropolis just like any other me­tro­polis.

So this is about confidence.

SN: In some ways, yes. It is about asserting a kind of originality, but also about inserting this place into other places, which is in fact what its history is.

Alexandra, Gauteng Province.

Alexandra, Gauteng Province.

Maybe he is very confident, maybe he is angry, maybe he is tired, maybe he is famous, and maybe he is just like that. His Husky is barking. The writer and performer Lesego Rampolokeng opens the door of his nice little house in Kensington. Heavy walls, big fences like all over the city. There are a few chairs and a very, very broken couch on the porch. Knowing a little of Lesego’s work and life you might come to think that this is a metaphor for his inner turmoil. Ultimately, of course, it is only a couch.

Who are you, Lesego Rampolokeng?

LESEGO RAMPOLOKENG: A person of the South. I am an an­gry person, I am angry about what I am taking, I will put this an­­ger into myself, and then move on to embrace my sister, my child, whatever. On and on, until I reach the North, hopefully.

After hesitating a bit, waving his arms around, not sure if this is the right place for our talk, Lesego asks us to please come in. His wife Bobby shows up, dis­­appears again nicely. We sit in his study. There are images of Che Guevara, Zapata, and late Mozambiquan President Samora Machel on the wall.

Why the North?

LR: Because I am in the South now, and I want to move outward spiritually.

To reach people?

LR: I have to work with the totality of my human experience, with both my mind and my heart. Whatever I touch touches me, this conversation we are having is going to affect how I communicate with other people, one way or another. It’s a part of my life.

What is there for you in the North? Our friend, the poet Prophet, said the other day, “Why should I go to London? I am here.”

LR: I am going to Scotland tomorrow, this is my world, this is my universe. I think that a child who is starving on a street ­corner in Soweto is of as much significance as a child getting his head bashed open in Palestine.

Are there children starving in So­weto?

LR: There are children starving all over the world.

But in this country?

LR: There are children starving within 500 meters of where we are sitting, on the street corner. Ask anybody if they do not know of somebody starving within their community. Why would there not be children starving here, in this supposed rainbow nation? That’s the lie of the South African miracle. The biggest diamond in the world was found in Cullinan, not very far from here. This whole city itself was built on human bones, every one of these mines has powdered ­human bones in them, there’s a whole world of tears and death.

Sarah, please tell us about the underneaths of Johannesburg.

SN: It fits nicely because of the history of gold mining. The city has a whole lot of tunnels underneath where the miners worked to extract gold, but we meant it in a psychic way as well. You have this quite powerful commodity culture and a set of surfaces, but you have a psychic underneath because of the history of colonialism and apartheid.

Santu Mofokeng, Democracy is Forever, 2004.

Santu Mofokeng, Democracy is Forever, 2004.


Around Joburg they have ridiculously high walls surrounding regular houses with barbed wire spikes on top and signs warning that you will be shot should you enter unlawfully. When you first come here the city seems like a fortress. Very scary. The highest walls are on Jan Smuts Avenue, in Parkwood, where the German Goethe Ins­titute is. One of the first things its Head of ­Cultural Programmes, Peter Anders, did was blast away the wall around the Goethe. The German walls. Nice.

It’s difficult to make sense of the city by walking, because you can’t walk most places here. It’s elusive to the outsider.

SN: One has to think of Joburg via LA, Kinshasa and Cairo. It’s a weird mixture of these. It’s a car-driven culture, but of course millions of people do walk, usually black people. You go to Yeoville and the streets are just full of people walking. In other respects we have to think about the question of the car and the question of the minibus taxi, because that’s how many people navigate the city.

“The Elusive Metropolis” – because it is so difficult to map the space perambulated by the everyday people?

SN: You can’t read British colonialism back into it. Sometimes it seems more like an American city, but not quite; sometimes it seems like an African city, but not quite. So there’s that sense, but also the strange combination of pro­xi­mity and distance between the inhabitants of the city – moments of genuine desegregation and intimacy, and then moments of distancing in the course of a single day. The history of segregation, a real push towards desegregation, and then a sense of re-segregation, not always along the lines of race, sometimes along the lines of class.

