Anne Putter – Reinventing and reimagining Johannesburg in three

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

Section | Sektion: Johannesburg in Literature

Reinventing and reimagining Johannesburg in three
post-apartheid South African texts

Anne Putter (University of Johannesburg, South Africa) [BIO]


 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication

Virtual forum


There have been numerous debates centred on the ways in which contemporary (post-apartheid) South African cultural works should be read. Sarah Nuttall, in her article entitled “City Forms and Writing the ‘Now’ in South Africa”, argues that “a surprising number of cultural analyses of this now, this contemporary […] start from the assumption that not much has changed in South Africa since the end of apartheid” (2004: 731; author’s emphasis). Yet Nuttall is adamant that “much has changed” and that new theories and new ways of reading South African culture are necessary; readings that “take into account the extent of the transformations that have taken place” (2004: 731). Similarly, Liz Gunner (2003: 3) is interested in how post-apartheid changes have been translated into the realm of cultural works. In light of the above, Nuttall argues specifically about the transformation of the South African landscape, stating that “stories which explore […] places and their powers, how boundaries emerge and are articulated, spatio-political domains, what boundedness is, and how power moves from and into the land – still have to take up their place […] in a new South African political context (in Darian-Smith, Gunner & Nuttall 1996: 225). It is with this idea in mind that this paper attempts to elucidate the ways in which ‘writing the city’ offers a different lens for interpreting South African culture. This paper will focus specifically on representations of Johannesburg as a ‘gendered’ city and how such depictions reveal the shifting nature of post-apartheid, post-transitional(1) South Africa. 

It is imperative to note that most critical as well as fictional works on the subject of the city of Johannesburg tend to view the city as a space of ‘otherness’; as a space consisting only of death, fear, squalor and decay. In relation to this, Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe (2008: 32) note that there is a tendency to read the city in “the manner of the criminological” while Loren Kruger (2001: 223) states that “[c]rime and money have been persistent themes of writing about Johannesburg since the 1980s”. Nuttall and Mbembe (2008: 10) also argue that “most studies of Johannesburg have interpreted the city as nothing but the spatial embodiment of unequal economic relations and coercive and segregationist policies” and are mainly preoccupied with one obsession: “the rise, fall and reconstruction of the segregated city”, while Alan Lester (2003: 628) similarly maintains that South African written works have “traditionally conceived of South African urban spaces in terms largely of segregation and division”. Much literature on Johannesburg has therefore failed to see city form and city life in Johannesburg as an important means of representing and understanding the rise of an African cosmopolitanism, as well as representing the continual transformation taking place in the country as a whole. There is therefore, a need to envision the city aesthetically. Nuttall maintains that “[i]n contemporary literature, particularly fiction, the city emerges in an even more self-conscious way as an aesthetic, a political and an imaginary site, a vivid and explicit template for an entire array of social fears and possibilities” (in Nuttall & Mbembe 2008: 197). However, Nuttall goes on to state that although writers “have begun to work on recent novels as fruitful sites for understanding city culture, the texts’ insistent focus on the city as an idea has still to be properly explored” (in Nuttall & Mbembe 2008: 197). This paper endeavours to investigate the manner in which texts written on Johannesburg are beginning to utilise the every day life of the city as an ‘idea’; as a means of narrating transformation and expressing societal concerns and changes taking place in the country.  

This study therefore seeks to identify and consider how depictions of the city of Johannesburg are being altered and modified in contemporary South African literature. Thus, the paper will show the ways in which the texts reveal how transformation is narrated and how this changes in post-transitional South African fiction, ultimately resulting in a drastic shift from transitional to post-transitional literature. Three texts, Room 207 by Kgebetli Moele (2006), Welcome To Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe (2001) and The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavić (2001) will form the foundation of this discussion. All three texts can be said to consider the changing nature of city space and all three re-imagine, reinvent and re-interpret post-apartheid space and place in South Africa. In this paper, I focus on the representation of a ‘gendered’ city as a means of narrating transformation. In my examination of the three chosen works, I focus on a gendered reading of the city, specifically on how men and women seem to use space differently. I also focus on the ways in which Johannesburg is represented as more of a ‘masculine space’ and how the representation of this ‘masculine’ city space of Johannesburg is beginning to change and incorporate the female figure, in a less stereotypical manner, in contemporary South African texts.


