Anette Horn – Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with Keys. Joburg & what-what

Nr. 18    Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Johannesburg in Literature

Reimagining the Post-Apartheid city:
Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with Keys. Joburg & what-what

Anette Horn (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa) [BIO]

Email: Anette Horn: or

 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication


MonganeWally Serote’s poem City Johannesburgcould be read as an exemplary depiction of the African city under Apartheid which formed the centre of economic power that was mainly wielded by white mining magnates. Its centre was situated in the city centre with the stock exchange in Diagonal Street being its financial hub. Since the end of Apartheid, however, there has been an inversion of centre and periphery, as the stock exchange moved to an exclusive, almost entirely white suburb on the outskirts of town in Sandton, while the city centre was increasingly occupied by poor Africans and migrants who turned the inner city into a no-go area for whites, because it was seen to be beset by crime and grime.

With the end of Apartheid, the grand narrative of black versus white or the Apartheid regime against the anti-apartheid struggle also becamefrayed, as many different narratives emerged that form a labyrinth, through which each individual has to navigate his/her own way in order to find a form of survival that defies easy categorization.  Thus a number of subjective perspectives emerge that are valid only from the point of view they have been written or spoken from and informed by the race, class and gender position of the writer/speaker.

At least the dompasfor which Serote´spoetic I´s hand in a saluteto Johannesburg “pulses to my back trouser pocket / or into my inner jacket pocket” and “my hand like a starved snake rears my pockets / for my thin, ever lean wallet, / while my stomach groans a friendly smile to hunger” which allowed black Africans entry into the city where their labor force was exploited by white bosses, disappeared with the advent of the new South Africa after the first democratic elections in 1994. Before, they were only allowed in by buses or, in Serote´sexpressive words, “l travel on your black and white and roboted roads, / Through your thick iron breath that you inhale, / At six in the morning and exhale from five noon.” Thus, these buses disgorged urban Africans to their places of work, while they were sucked out of the cities during the night. Serote laments this attempt at making blacks invisible from dawn until dusk. The city therefore does not belong to them since they are not allowed to move through it freely: “That is the time when l come to you, / When your neon flowers flaunt from your electrical wind, / That is the time when l leave you, / When your neon flowers flaunt their way through the falling darkness / On your cement trees.” The black workers returned to the squalid townships, where in the morning “I leave behind me, my love, / my comic houses and people, my dongas and my ever whirling dust, / my death, / That´s so related to me as a wink of the eye”and where on his return at night “death lurks in the dark like a blade in the flesh”, a sign of the deprivation and degradation of those even worse off than the workers and who therefore prey on them in turn. In this way, Serote gives a differentiated account of township life, something that was hidden from the view of most whites.

Yet Serote also reflects on the emotional barrenness of the Apartheid masters by focusing on their dehumanization of black workers, whom they treated as objects: “I can feel your roots, anchoringyour might, my feebleness / In my flesh, my mind, in my blood / And everything about you says it, / That, that is all you need of me. / Jo´burg City, Johannesburg, / Listen when I tell you, / There is no fun, nothing in it, / When you leave the women and men with such frozen expressions, / Expressions that have tears like furrows of soil erosion, / Jo´burg City, you are dry like death, / Jo´burg City, Johannesburg, Jo´burg City.”

Sarah Nuttall (2008, 197) compares this poem which was written in the seventies  to LesegoRampolokeng´sof the 1990´s, where he speaks of “my city”, although it is full of “Deceptions and lies” and therefore  “Dreams come here to die”, as follows: “Both poem and lyrics draw out, with equal power, the dark eroticism, the failed promise, the intimate knowledge, like the body of a lover, the drama of entanglement, the claim to belonging (“my city”), the inability of the city to be a home. While Serote attributes this relationship to the city to apartheid, Rampolokeng suggests that such a relationship persists, like ´judas,´ into the post-apartheid present.”

Ivan Vladislavic aroused literary attention after 1990 with such books as The Folly and Propaganda by Monuments that showed the possibilities of writing after apartheid.He represented a new generation of writers after André Brink, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. Following on Njabulo Ndebele´s seminal theoretical essays in his collection Rediscovery of the Ordinary,he takes as his cue the ordinary lives of South Africans from the point of view of a white middle class writer. He was born in 1957 in Pretoria to Czech immigrants.