Lesego, what about the new black middle class?

LR: This is a place that presents itself as full of liberty, as a great economy, as a powerhouse across the entire African continent. Therefore, the idea of people starving would be alien to that. Now we have a government that is predominantly made up of darker than grey members, darker than grey. Do you follow me?


LR: Darker than grey means me and my parents I guess. This is provided by the Mandela myth, he’s getting knighted in London, getting honorary degrees all over the world. The World Cup was actually yet another scare designed to fool the people. Regular children who were boycotting, who were fighting against the destruction of their schools to make way for a soccer stadium, were actually taken by the police and tortured, just like in the days of apartheid.

Witwatersrand University with the Wiser building on the right.

Witwatersrand University with the Wiser building on the right.

We came post-World Cup. Still the billboards are up with Cristiano Ro­nal­do, with Bofana Bofana or Rooney. Not only because they didn’t play well, they seem to belong to another time. The World Cup has changed a lot in the city. You can see the traces everywhere. Anyway, is it possible to tell what year you live in Joburg? Is it the same year as São Paolo?

SN: This is the year of the World Cup. The World Cup is almost as big, in poli­tical history, as Mandela’s release. There is a sense that it has changed glo­bal ­perceptions of South Africa because South Africa has spoken to itself. It’s ­rediscovered something around its poten­tial as a country.


Achille Mbembe comes in, says “Hi,” and sits down. He loves football. He did a famous interview with Lilian Thu­ram and, in 2010, with all French players, but none of his teams went ­fur­ther than the first round. Les Lions In­domptables from Cameroon were he was born and raised, Les Bleus from France were he studied, and Bofana Bo­fana from South Africa where he lives now.

SN: I remember going to the Ghana vs. USA match in the Bafokeng Stadium surrounded by Ghana supporters but also by young white South Africans screaming for Ghana. If we can do this for sport, we can do this for poverty. That is the kind of political push that we’re trying to make.


Under the Group Areas Act the Pageview area was bulldozed in 1979.

SN: We are in the ruins of what emerges as the future. Joburg is much more a future city than it is a past city. In fact, what happened this year was an intonation of a future, which we’ve not yet reached, that suddenly arrived, that now we’re trying to hold on to, which is quite difficult. There’s a mix-up of time; sometimes the future arrives in the present only to recede into the future again. That’s what happened with Mandela, and it’s what happened unexpectedly with the World Cup, this leap into a completely different sense of the sign of the African.

AM: It’s like a window that’s opened into a space we imagine was there, of which you are not even aware, and the sun we see recedes into another future horizon and forces us to go after. Translated into the real, it is a certain source I have never seen before. I’ve lived in many places, but I’ve not seen it in the places I have lived. I haven’t seen it in Africa.

SN: I saw it in 1994, when Mandela became President.

AM: I wasn’t here in 1994, I was in America. That’s something I had not imagined and which emerges under a form that is totally unexpected. The planners of the World Cup planned something, which turned out better than what they had planned. How do we translate the dreams of that reality and leverage it? To what extent do the forces of ruins – ruins are forces, they are materials – and the an­achronisms of things we thought belon­ged to the past reassert themselves on the level of politics? That’s the tension and the struggle.

Was the past too potent?

AM: Not the past in and of itself. The past is a force, it’s a potent force in the sense that it doesn’t just go away naturally. Some work has to be done: cultural, social, political work. If that work is not done, the past as a force tends to reassert itself in the present and the future.

The struggle goes on: Samora Machel’s funeral in Lesego’s house.

The struggle goes on: Samora Machel’s funeral in Lesego’s house.

Maybe the past doesn’t have to go away if one redirects it as a powerful thing. Is this entanglement a problem?