The gendered city

One of the significant ways in which the three texts to be discussed depict and account for transformation taking place in South Africa is through gendered representations of the city of Johannesburg. Since most urban theorists argue that space, and specifically the built environment, is gendered (Amin & Thrift 2002; Fenster 2005; Gottdiener & Budd 2005; Irving 1993; Low & Lawrence-Zúňiga 2003; Massey 1994; McDowell 2002; Rose 2002; Saegert 1980; Scraton & Watson 1998; and Soja 2000), this discussion of city texts deals with the importance of gender and how gender has a bearing on mobility and access to resources in the city. An African feminist perspective is particularly important here in the context of South African texts since these feminists deal with the ways in which space constructs gender identities (Nnaemeka 1997: 3).

For some reason, there is a modest amount of literature based on the experience of women in the city. Of even more concern is the lack of female writers and narratives regarding the city and the lack of female artists utilising the city as the setting of, or inspiration for, narratives and other cultural works. The city and also writing about the city therefore seems to have become what M. Gottdiener and Leslie Budd (2005: 81) term “masculine space”. This could be due to the fact that during the 1920’s, the family home in the suburb, rather than the city, became the new environment for women. In other words, the suburb became “feminine space”. Theorists such as Doreen Massey (1994), Tovi Fenster (2005), Katrina Irving (1993), Susan Saegert (1980) and Sheila Scraton and Beccy Watson (1998) have recognised that the city is often linked and associated with men, while the suburbs and the home are often connected with women. Gottdiener and Budd (2005: 27) attribute this establishment of the home and suburb as “feminine space” to the shift towards the middle class and the definition of women’s roles as stay-at-home wives during the 1920’s; a stark contrast to their previous active participation in the industrial labour force. Edward Soja (2000: 240) similarly argues that urban (city) areas have traditionally been viewed as “a masculinist space, a built environment designed to control, often through violence, women’s access to the primary sites of male power”.

In terms of today, Gottdiener and Budd (2005: 28) posit that it is still possible to argue that suburban spaces such as “large supermarkets, shopping malls and the middle-class, single family home are examples of ‘feminine space’”. The city therefore seems to continue to be seen as a male-dominated site. Nuttall and Mbembe (2008: 11) also note this male domination of the city in representations of the city itself as they argue that, “[i]n literary studies, the central figure has been the newly urban black man – his alienation, the transformation of his identity, the commodification of his past in the conflicting spaces of the city”. Likewise, Kruger (2001) considers how portrayals of women in the city mostly depict women indoors. She argues that on the rare occasion when women are represented as leaving the home, walking and spending time in the city itself, they are either described as taking a risk or being in danger, or assume the roles of prostitute or tourist (Kruger 2001: 241 – 242). The female figure in the city, according to Kruger, is therefore always the outsider and “is more likely to be an object of another’s gaze – or worse – than a flâneuse or voyeuse in her own right” (Kruger 2001: 242; author’s emphasis). In the African context in particular, women in urban areas are relegated to the private sphere and are therefore excluded from the public realm (Kihato 2007: 99), which in turn demarcates the city as a male region.

In order to have an understanding of what South African city texts are doing now, it is important to have a clear sense of what has come before. With regard to past texts set in Johannesburg, written during and before apartheid, the politics of gender permeate the themes that emerge in these works. For example, works in Michael Chapman’s collection The Drum Decade. Stories from the 1950s (2001) centre on and promote stereotypical representations of women. According to Antje Rauwerda (2007: 8) and Lindsay Clowes (2001), Drum and the stories included in this magazine depict a masculine urbanity and focus mainly on representations of men and masculinity. Similarly, Nixon (1994: 29) asserts that “Drum‘s accent fell on […] the ills but also the (mostly male) thrills of city life”, while Dorothy Driver (in Darian-Smith, Gunner & Nuttall 1996: 232) argues that Drum “forg[ed] an ideology of domesticity through the aggressive demarcation of masculine and feminine spheres”. Past works as well as the texts of Alan Paton, Wally Serote and Peter Abrahams, among others, have tended to insist on representations of the city as not only a vehicle for black experience, but more specifically as a means of expression for black male experience. Although female characters are present in these texts, their characters and experiences in the city have a symbolic function rather than treating women as real characters. In other words, the presence of female characters merely serves as representations of certain ideas, such as the effect of being alienated from one’s past and traditions. For example, Megan Jones (2008: 3) states that in Abrahams’ Mine Boy (1989), the female character Leah “is nurtured more as a symbol than as a character – her strengths and weakness are schematically and externally deployed rather than internally developed”.