In Portrait with Keys, he takes a sideways glance at the city. He uses the metaphor of the map as a way of navigating and communicating in the city. The map becomes necessary in the labyrinth of the city as opposed to the rural village where everyone knows each other and the stranger is a rare occurrence. S/he is therefore recognized immediately and treated with suspicion. On the other hand, “asking for directions, city people, who set great store by their independence and hard-won knowledge of the streets, who like to think that they ´know their way around´, declare their vulnerability; giving directions, they demonstrate a capacity for dealing kindly and responsibly with a life put in their hands by fate.” (12)

This skill is therefore vital for surviving in the city: “The busy city personmust rely on words and gestures to guide the stranger through a clutter of irrelevant detail, with dead ends and false turns on every side, some of which might prove disastrous to the unwary. Giving directions is a singular skill, and doing so well a reliable measure of character. We need not be judgemental: the way we live in cities today, it is possible to lead a useful, happy life without learning the names of the streets in your own neighbourhood.” (12) The routes we take tell the unique story of our lives: “It is also true that the complexity of cities, the flows of traffic across ever-changing grids, coupled with the peculiarities of physical addresses, occupations, interests and needs, produces for each one of us a particular pattern of familiar or habitual movement over the skin of the earth, which, if we could see it from a vantage point in the sky, would appear as unique as a fingerprint.” (12) Within this maze, “it is literally impossible for certain of these paths to cross, which is why acquaintances may live in the same city, meeting by appointment as often as they choose, without ever running into one another in the daily round.” (12f.) Nevertheless, “experience has taught me, and a host of writers have confirmed, that getting lost is not always a bad thing. One might even consider misdirecting a stranger for his own good.” (13)

At the end of Portrait with Keys, Vladislavic himself provides an itinerary for navigating various paths through his own fragmented and labyrinthine text. On the contents page there is a dotted line between “Point A” and “Point B”. The implication is that there are many possibilities of reaching point B, including getting lost in between. He has even used previously published texts in this patchwork of the city, thus blurring the distinction between the documentary and the fictional while confounding the reader´s expectation of the original, authorized text, even if the sources are duly stated at the back of the book. The routes are classified according to their lengths: Long, Moderate and Short. They are ordered alphabetically: Thus the cycle titled “An accidental island” which was previously published in a book on the photographer, David Goldblatt, is re-ordered, thus opening new lines of association with other fragments of the text. It is followed by the key word “Artist´s book” and contains references to cosmopolitan artists such as Esther Mahlangu, who is renowned for her bright Ndebele paintings, which she painted onto a BMW, Henion Han, GenpeiAkasegawa, Martin Kippenberger, William Kentridge and IlsePahl. (205f.)

It further contains entries on “Beggars and sellers”, “Liars and thieves”, “Walking”and “Young lives”, thus including the practice of the everyday, as Michel de Certeau put it. These key words form the entry points to Vladislavic´s labyrinthine, encyclopedic, alinear text. Yet this encyclopedia is highly subjective, informed by the writer´s own needs and interests, and therefore does not lay any claim to totality. This is evident in the relative shortness of its 211 pages.

Vladislavic observes how power is slowly reconfigured in the movement of the city´s inhabitants. Thus the division between black and white slowly erodes. He describes how the house at 22 Abermale Streethas become a marker between black and white territory: “The recent history of the house at 22 Abermale Street, strictly in Kensington, is nonetheless typical of the frontier suburb which Troyeville has become, a contested zone between inner-city suburbs like Fairview and New Doornfontein, which have evolved into black areas, and Kensington, which still holds on to its white identity.” (20) First the house is renovated by a Portuguese family with horrid tiles on the veranda and the paths, who then move out, and when the house is put up for rent after no buyer could be found, the first black tenants move in. The new tenants who put up a sticker “I don´t do crime” on their front glass door first remain indoors before moving into the garden, thenonto the kerbsidewhile theirchildren play in the street. This is frowned upon by their white neighbours, as well as by the narrator´s brother, Branko, who always complained about the empty streets in white suburbia. He obviously meant white people although he would never admit it.