SN: No, it’s a possibility. You can’t only read a place like this through the lens of difference, because if you do that you are reproducing segregation in theory as much as anything else. We need to find a vocabulary, which is also based on what is actually there. I read this city in terms of a rubric. There is a set of intimacies and connections and entanglements, even some of which were not invited, or not wanted, but are actually there. A lot of what I write in that book erupted during the World Cup – this sense of South ­Africanness that has a global aspiration. The language of entanglement has to infiltrate the language of poverty as well. It’s a question of how we think productively about what we are starting to think of as the wealth of poverty, the wealth of poor people, and what they contribute to cityness and worldliness. Poverty gets caught in the rubric of the NGOs, but this is a deeply patronizing discourse.

LR: If you drive to Alexandra, down this street, you’ll see on one side the very, very beautiful part of Johannesburg …

… Sandton.

LR: Sandton, that’s where the money is, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. White money moved to Sandton when the City of Hope seemed to be getting too black, and Sandton is across from one of the worst human settlements you will ever encounter in your life, in Alexandra.

SN: The way to understand Joburg is to juxtapose Hillbrow with Sandton. Sandton is really the financial capital of the continent, and ironically it’s upper-middle class but extremely racially mixed. Whereas places like Hillbrow are almost all inter-African. Very few white people are living there at the moment. Hillbrow has a long history of being desegregated. Even in the 1970s and 1980s it was a mixed neighborhood: a lot of Eastern ­Europeans, a lot of mixed-race marria­ges. As a teenager I used to hang out in Hillbrow as a respite from the rest of the city.

The Ponte Tower is in Hillbrow.

SN: Yeah, it’s amazing. That tower has become a key figure for artists and nove­lists. It’s there in contemporary photo­graphy, it’s there on book covers, it has completely captured people’s imaginations as this weird mix of hospitality and xenophobia and this cauldron of Afropolitan urbanism, which is also at times extremely dangerous, extremely vicious. At other times there is this sense of embrace, of Africanness.

Ponte Tower in Hillbrow.

Ponte Tower in Hillbrow.


One day our friend Prophet takes us to the Ponte Tower. We park right in front of it – thumbs-up. No thumbs-up with security. They won’t let us in without an appointment. Prophet speaks Zulu with the guy. Mikhail Subotzky tells us later that the new manager hates artists and photographers and tourists. It seems that ever since the World Cup, the only chance to get in is to pretend that one is interested in renting a flat. Mikhail Subotzky is a young Magnum photographer who did a great project in the Ponte – a picture of the view from each apartment window, one from each door, and one of each TV set, all placed side by side in huge light boxes. He also made “Lift Portraits” there. The power of the metaphor. Metaphors seem so prevalent in South Africa.

Is your whole attempt to create who you are in opposition to the metaphor?

LR: I don’t speak from an anti-position, I’m not black because you’re white, I refuse to see myself like that. I don’t exist in opposition, I don’t love race, I don’t spring out of a collision of race. Race was a ready-made excuse that was imposed to put me down. In other places, people go and oppress other people on the basis of religion, on the basis of language. These people look similar. In South Africa, the economic and political exploitation of people who look like me is based on this ready-made conception of race. If I can label you non-white then I can oppress you, because I can take away the title and say, coochi coochi coochi. The flipside of it is that we have liberation theology, but then again I’m tired of constantly having to pull black symbols and black images out of my ass in order to pull down some white supremacist idea.

Prophet JD in front of Constitution Hill.

Prophet JD in front of Constitution Hill.

“Like every colonial town,” writes ­Achille Mbembe, Johannesburg “found it hard to resist the temptation of mimicry, that is, of imagining itself as an English town and becoming a pale re­flection of forms born elsewhere.” There is a pool at our hotel in Melville that looks Moroccan, there are heads of antelopes hanging above wooden tables, there are columns and pillars everywhere, there is a pheasant in a cage. A Room With A View, it is called. Every day we drive from Melville to Arts on Main. We have a TomTom in the car. “Turn left after one hundred meters. Turn left.” Another narrative. Arts on Main is in CBD, in the Central Business District. Dangerous to walk alone, dangerous to walk. This is what everybody tells us. When we got the rental car they told us to keep the locks down. Okay.