The above concerns continue to pervade contemporary South African city texts. Mpe and Moele’s texts still depict Johannesburg, and Hillbrow in particular, as a masculine space. This is most evident in the fact that the protagonists in all three texts are male and therefore experience and present the city to the reader from a subjective, masculine viewpoint. Room 207 appears to be the most hyper-masculine text as it is the only text that addresses even the reader as a male. This is evident in the beginning of the novel where the narrator informs the reader that “Matome loved them [women], but not the way you and I will tenderly love those members of the female species” (Moele 2006: 27). The narrator, if not the author, therefore appears to be assuming that the reader is a man. However, this can be viewed as a hetronormative assumption, but due to the misogynistic and excessive hetronormative bent of this text, it seems to be a safe assumption. This is further emphasised in the sense of camaraderie that is provided in the tone of familiarity used in the phrase “you and I” as well as in the use of the term “female species”, which emphasises a clear distinction between men and women. Moele also sets up the city as masculine, wild and dangerous in opposition to the suburb as female, tame and safe. For instance, all of the female characters in the novel either come from or reside in the suburbs: Tebogo lives in a townhouse (43); Lerato is described as “a suburb girl” (124) and “was born in the suburbs of western Johannesburg” (124); while Basedi, Michelle and Lebogang also presumably live in the suburbs as they all have to travel to Hillbrow to visit their respective boyfriends.

Furthermore, Room 207 also depicts Hillbrow as a dangerous place for women to exist in. For example, the narrator refers to D’nice’s girlfriend Michelle as a “fearless character” (39) since “she could just come to Hillbrow at night, park her car in Van der Merwe [Street] and walk herself to 207” (39). Similarly, Molamo expresses shock at Basedi’s decision to visit him at room 207 in the middle of the night: he appears to ask her, almost unbelievingly, “You are coming to Hillbrow?” (136). However, the novel also shows that it is not only men who think that Hillbrow is too dangerous for women, but also women themselves.  This is evident in Basedi’s concern over the safety of her car: “She looked back at her car as if she was checking if it was still there” (136), as well as in Tebogo’s repetition concerning her great dislike for Hillbrow: She says to Molamo that “I can’t come and live with you there because I hate it there. I hate Hillbrow” (217). The text therefore reflects the reality of Hillbrow being an unsafe place for women, a topic that is discussed in Alan Morris’ Bleakness & Light: Inner-City Transition in Hillbrow, Johannesburg (1999), a non-fictional text that details the establishment and transformation of Hillbrow from apartheid to post-apartheid times. Morris discusses how women are more vulnerable than men with regard to being victimised in the city, and how women are discouraged from living in Hillbrow precisely because of its reputation as a place of violence and crime (1999: 81 – 82 & 204). With regard to women’s fear in the city, Fran Tonkiss argues that such fear “is gendered in that it is based on feelings of vulnerability to men” (2005: 103) and maintains that this fear is spatialized and can therefore influence “how women perceive and use space in the city” (2005: 103). Underscoring women’s sense of fear in the city can therefore be seen as another means of depicting the city as ‘masculine’ space.

Women are also described in terms of responsibilities and duties to male companions in the novels. It appears that the female characters in these texts are constructed in terms of gendered spaces and are therefore described as having limited options and restricted freedom of movement in the city. This reflects Tonkiss’ assertion that “social space is tailored to conventional gender roles and sexual codes” (2005: 95). In Vladislavić’s text for example, women’s jobs and characters are depicted as being mainly preoccupied with serving the needs of men, whether this is done in the form of prostitution as “Ladies of the night” (Vladislavić 2001: 24), as the protagonist Aubrey Tearle calls them, or as organisers and keepers of harmony and order, a characteristic that Tearle keeps in high esteem. This is evident in descriptions of both Merle and Mevrouw Bonsma, two characters who frequent Tearle’s favourite Café Europa. Mevrouw Bonsma is described as organising the atmosphere of The Café Europa: “She never plays anything without good reason […] She responds to the climate in a room, and she can change it too, as easily as opening a window” (77), and also seems to especially serve Tearle’s personal needs as Tearle notices “a certain affinity between the music Mevrouw Bonsma played and the activities [he] was engaged in” (77). Merle is also described as “an organizer” (78), is capable of even “rediscovering order in the soothing congruences of chance” (86) in a game of solitaire, and is seen as a very important element in making Tearle feel secure at The Café Europa. This is evident in Tearle’s realisation that “[e]ver since Merle’s arrival, [they] (Tearle, his companion Spilkin, Mevrouw Bonsma and Merle) had settled down very comfortably” (79).