The way the city lost its appeal for business is evidenced bythe rise and fall of the Carlton Centre, that was the height of chic from 1972, when it was built and painted in the then fashionable colour of orange until after the elections in 1994. Vladislavic indicates the loss of its desirability from the ease of finding parking. He met there with his brother, Branko, every second Thursday of the month for coffee. He writes: “I could chart the life and death of this great complex by the sequence of coffee shops which came to serve as our regular meeting place over the years.” But the availability of parking equally becomes an indicator of its demise: “When we first began meeting, the parkade in Main Street, opposite the hotel, was always full. You would have to wind up the spiral ramp to the fourth or fifth floor to find a bay. Little arrows and neon signs saying FULL and UP, in red and green respectively, kept you circling higher until a floor would accept you. […] Then, in the mid-nineties, the parkade began to shrink. The demand for parking fell, level by level, like a barometer of change in the city centre. The people with cars were clearly going elsewhere. You could find parking on the fourth floor now, and after a while on the third, and then always on the second or first. Finally the illuminated arrows were switched off.” (28f.) When the centre becomes too dangerous and unpleasant, resembling as it does a crime scene, the writer´s brother suggests that they move their monthly meetings to the fashionable suburbs of Rosebank or Illovo.

Ironically, Vladislavic visits the Johannesburg Art Gallery in the inner city, where an exhibition is mounted by Sophie Calleon the way East Germans remember public spaces where the signs of power of the former regime have been removed.On his way out, he is confronted by a street child who washes his face in a basin of the toilet of the gallery with a ream of toilet paper. Thus, the genteel world of art has been adopted in a way it was not meant to: “On my left, set into the curved wall that discreetly screens the toilets from the exhibition space, is a concrete ledge, and happening to glance down as I pass it, I see a grubby white sneaker sticking out. I bend down and look under the ledge. There is an oddly shaped recess I would never have noticed. Two small boys are crammed into it. They smell of wood smoke and sweat. They draw in their legs and look at me with wide eyes.” (31) The narrator is unsure whether he should call the security guard or “let them have a warm bed for the night”. He remains ambivalent like a “true art lover”, he observes wryly, as the guard locks the door behind him as he leaves the parking lot. The question is how one could capture this irony in art as it makes a mockery both of the concern with security and marks the fine line between art and the harsh reality it masks.There is also the irony of a far removed country with its own problems that mirror those of South Africa on an abstract level and the inability to deal with the present right at one´s feet. This irony and ambiguity has become a marker of post-apartheid writing, however, with its emphasis on the ordinary which is by definition open-ended.

Crime, which has been cited by many white South Africans as their main reason for leaving the country, plays a central role in Portrait with Keys. It appears under the key words in the index as “Security” (to which its opposite “insecurity” refers back to), as well as in “Safe and sound” and the dreaded “City centre” that is avoided like a war-zone by most white South Africans. As Vladislavicchecked the details of his novel The restless supermarket which is set in Hillbrowduring the apartheid years retrospectively, he passes “the ghosts of cafés, the Pigalle and the Zürich, the Café Wien and the Café de Paris”. (37) The names of the cafés evoke an European cosmopolitanism transposed onto Africa and invoking them again could be seen as a form of white nostalgia and melancholia. This shows the ambivalence of the post-apartheid white writer who never supportedAfrikaaner Nationalism but nevertheless benefitted from the security it afforded him. In this way race still plays an important role in the social imaginary even twelve years after apartheid has been abolished.Portrait with Keys was published in 2006.

The narrator´s friend, the historian Dave, who sees time in eons, understands crime as the form of survival of the hunter-gatherer, which is on the ascendance or has just been repressed in Africa: “In fact, African cities everywhere are filled with roamers, intent on survival, plucking what they can take at the roadside. When people steal the wheels off our cars at night, or scale our walls and make off with the garden furniture, or uproot plants on the embankments beside the freeway, and we raise a hue and cry about law and order and respect for property rights, it´s like the Khoikhoi accusing the San of stealing their cattle.” (38) The “we” from whose position is spoken here, is the white middle class South African who sees his property being misappropriated by the Other. In the new South Africa, the white South African has however become the herder or Khoikhoi who is at war with the San, a derogatory term which was used by the Khoikhoi and means cattle thieves. Dave has disingenuously deracialized the crime-problem in South Africa by turning it into a conflict between two forms of survival or different evolutionary stages: the sedentary herders and the nomadic hunter-gatherers. Although black South Africans are also affected by crime, this ironic statement about Africannesscould be seen as an indicator of the problematic nature of talking from the position of the universal “we”. It is more difficult than ever to define a South African. In this sense there is no national identity despite the nation-state which came into being in 1994. It is founded more on the constitution than on a unique South African identity.In his footnotes, however, he states that this analogy was also drawn by the journalist, John Matshikiza, in a column which he wrote for the weekly newspaper, the Mail and Guardian.This implies that the obsession with crime transcends racial division and that this analogy should be seen in an ironic light.