In the beginning you don’t pay attention to red stoplights because it seems dangerous. That locks-down thing is another narrative. We stay in the car, watching the black people standing, walking, hurrying, selling, looking. After a few days we go out of the car. We watch our backs, but we go out. Prophet takes us through Hillbrow. We spot some white students on the street and Prophet tells us that during the World Cup many whites were just walking around here, sometimes by accident, and nothing happened. Only the whites would tell you that it is dangerous. “But who are the criminals?” The area looks cool. Nice and sunny. A lot of people on the streets. Yet another completely different side of the city. Nothing like CBD, Melville or Randburg. “Who are the criminals?” We head for Constitution Hill, the former apartheid prison, now a museum with the new Constitutional Court at its center.

Sometimes we get the feeling that something has happened already. It’s more like we are in this post-apocalyptic South Africa.

SN: The story goes like this: as soon as you get rid of apartheid, AIDS rises. As AIDS rises, crime rises, at least in a particular kind of journalistic imagination, and that becomes the story. The events of 1994 were massive, and so some of us now are talking about the wreckages of utopia – that we’re living in an aftermath, and how that’s a very productive place to be. We live in the aftermath of Third-World­ism, post-independence Africa, and post-apartheid. Huge stories which all, in some ways, failed. It’s this sense of living in the ruins of those big ideas where you’re finding fragments of the future.

JG Ballard, District 9 and Rem Koolhaas come to mind. Projected narratives onto African cities.

SN: Look, Rem Koolhaas’ intervention was interesting, but it was largely from a helicopter. He looks at Lagos, sees in­formality and says, “This is the future!” For me it’s slightly different because I’m African, even though I look European.

Between Alexandra and Sandton, post World Cup.

Between Alexandra and Sandton, post World Cup.

Sarah told us to go to Soweto and have a look at the Maponya shopping mall in order to better understand this country. We head out to Soweto, we keep our doors locked, we look for despair and poverty, we see fences everywhere, we greet the first shacks with solemn recognition. There is a huge soccer ball somewhere in the distance. There are two towers of a power plant painted in colors. There is the Maponya mall, which looks just like every other mall between here and Mississippi. What we expected was a sort of appropriation thing, the “blacks” taking over this “white” space. Yes, yes, that’s what we expected.

The reality is a huge elephant: French-speaking parking guys from Cameroon and the prosperous chill and boredom of any middle class, anywhere. We ask our TomTom for further “points of interest” and the machine leads us to the Walter Sisulu Memorial and to Freedom Square, where a vegetable market is built into the concrete structure of the place. It is a huge overwhelming socialist wideness. On our way back the sun is setting and turns even the most dismal of settlements filled by immigrants from Zimbabwe or Mozambique into a red glowing light of African beauty.


LR: In 1977 Steve Biko died, by 1979 we had reached the height of the black consciousness movement. That’s why I wrote a book about this stream of black unconsciousness. I am trying to look at how we lost all that was sold out of black consciousness. One of the ways in which information was disseminated culturally back then was poetry, especially the ­poetry of Ingoapele Madingoane. His poem, Africa My Beginning, was the anthem of black consciousness. We saw ­our struggle as not being about South Africa, but enclosing the entire African continent. In this poem Madingoane says that Namibia is not lost, Nujoma is not idle, he’d be a coward if he was, right?

He is talking about the border war with Namibia and Angola.

LR: First of all, Namibia was a province. I don’t even want to call it a colonial ­corner of the South, it is a province of the South. There are many lions there. The South African defense suffered the worst embarrassment, in Cuito Cuana­vale in Angola, their sons died there in huge numbers. This ultimately led to the dismantling of the regime, it was the severest blow to South Africa.