Room 207 also describes women in terms of gendered roles and duties to men. A case in point of this is provided in the instance of Tebogo and Molamo’s relationship, as it is implied that Tebogo only lives to serve Molamo. As soon as she is “summoned” (149) by Molamo, Tebogo immediately hastens to attend to his needs. Her devotion to her man as well as to family is also illustrated in the narrator’s remark that, “[i]f she [Tebogo] was busy, believe me, for Molamo it can wait – family comes first” (149). These gendered roles are also emphasised in Matome’s description of his wife, Basedi’s, purpose in life as he states that “[f]or me, she’s a golden incubator and I hope it hatches golden chicks” (200). For Matome then, Basedi is merely a vessel to carry his children.

The only other supposed option for survival available to women in the city – prostitution – is also dealt with in these texts. This is important since this reflects Meg Samuelson’s assertion that “[i]ndependent African city women ha[ve] one identity in the mind of European and African patriarchies: ‘prostitutes’” (2007: 254). AbdouMaliq Simone also argues that African urban women “were usually thought to be prostitutes” and that since the times of colonialism, “a link between female urban presence and prostitution was cemented” (2004: 27 & 173). However, Simone (2004: 173), citing Emmanuel Akyeampong (1997), points out that “prostitution” in African countries such as Ghana “was a concept that described more than the sale of sexual and domestic services – it included female assertiveness and accumulation in general”. Thus, referring to and depicting urban African women as prostitutes does not always indicate that they are sex workers. Rather, the term often points to the fact that urban women have “removed themselves from the traditional and spatial constraints usually placed on women in general” (Simone 2004: 173). African feminists on the whole articulate a concern for the absence of positive female images in African literature. Obioma Nnaemeka, for example, argues that “African women are spoken for, about, and against” (1997: 167, author’s emphasis). Depicting female characters as prostitutes in these texts can therefore be seen as just another means of ignoring or excluding a strong female presence in the urban environment. This is especially true since the so-called prostitute women in these texts rarely speak for themselves and are rather presented to the reader from other characters’ viewpoints.

In The Restless Supermarket, Tearle uses different terms, some very derogatory, to describe women who choose prostitution as a profession. He calls them “Ladies of the night” (24), “escorts”, “whores” (163), and even calls one of these women a “harlot” (24). To Tearle, these women are on the periphery of the city as they do not quite fit in. This is emphasised in the clothing that they wear as “[t]hey all seemed to be wearing foundation garments on top of their daywear” (24), differentiating them from others around them and, in turn, stressing the fact that they do not belong. Similarly, Tearle calls Spilkin’s girlfriend, Darlene, whom he thinks is an ‘escort’, “coarse” and “unrefined” (163; author’s emphasis), calling attention to the things that make her ‘other’. Most importantly however, is the impression one gets regarding Tearle’s feeling of being threatened by these women. The reader senses Tearle’s fear when, due to the fact that the “harlot” who asks Tearle to buy her a drink at the Chelsea Hotel does not leave him alone, he is ‘forced’ “to gulp [his] drink and leave” (24). This fear also becomes apparent in Tearle’s disgust in Darlene’s command of the English language: Tearle describes her as “barely literate” and one is provided with the sense that her mispronunciations of words such as “pri-horrity”, “cre-hative”, “negoti-hation and reconcili-hation” (163) threaten Tearle’s need and desire to uphold grammatical order. This therefore also indicates that women do not belong in such an ordered, masculine city because they cannot adhere to its rules. This behaviour and attitude towards women thus underscores how women’s presence in the city is greeted with hostility by men, which in effect emphasises the ‘masculine’ authoritative nature of the urban environment.

Mpe’s and Moele’s texts also deal with the description of city women as prostitutes. The characters in Moele’s text constantly refer to women as “whores” (47 & 59), “bitches” (59) and “the city’s angels of the night” (66 & 117). Moreover, the text also depicts prostitution as the only way that women can make a living in Hillbrow. This is evident in the narrator’s following lines:

Why do you think that these girls are doing this?  This is a billion-rand industry. The advertising people will tell you that sex sells. I know it sells (115).

This is also evident in the fact that many of the women whom the six roommates in the novel spend time with are prostitutes, which provides one with the deceptive and naive impression that very few women who reside in the city are not prostitutes. For example, at the out-of Hillbrow party, which the roommates host at their place, the narrator remarks that “the angels were all at room 207. They stopped doing their business just for us, stopped to come and celebrate at our out-of-Hillbrow party” (188).

While Moele’s text presents this stereotypical image of women in the city as being prostitutes, Mpe makes use of rural stereotypes of city women. These stereotypical ideas regarding city women are evident in sayings such as “everyone knew that Johannesburg women were bound to bring disasters upon any man’s life” (Mpe 2001: 44), and “[w]e know what Jo’burg women can do to a man…!” (90), as well as in the use of terms such as “loose-thighed” (43) to describe Hillbrowan women. These views concerning characteristics of women in the city are also emphasised in Refentše’s mother’s opinion of such women as she

knew that all Hillbrow women were prostitutes, who spent their nights leaning against the walls of the giant buildings in which they conducted their trade of under-waist bliss; their human thighs, pasted against the brick-work, serving as both advertisements and sexual commodities (39).  