That Vladislavic is well aware of the racism lurking under a white civilized veneer is evidenced in his report on Martin, who uses all the racist swear words when two Africans urinate at his garden door: “In fact, he´s astonished at how easily it came to him, the repetitive, fixated language that has always sustained racism. Colonists everywhere have portrayed indigenous people as brutes unable to control their urges. But Martin is not a ´settler´. He´s a middle-class professional, a fourth-generation South African, a political liberal, a democrat. He´s not a racist – at least, he´s no more of a racist than anyone else, as he always says. He gets irritable, for good reason. He hates the mess, the clutter, the disregard for other people and their property. But he can distinguish between the unthinking behavior of an individual and the supposed disposition of a race. Now this. Kaffir? He can hardly believe this archaic language is lodged in him.” (43)

It is possible to see the ´misbehaviour´ of these blacks as a performance of their lack of civilization, however. It could be understood as the subtle subversion of the norms of the democratic rainbow nation, from which mainly middle-class whites and a few blacks benefitted while the majority of blacks is still undereducated and unemployed or employed in low-paying jobs. By performing ´uncivilized´ acts, they demonstrate their agency and thus their refusal to be ignored or become ´invisible´ in the city, just as in Serote´s poem blacks had to become invisible at night so that the whites could sleep secure in their homes.In this way they perform the ´sly civility´ of which HomiBhabha speaks.

Vladislavicwrites of his desire in the past to commemorate the house where the writer Herman Charles Bosman, whose work he admires, shot dead his stepbrother with a simple tablet that is also marked as a place of interest on a tourist map. Today, in recognition of the alarming number of murders in Johannesburg, he wishes to draw a “map that is more complete, more representative, recording every violent death on the Witwatersrand, above ground and below, by axe and blade and bullet. What a title deed to despair it would be, this map of the city of the dead, cross-stitched in black, crumpling under the weight of sorrow as you struggle to unfold it on the dining-room table”. (45)

The map is a recurrent theme in Portrait with Keys. It is intertwined with walking in the city, another thing most tourist guides advise tourists against. The way most whites travel through the city is by car. This contrasts with walking in the London of Dickens, e.g. Vladislavic states that “the way and the walker […] are always in conversation” as they move through the city. He continues that the ´long poem of walking´ is a dialogue and that Charles Dickens was one of its masters. In the Sketches by Boz, Dickens describes walking through London at night. He actually invented this city through his wanderings: “Long before he invented London, Dickens knew that cities exist primarily so that we can walk around in them.” (53) He envies Dickens the pleasure of living in a city “that collaborated enthusiastically in its own invention”. This contrasts with Johannesburg which “resists the imagination”. He asks skeptically whether he has misunderstood and the problem is that he lives “in a fiction that unravels as I grasp it?” (54) Yet this being in crisis that challenges the notion of normality defines the present African city as AbdouMaliq Simone (2004, 4) points out: “Yet the experience of crisis can be dissipated in that there is no normality to refer to, no feeling of something unraveling, even though there is also no guarantee that the community will not return to the very place from which it started.” This defies any sense that either the white or the black community is going in any particular direction.Vladislavic paints the dystopian view of a city at night that must seem to a stranger to have been struck by some calamity with the houses ticking like time-bombs behind closed curtains (a reference to the alarms and armed responses) and nobody to give directions or to avoid in “the pursuit of solitude” as it seems to be inhabited by no-one at all. This seems to be the crucial difference between Dickens´ and Vladislavic´s cities: solitude presupposes the possibility of company and vice versa. Neither is possible in Johannesburg and this makes it impossible to imagine and to write, as it is impossible to walk through it whether alone or in company.