Santu Mofokeng, Winter in Tembisa, 1989.

Santu Mofokeng, Winter in Tembisa, 1989.

Cuito Cuanavale became a metaphor. Jo Ractliffe is an artist who mentions ­Cuito Cuanavale when talking about the ­photos she takes. Jo goes back to Angola to make photos of the battlefields, or the locations where the battles were happening. These images are meditations without transcendental relief. They are about absence, about that which isn’t. They are empty and full of ghosts. Jo travels the desert with the soldiers who fought there to reach strange monuments for the dead. She finds hidden camps that the South ­African army did not find then. She wants to see how this all resonates. Violence. War.

On one trip she went with Jan Breytenbach, who was an officer and built up the South African special forces. He is also the brother of the writer Breyten Breytenbach whom we wanted to interview about 1980 and 1981. He wrote back an e-mail: “Thank you for contacting me about this very interesting project. Unfortunately I won’t be able to assist you. In 1980 and in 1981 I was in prison – blissfully unaware of what was happening in the outside world.”

Jo Ractliffe, Bunker, Cuban base, Namibe, 2009.

Jo Ractliffe, Bunker, Cuban base, Namibe, 2009.

Can you work on narratives like a mechanic, and then change the social realities through that?

SN: I think you can. I don’t think one is involved in social engineering, but one is involved in reshaping the way people think about their lives in the very act of trying to understand those lives. The kinds of questions you ask people and the kinds of vectors via which you think about someone’s life has a shaping effect on what their life can become, as well as an articulating effect.

AM: At the very foundation of the city is the search for that thing called wealth, which was then epitomized by gold. Today’s struggles in South Africa and the struggles of tomorrow, if one can foresee these, are more and more articulated around this question of wealth and poverty. The transition to a democratic government has opened up a new frontier of accumulation, and people are fighting to be part of that new cycle of accumulation. This implies, especially for the poor, the elimination of want and the satisfaction of basic needs – a roof over one’s head, ­access to clean water – all of those basic elements that make survival possible. The idea is to take seriously these historical and present-day configurations and try to make sense of them in relation to what Sarah was saying, to urban life. The idea is not to romanticize poverty, but to articulate a complex understanding of what poverty is all about, and take – as Arjun Appadurai shows in his work on Mumbai – the capacity to aspire and the capacity to imagine as foundational to any reading of poor people’s existence.


2010We go to the Joburg Market in Rosebank, in a large parking lot, where we eat very sour and very pickled vegetables. We don’t eat all of it and later try to give the food to some of the people begging at the traffic lights. They all seem to have disappeared as we drive around with the food and with the spare Nokia that Christopher bought in Mozambique. We go to the flea market on the rooftop of the Bamboo Center. It is more of an agricultural thing, with ginger beer and dried mangos. The farmers look like they are from the 18th century. On we go, to the very lower-middle-class Panorama Market at Klip River Drive, a place where they sell fake rugby shirts and soap and DVDs and the border between black and white really blurs for the first time. We buy Bofana Bofana jackets in complimentary colors.

From there we drive to Heidelberg Road in City Deep, but give up looking for the market there when we stop at a gas station and realize that the area does not look too friendly. Instead we head for the healers’ market. We later realize that the Kwai Mai or Mai Mai market is just a few blocks from Arts on Main. The shops are in little red brick buildings. There are a few drunken guys, but we don’t feel threatened. One of the guys grabs Georg’s hand and will only let go after he gives him five Rand. One of the drunk guys will follow us to the ceremony of a Baptist congregation. The men dance on the one side, the women on the other. The men wear Zulu animal skin around the waist, jackets and white aprons on top. The women have children strapped to their backs.

SN: Poverty is always read through lack. People who do not have things. Our intuition now is to think about the resources of poor people. For instance, their ima­ginations or their capacity to improvise or their capacity to move in all sorts of original ways through the city and weave together a kind of subjectivity. Or the way in which poor people might seek care for HIV, and the degrees to which they will improvise and move through different care centers.

s-africa-card-2Is it Euro-centric, wanting to learn from their communities?