At first glance, these representations of the stereotypical roles available to women in Hillbrow appear to highlight the limited options available to women in the city and, in this way, underscore the idea that the city is masculine territory. Yet, Mpe questions the validity of such stereotypes and, in effect, problematises the historical distinction between male and female territory. He does this by presenting such stereotypes as unfounded. For example, despite Refentše’s mother’s insistence that all women from Hillbrow are immoral sex workers, it is revealed that she “had never been to Hillbrow, nor to any part of Johannesburg” (39). Stereotypes regarding city women are also contested by indicating that most women who live in Hillbrow, and who are indeed prostitutes, are not originally born or raised in the city. This is evident in the generalisation that it is “Makwerekwere [a derogatory term used to refer to foreigners] women” who seduce men in the city and give them AIDS (3) as well as in Refentše’s argument that “few Hillbrowans […] were not originally wanderers from Tiragalong and other rural villages” (18). It should be noted that what Mpe describes here is a fact since, as Lindsay Bremner (2007) notes, “[n]inety per cent of the residents of Johannesburg’s dense inner-city areas come from elsewhere”. Moreover, Mpe also exposes, by means of his narrator, the reality that such stereotypes linked to city women are merely “stories” told with “relish” (39). These revelations therefore render such stereotypical understandings of city women as mere fabrications. This is supported by Carrol Clarkson who maintains that

[t]he ‘background beliefs’ of the community of Tiragalong are challenged to the extent that Mpe presents them as nothing more than a toxic brew of superstition and xenophobia, with little purchase on or authority over the very people they supposedly unite (2005: 454).

In revealing that such views concerning city women are simply based on untruths and ignorance, Mpe’s text thereby provides one with a glimpse into the reworkings and reimaginings of women’s roles and position in city spaces, a topic which will be discussed at greater length later in this paper.

In contrast to those who assert that the city is ‘masculine’ territory, other theorists (Fenster 2005; Low & Lawrence-Zúňiga 2003; Saegert 1980; and Scraton & Watson 1998) are becoming aware that this ‘men in the city versus women in the suburb’ dichotomy is a simplification that does not accurately describe reality as it does not account for the changing dynamics of city space as well as the ways in which people use such spaces. For example, Fenster (2005: 223) and Saegert (1980: S107) note that the changing nature of women’s lives, roles and duties as well as the changing characteristics of cities and suburbs over time has an impact on how people use and live in such spaces, while Low and Lawrence-Zúňiga (2003: 13) argue that “[h]istorical studies of gender constructions over space and time reveal variability within cultures and the complex interlinkages of gender with social, economic, and political influences”. The so-called ‘clear-cut’ representation, images and symbols associated with a ‘gendered’, masculine city space therefore becomes problematic. In relation to this, African feminists recognise that some African literary texts are beginning to depict a more realistic image of women. Flora Nwapa (in Olaniyan and Quayson 2007: 527) maintains that a few African literary texts “have tried to project an objective image of women, an image that actually reflects the reality of women’s role in the society”, while Lauretta Ngcobo (in Olaniyan and Quayson 2007:  540) argues that this reflection is necessary, stating that “[w]e [Africans] are looking for a changed portrayal of women in our books; an accurate and a just portrayal that will recognise the labour that women put into the economy of their societies”.

One way in which the texts account for the transformative nature of Johannesburg is by writing against authoritative ‘masculine’ space. Samuelson (2007) notes the manner in which Mpe, in particular, has attempted to rewrite women’s place in the city by means of ambiguity. He most notably does this by making use of the pronoun “our” in the novel’s title as well as in the narrator’s welcoming people to Hillbrow in the city of Johannesburg. By calling it “our Hillbrow” (2), Mpe immediately asserts a collective ownership for this inner-city space and its attendant vices as the word ‘our’ clearly indicates that Hillbrow is a place of equality, of shared values and beliefs, and equal communal rights. Emma Hunt (2006: 103) supports this as she maintains that Mpe’s text “celebrates the city as the site of an ideal of cultural globalization”. This ideal is that of a space of multiplicity and equality. Mpe’s Hillbrow is a global city, a city comprised of people of multiple nationalities, ethnicities and sexual orientations. This hybrid, global nature of Hillbrow is emphasised in Refentše’s assertion that “there are very few Hillbrowan’s […] who were not originally wanderers from Tiragalong and other rural villages” (18) as well as in Refilwe’s realisation that “Hillbrowans were not merely the tiny section of the population who were born and grew up in our Hillbrow, but people from all over the country, and other countries” (96).