Yet Vladislavic does walk through Troyeville, the suburb where he lives, and describes the cobbler who has found a space from which to ply his trade between the steps to a supermarket and a ramp opposite the caged man on the other side of the steps. The ´fantasy that he fails to grasp as it unravels´ is also a way of writing the city. Commenting on Vladislavic´s novel The exploded view, Sarah Nuttall(2008, 207) sees this as the point of intersection of post-apartheid texts, at least of those written from the vantage point of whites of an older generation: “The post-apartheid city itself, it would seem, is built at this very intersection, at least from the perspective of whites of an older generation.” The unraveling could be seen in the fragmented text which defies such fantastical constructs “the city of gold”. It also counters such fantasies as expressed in ´Jimmy comes to Johannesburg´ which shows the country bumpkin who has to learn the street-wise ways of the city-slicker. Most crucial to this is how to avoid crime which was already a theme in Athol Fugard´sNo Good Friday. Crime has always been a stark reality in the townships as can be observed in Serote´s reference to the ever lurking danger of “the blade in my flesh”. The criminal milieu always belonged to the city as can be seen in Baudelaire´s Les fleurs du mal and in Döblin´s Berlin Alexanderplatz. It is precisely the lack of overview of the city that makes it possible for the criminal to elude the police.

When Vladislavic is photographed by a Swedish journalist, she points out that only a janitor would have as many keys in Sweden as he does. He feels shamed by them then, “lying there like the keys to my psyche, a feeler gauge for every insecurity”. (84) Similarly he and his partner keep a monkey wrench which a burglar left behind next to the fireplace, “less as a trophy than a measure of everyday abnormality”. (95)

Vladislavic himself gives directions on how to reach a mine dump, one of the places that remind the Johannesburger of the origins of the city as a gold mining town. Yet it is also an abject place. At the mine dump, the traveller will find “a vlei full of poisoned water and a suburb cowering beneath power lines”. At the end of this fragment, he asks the readers, whether they are still with him “in this dog-eared field, collapsing from one altitude to another, dragging your ghosts through the dirty air, your train of cast-off selves, constantly discovering yourself at the centre, in the present.” (182) Here the past is contained in the present just as the layers of an onion skin, haunted and yet here. The present is interleaved with the past, just as the cycles which Vladisvlacic wrote over several years are interwoven to create a multilayered text.

Vladislavic does not romanticize the city when he calls it a frontier city, “a place of contested boundaries”. (129) “Territory must be defended or it will be lost. Today the contest is fierce and so the defences multiply. Walls replace fences, high walls replace low ones, even the highest walls acquire electrified wires and spikes.” This sounds like a paranoid society, at war with itself and its memories or history. Yet memories are not reliable witnesses to the past: ”It is the privilege of writers to invent their memories and pass them on between the covers of a book.” (187) With this observation, Vladislavic questions the idea of a primary, essential reality. This also presupposes that the writer approaches his subject in a roundabout way. He compares this with an exhibition on symbiotic gadgets, thinking of the steering wheel lock or ´Gorilla´ and sees this as a metaphor for his own procedure in the book which started on a project on street addresses,then evolved into cycles and eventually the book.

Vladislavic states that his book is indebted to writers such as Herman Charles Bosman and Lionel Abrahams who also tried to capture this “elusive metropolis” in words. Sarah Nuttall andAchilleMbembe(2008, 25) define this elusiveness thus: “Cities are subjects en fuite. They always outpace the capacity of analysts to name them … Johannesburg is an elusive metropolis because of the multiplicity of registers in which it is African (or perhaps not at all, or not enough); European (or perhaps not, or no longer), or even American (by virtue of its embeddedness in commodity exchange and its culture of consumption).” (Ibid.) What emerges from Portrait with Keys, however, is the impossibility of giving an overview of the city. Thus the black view is almost absent in that they appear either as hawkers or as tenants who inhabit the formerly white suburbs without there being any real communication with them. But this lack of a cohesive city even informed white South Africa where everyone retreated to their own private homes. Vladislavic´s account complements other post-apartheid narratives written from the view of black South Africans such as Mphe´sWelcome to our Hillbrowand other texts in a convincing aesthetic way. Subjectivity characterizes all of these post-apartheid narratives which have to be read together in order to reimagine a constantly evolving city.


  • Nuttall, Sarah and AchilleMbembe 2008, JohannesburgThe Elusive Metropolis. Durham and London: Duke University Press
  • Serote, Mongane Wally 1974, Yakhal´inkomo. Poems. Johannesburg: Renoster Books
  • Simone, AbdouMaliq Simone 2004, For the City yet to come. Changing African Life in Four Cities. Durham and London: Duke University Press
  • Vladislavic, Ivan 2006. Portrait with Keys. Joburg and what-what. Cape Town: Umuzi Books


 Inhalt | Table of Contents Nr. 18

For quotation purposes:
Anette Horn: Reimagining the Post-Apartheid city: Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with Keys. Joburg & what-what –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.

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