SN: We would not constitute them as a community in that sense. I find it really liberating as a counter-discourse to understand that there might be certain shared histories between people. But I really want to ask, “How do people ope­rate as individuals?” You get all these very well-meaning development programs which give people money to do collective dancing shows and develop the community, and it’s complete crap. I think a lot of Africans need somewhere quiet to really think and produce something interesting, instead of this deve­lopmentally-oriented cultural heritage stuff, which I think is deeply off-putting and deeply useless for everyone.

LR: People live in shacks, people starve to death, and just some 200 kilometers from here is the beginning of what is called The Free State, where people still get dragged behind train cars and killed in racially motivated murders, where a child was killed by a group of white racists and the police found them in the act of killing this child and they helped them toss the child’s body into a river. The narrative of the black middle class is connected to the narrative of the rainbow nation. Your question is: “Are there children starving?”

We go to a place in Melville, down the hill from our hotel, where young blacks are playing some pool. At the entrance we are checked for weapons. This is a nice place. Cool people, but not too cool. We have a gin and tonic and watch them play. Another night we go to a Portuguese place on 7th Street in Melville, order fish, and watch Bayern Munich beat Wolfsburg. Mikhail Su­botzky sits at the table next to us with a group of very bohemian friends: Indi­an, African, European-looking, probab­ly all South African.

Are people here comfortable with uncertainty?

SN: What’s interesting about cityness in Joburg are the liberating dimensions of uncertainty. I certainly know that for young women who grew up in the township, coming into the city, finding a room for themselves, and living free of family and church and community and all that, has been one of the great benefits of the end of apartheid. They can navigate their own lives in a way that their mother’s ­generation couldn’t. Of course that produces uncertainty, but the larger question is the question of freedom. How do we navigate freedom?

The uncertainty question applies to art. People search for very strict …

SN: … categories …

Trying not to be lost in a way.

SN: There is a massive debate about that, and there are artists who are wanting to crack out of that really powerfully. Ge­nerally, the younger generation would want to do that, but on the other hand, the fear of freedom is quite powerful. There is a struggle to let go of the very real benefits of the victimhood position.

AM: You had official racial segregation, a totally primitive form of white domi­nation predicated on relative forms of racial exploitation, and then one day it’s all over. They say, Okay you are free, but in order to navigate your life, you need different references. It’s like this story Plato talks about, they take the shadows for the real. It’s not simply about blacks feeling comfortable from this position of vic­tim­hood. These are also forms of de­nial, forms of nostalgia of what used to be, ­because it was so clear, everybody knew the rules, and now democracy is a huge, big mess, and nobody knows how to live in it any longer.

The artist Joachim Schönfeldt spent a night in jail in 1979 because he and his student friends, all 10 from Witwatersrand University, painted a mural against the apartheid regime in the suburb of Pageview. The area was the subject of a forced removal under the Group Areas Act. The students were charged with malicious damage to property. They had good lawyers. The mural, however, was bulldozed.

The artist Joachim Schönfeldt spent a night in jail in 1979 because he and his student friends, all 10 from Witwatersrand University, painted a mural against the apartheid regime in the suburb of Pageview. The area was the subject of a forced removal under the Group Areas Act. The students were charged with malicious damage to property. They had good lawyers. The mural, however, was bulldozed.

Everybody is giving the thumbs-up. When you ask and get an answer, thumbs-up. When you ask and don’t get any answer, thumbs-up. When you park your car and the guy who watches your car comes toward you with a neon vest and he says, ‘Hi, I’m Thomas”, “Hi, I am Nelson”, thumbs-up and five Rand. When you come back and the car is still there, thumbs-up and another five rand. Thumbs-up all along the way.