This global nature of the city is important in terms of gender roles since, as Hunt (2006: 103) asserts, “the global city has become the key site for new power relations produced by globalization”. The accepted norm that condones masculine authority over the feminine, which still exists in most (especially African) societies, is therefore challenged in such a site. This is because, as the city becomes more ‘global’, boundaries begin to be redrawn, some are erased, while other new divisions are shaped. Nuttall and Mbembe state that new possibilities emerge in African cities as a result of globalisation and, referring to Filip de Boeck’s study (de Boeck and Plissart 2006), note that “the African city constantly undergoes the effervescent push and pull of destruction and regeneration” due to technological, economic and social advancement (2008:7). Johannesburg, as an ever increasing global city is a prime example of the above characteristics. Bremner illustrates that, due to such changes, “one of the structural conditions of the post-apartheid city is that former categories (black/white, clean/dirty, good/bad, suburb/township, order/disorder, human/inhuman, safe/dangerous) […] have been […] overturned” (2004: 459). She further maintains that this upsetting of categories indicates that “[u]rban spaces have been rendered permeable, open to infiltration, intervention and contamination” (2004: 459). Power structures (including those of gender) are therefore questioned, broken down, reformulated and re-established in such permeable city space, thereby enabling women as well as other previously subordinate groups to acquire positions of power in the city.

Saskia Sassen (1998: xxi) also argues that “the global city is a strategic site for disempowered actors because it enables them to gain presence, to emerge as subjects, even when they do not gain direct power”. Since South African women can be viewed as disempowered, due to the fact that South Africa is a country which is still very much patriarchal and notorious for violence against women(2), by means of the emergence of a global city in Mpe’s text, women are granted presence and agency. Women characters also acquire this agency in the global city of Mpe’s text because their presence in the city reformulates the meaning of urban space. This occurs as a result of challenging the gender code through their insistence on moving within spaces traditionally defined as masculine. City space therefore begins to be transformed into a site of equality; a site which includes not only black men who were previously disempowered during apartheid, but women (another silenced group during this era) as well. In this manner, gender and racial exclusions are linked and, in turn, inclusions of all previously disempowered groups in the city become qualified.

Moele’s text, although deceptively misogynistic, also appears to reconstruct and re-imagine gender power relations in the space of the city. This is achieved by providing female characters with more economic power than male characters. For example, Basedi, one of Molamo’s girlfriends is a doctor while Molamo is a self-proclaimed “hustler” (138). She also drives a car, while the reader presumes that Molamo relies on public transport or walks on foot. Molamo’s other girlfriend, Tebogo, “his lawyer woman, the sister with the money, the car and the townhouse” (43) also owns a car, which she uses to bring Molamo’s son to room 207 “to see his father who had neither a car nor a degree” (43). Similarly, one of D’nice’s earlier girlfriends, Michelle, also possesses a car (39). The fact that it is women in this text who own cars and have more economic power than men reflects the post-apartheid state of employment in South Africa in terms of more women beginning to be employed than men(3). The fact that it is women who drive in the city here and not men (which is the majority case in not only Johannesburg but South Africa in its entirety(4)), is also important since, as James Graham states, “to be a car-driver […] in post-apartheid Johannesburg is to occupy a position of privilege” and is “also an embodied spatial practice […] another way of moving, observing and being in the city, of consuming and re-imagining the ever-changing social landscape” (2007: 71 & 76; author’s emphasis). Graham (2007: 71) comes to this conclusion of driving being a privilege in Johannesburg by means of a study conducted by Mirjam Van Donk (2004), who draws on the findings of the 2001 South African census in order to reveal that in 2001, 86 percent of African men and women travelled to work or school on foot, while 62 percent of white men and women travelled by car for the same journeys. Since it is women who are granted this privilege and position of power in Room 207, as none of the male characters drive in the text, this therefore shows a re-working of the dominant “masculine city” ideal.