SN: The curious thing about this place is the immense proximity of intimacy, sometimes in conditions of tyranny – master and servant, prison warden and prisoner – there is an immense intimacy across race, which you don’t get very much in the rest of the continent. There’s this massive social vision around racialism, it’s in the constitution, it’s what Mandela stood for, and it also happens in cities with quite a lot of mixed-race couples. Kids are going to school to­gether. In Joburg the white kids are trying to imitate the black kids because that’s where the style is, where the glamour is. Increasingly middle-classness is shaped by blackness, not by whiteness.

LR: There was no electricity at my grandmother’s house. We would listen to what was called Radio Freedom, which was the ANC’s broadcast. I’m not buying into the ANC at all, I don’t align myself with the ANC. My mother is a member of the ANC women’s league but I don’t embrace what they embrace, I don’t celebrate what they celebrate, because I think my entire humanity has been sold out.

The Alex, Saturday Night.

The Alex, Saturday Night.

The ANC sold out black consciousness?

LR: Not just them, but as they are in power now, they have to bear most of the burden. They have created a very mythical, a very fake, a very false idea about this country and what this country is about that gets sold to the world. We have one of the world’s greatest constitutions, it talks about a bill of rights and a society that is not racist and sexist, but there is still a tiny little elite that exploits the rest of society in this country. There’s no justice. I need power to pull them down too.

You are skeptical of icons.

LR: I’m in this world to pull down symbols; I’m in this world to kill the idea of Mandela number one. I’m an iconoclast. South Africa was so precisely at the level of the Mandela image. Before the ­beginning of the 1990s, England, Germany, most of the world demonized ­Nelson Mandela as the ultimate devil ­symbol, the leader of the terrorist heart that would bring unspeakable harm upon a sect of society. He shoots Dave and Jane, that’s the truth. Flip that coin. In 1994, a few years later, out walks this Mandela image, celebrated, and it’s all false. Now it’s Sir Nelson in England, and he went along with that bullshit.

He is a symbol, and symbols are …

LR: … oppressive. Symbols are used to dehumanize, to actually pull down human masses.


Lesego Rampolokeng, the furious poet, is off to Edinburgh the next day. He will perform at the Fringe Festival. Back on Friday. His daughter comes and tells him to remember her birthday and to get her some chocolate from Scotland. Lesego’s wife produced the Bantu Ghost show. We talk about violence in the city. Seems to be the major topic. Lesego has been robbed about five times. Bobby, who is white, has never been robbed. “You have to watch your back.”

DJ Fix in the Alex.

DJ Fix in the Alex.

Lesego gives us the goodbye ritual, a shoulder bump. Ever since we were at the war photographer John Liebenberg’s house in Fairlands, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts keeps running through our heads. The record by Byrne/Eno. That’s what John’s book is called. He talks about Cuito Cuana­va­le. It all makes sense.

Sarah Nuttall told us that we have to go out.

SN: Once you get into it there are these layers and layers of stuff. The only way to manage the city is to go out three times a night to art openings and clubs. If you sit in the suburbs it’s kind of dismal.

On Saturday, there is a party in a large loft space on the top floor of Arts on Main, but instead we head with a whole bunch of people to the Alexander Theatre, Alex for short, in Braamfontein. There is a Levi’s event, an “all female line-up” it says, featuring DJ Fix Moeti, Kheti backed by BPJ, Namia Mclean, Candice Heyns and That Girl. DJ Fix is splendid, the whole place is ggggreat, great crowd, great music, great gin and tonics. “Stay sober,” says Prophet, who does not want us to get into trouble. “You have to go along with it, this is Africa,” says Mak Manaka, Prophet’s friend, who wants us to get into trouble. We go to another place, the club is much more white, but also fun. We get a little lost on our way home. The TomTom does not seem to work if you drink. No signal. On the last day the headline of the newspaper STAR asks: “Is Boere Punk racist?” We don’t know, is it?

Bye bye Superburg, we’ll be back.


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