The texts also write against the idea of a masculine city by constructing women as prominent figures. This is achieved in Welcome To Our Hillbrow and Room 207 by means of utilising female characters’ names as chapter titles. There is a difference however, since Mpe’s text makes use of Refilwe’s name for the title of complete chapters (Chapter 4: “Refilwe” and Chapter 5: “Refilwe on the Move”), while Moele only utilises women’s names for the titles of sub-chapters. Mpe’s chapters concerning Refilwe are of immense importance in terms of empowering the female figure in the city.  This is mainly because these chapters detail Refilwe’s movement within not only Hillbrow in Johannesburg, but also her travels to and through other cities of the world such as Oxford, England where she studies. By means of her travels then, Refilwe appears to make a pathway for other women to do the same; to travel on their own in cities that have previously been deemed as male territory. Janet Wolff (1990) discusses how travel, as part of the male dominated public sphere, has traditionally been demarcated as male territory. In her essay entitled “The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity”, Wolff maintains that women do not and have not experienced the opportunities that men have had to travel. Thus, the fact that Mpe enables a female character to travel so freely around the world is an indication that a major reworking of traditions is being affected here.

This opening up of new opportunities for women is also enabled precisely because movement through and in urban spaces facilitates the creation of new ‘space’ or rather, the re-evaluation of old space in terms of new possibilities and developments. In other words, by moving within and making use of city space, women begin to acquire a heightened sense of self and independence and, in turn, claim the city as their rightful domain. Michelle Adler, in her study of Victorian women travellers’ writing, states that “the lives […] of female travellers provide an arena for exploring how women [attempt] to create ‘spaces’ for greater freedom, self-expression and adventure” and maintains that “[j]ourneys in faraway places allowed privileged women to subvert or challenge gender constructions in ways not always available to contemporaries at home” (in Darian-Smith et al 1996: 94). Therefore, Refilwe’s act of walking and journeying through city spaces can be seen as a means of reclaiming the city as women’s space, as her strong, visible presence in the so-called masculine, public, urban sphere transforms this space into one of ambiguity by challenging traditional notions of women’s subordinate status. Since flânerie is historically a male activity (Barker 2009: 156), Refilwe’s wandering through the city, as a female, also illustrates an overturning of this gendered role, and in this way provides a new impression of the city by encouraging the possibility of new social roles. Furthermore, in much urban theory (Amin & Thrift 2002; de Certeau 2000; Kruger 2001; Soja 2000; and Southall 1998), there seems to be a consensus that movement through the city and the act of one moving or walking in city spaces enables one to ‘remap’, redeem as well as create ‘new’ space. Michel de Certeau (2000: 106) in particular, discusses how the ways in which one uses space and acknowledges this right to use space permits one to re-create and re-shape spatial order. In this manner, Refilwe walks through the city as a way of reclaiming it in de Certeau’s sense. Hence, by enabling Refilwe, a female character, to travel through such city spaces, Mpe is illustrating the integration and sanctioning of women’s presence in the space of the city.

The Restless Supermarket also shows signs of incorporating and empowering female figures in the city through the character Shirlaine. The fact that Tearle seems more comfortable around this young girl than any other female character can be said to indicate a reworking of perceptions of women in the city because, since Tearle (as a male) welcomes her presence, this points towards an acceptance and inclusion of women in city space. From the first moment Tearle sees her, Shirlaine signifies something new and fresh to him. This is evident in Tearle’s descriptions of her as being “new” (245) and “improvable” (252, 267 & 279) and smelling like fresh watermelons (280). Also, although certain characteristics of hers are foreign to him – he compares her braided hair to “monkey-tails” and “cacti” (267) – , his sense of familiarity and acceptance of her is apparent in the fact that her appearance is reminiscent of certain things in his own life. This is indicated in the description of her navel as being is in the shape of Tearle’s highly valued “proofreader’s mark” (Vladislavić 2001: 267), as well as in his realisation that her hair reminds him “of some species of fern whose name [he] had forgotten” (267). It is this feeling of kinship then that introduces the impression of women as having a right to be in the city.

However, the instance that most exemplifies the incorporation and empowerment of women in the city in this text, occurs when Tearle agrees to accompany Shirlaine to the hospital. This is because this trip reveals Shirlaine’s authoritative knowledge and usage of the city space and also exposes certain changes in Tearle’s character, diminishing his sense of masculine supremacy. The time that Tearle spends with Shirlaine sees him surrendering his constant need for control as he lets Shirlaine take care of him and take the lead. This is immediately evident when Shirlaine first asks him to accompany her in the ambulance transporting Floyd (who stabs himself in the head at the goodbye bash at the Café Europa), because although Tearle is reluctant to escort Floyd, he “fe[els] [his] resolve weaken” (280) at the sight of the girl and goes with her. Tearle also seems to obey every suggestion that Shirlaine makes thereafter. When Shirlaine tells him to lie down in the ambulance, he does so (281), when she suggests that they take a walk back from the hospital, he agrees (287), and when she proposes that they get something to eat, Tearle accompanies her once again (296). It is also important to note that it is Shirlaine who leads Tearle through the city and not the other way around. For example, it is she who “propose[s] making a detour past the playground in Peter Roos Street” (291).

Shirlaine’s authority in the city is further evident in her independent and care-free attitude in the city. She seems to know all of the routes through the city, is even aware of detours, and is not afraid to walk “in the middle of the road, skipping along the dotted line as if she meant to leave her mark there” (292). Her liberated position in the urban environment is also emphasised in her confident ability to move within the city without Tearle, who on the contrary seems lost without her once she leaves him. This is evident in Shirlaine’s disappearance when they return to the Café Europa – while “she had disappeared as if [Tearle] didn’t exist” (301), Tearle is reminded of Shirlaine when looking at an “@” symbol in a Hypermeat sign and recalls being concerned about the awkwardness of saying goodbye to her, even though this farewell does not occur (301). Thus, like Refilwe’s movement through and within city spaces in Mpe’s text, the depiction of Shirlaine’s authority in navigating the city streets of Hillbrow in The Restless Supermarket, also illustrates the integration and sanctioning of women’s presence in the space of the city.

There has been a change in the ways in which South African cities have been represented in cultural works after apartheid. However, it is imperative that one recognise that much also remains the same. This tension between the emergence of the new and the constancy of the old reflects the current state of South African society. This is especially important since, due to the country’s notorious past, a complete obliteration of the concerns of former times may promote the erasure of a very important history. In support of this, critics (Ellapen 2007; James Graham 2007; Shane Graham 2008; Gunner 2003; Lester 2003; and Rastogi 2008) have noted that discourses and structures that belong to and represent the apartheid past in South Africa cannot simply be erased and forgotten but should rather inform and merge with the memory of the present. Nonetheless, from the above it becomes evident that Johannesburg, and particularly Hillbrow in this case, is beginning to be viewed as a liberating space. I have discussed how post-apartheid texts still depict the city of Johannesburg as a ‘masculine’ space, but also how they are beginning to reconstruct and re-imagine city space as a more inclusive, liberating, cosmopolitan urban environment by incorporating and empowering female characters with regard to their position and movement within the city. By placing female characters at the centre of the city in these texts, traditional meanings and roles attached to female figures in the urban environment, as well as traditional views of the city as a ‘masculine’ site begin to be problematised. As Tonkiss states, women’s presence in the public space of the city “not only unsettle[s] the dominant order of social space, but create[s] spaces of movement for themselves”, thereby enabling the modern city to “be seen as a potential site of freedom” (2005: 95).

My investigation has revealed that depicting Johannesburg as a ‘gendered’ city is one way in which transformation taking place within the country is being mapped. By rewriting and re-imagining women into the space of the city, these texts illustrate the beginnings of rewriting the city, as well as the country itself, as a more inclusive space, and in turn construct Johannesburg, and by association the entire country of South Africa, as a space of equality regardless of difference.  As Fenster (2005: 225) states, “the right to the city is […] fulfilled when the right to difference on a national basis is fulfilled too and people of different ethnicities, nationalities and gender identity can share and use the same urban spaces”. By representing the ways in which genders have equal rights to the city of Johannesburg, the texts discussed in this paper can therefore be said to open up new pathways in reading South Africa as a transformative space, altering its perception as a place of exclusion to a site of inclusion.


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1 Ronit Frenkel and Craig MacKenzie state that, “[l]inguistically the term ‘post-transitional’ indicates something occurring after a period of change” and that “[a]s a referent [the term] cannot but highlight the passage of time that has passed since South Africa’s transition into a democracy, yet it also points to the period before and after this formal transition as an unbounded period and discourse” (2010:2 & 4). 2 According to The South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS), South Africa is a conventionally patriarchal society, which is one of the factors contributing to the high level of violence committed against women in the country (2009). Similarly, other studies (Dissel & Ngubeni 2003; and Vetten 2005) have revealed that although statistics regarding abuse against women are difficult to ascertain (due to poor reportage), the incidence of violence against women is very high in South Africa.  3 Daniela Casale and Dorrit Posel (2002) maintain that the post-apartheid period in South Africa between 1995 and 1999 witnessed an increase in women’s employment. However, it should be noted that recent studies (van Klaveren, et al 2009; and Garson 2010), reveal that since the year 2000, female employment in South Africa has decreased. 4  A survey conducted by CarBlog, The Automative News Blog (2009), shows that 63% of South African drivers are male, while only 37% are female.


 Inhalt | Table of Contents Nr. 18

For quotation purposes:
Anne Putter: Reinventing and reimagining Johannesburg in three post-apartheid South African texts –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.

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