Nr. 18 Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften
Section | Sektion: Johannesburg in Literature
Johannesburg: city of dreams or dream city?
Kulukazi Soldati-Kahimbaara (University of Pretoria, South Africa) [BIO]
The city affects the individual and groups of people who live in it. This is evident in the transformation the six male characters of Kgebetli Moele’s novel Room 207 undergo during their stay in Hillbrow. Their interaction with the city and its people, their dreams, their trials and tribulations are documented in a candid manner. Johannesburg is depicted as cold and dangerous place. Yet, it is seductive and exciting. Survival in a place characterised by such extreme opposites proves to be more than challenging. The novel can be read as a tour de force of room 207, Hillbrow and its surrounds. The novel focuses on the lived-experience of black people in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Many aspects of city life explored include coping in squalid conditions, loss of identity, criminality, prostitution, language used and male and female relationships. What is commendable is the sensitivity with which Moele handles his material.
Can Themba, one of the Drum writers of the 1960s, in the short story entitled ‘Kwashiorkor’, describes Johannesburg as bewitching, seductive, exciting, but cruel, cold and dangerous. The relationship between the city and the individual in Themba’s story resembles that of predator and prey. Similarly, the Johannesburg described in the blurb of Kgebeti Moele’s debut novel Room 207 which is subject of this paper, sounds a warning to the individual who dares to venture into the city:
‘I tell you, walk carefully and think fast;
This is Johannesburg
That’s dream city for you. It will city-ise you, hold you,
Lovingly caress you and orgasmify you and
by the time you wake up it’s too late…’
Two dominant aspects that define Johannesburg and how it affects those who live and walk its streets in search of a dream are mirrored in the behaviour of the characters who reside in room 207 as well as in the behaviour of those who interact with them. In this paper I argue that the harshness and callousness of the city impacts on the individual who comes to it in pursuit of a dream of a better life, in an obviously negative way. It transforms the individual concerned into a selfish and callous monster who, feeling aggrieved, lashes back by behaving in ways that portray him/her as devoid of human emotions and with personal conduct and morality which know few or no boundaries. There seems to be a direct link between the rejection these individuals suffer in the city and the inhumane behaviour they adopt. Register-use is another aspect that defines the novel as Johannesburg-based.
The individual and the city
In her book Cities and Urban Cultures Deborah Stevenson (2003:93) describes cities as ‘stages for the great triumphs and tragedies of humanity – sites for the events and interactions which define the ages.’ According to her, people are drawn to the city for work, politics, pleasure, crime and conquest. Both Thembas’s short story Kwashiorkor and Moele’s novel Room 207 explore the meeting point or intersection between the individual, the group and the city. All the characters are drawn to the city by work and conquest. In both prose texts, the characters are from the rural areas and their dreams and expectations are juxtaposed with the reality of what they find in the city. In Kwashiorkor Abner Mabiletsa, a rural boy from the reserves of Pietersburg (Polokwane), dissatisfied with the tribal set-up characterised by constraints and no possibility of escape, is consequently filled with the ‘urge to rise and go out to do things, to conquer and become someone’; and he thus ‘upped and went to Johannesburg, where else? Everybody went there.’(33) This short extract sums up for the author rural people’s perceptions and expectations of Johannesburg. Undoubtedly, to rural people, Johannesburg is a place of hope, a place where dreams can come true as opposed to the rural areas which are places marked by deprivation, lack of opportunities for work and no possibilities of escaping poverty. The novel Room 207 which is set in post 1994 South Africa, also suggests that life in the rural areas has not changed much despite the change from apartheid government to democratically elected ANC government. In this novel, the six characters namely the narrator, Matome, Molamo, D’nice, Zulu-boy and Modishi, three decades later also ‘up’ and go to Johannesburg, in particular, to Wits University, but in their case, hoping to escape poverty through education. However, all these characters as well as Themba’s character, Abner soon learn that survival in Johannesburg is not guaranteed. Instead, it depends on ‘quick adjustment of the tribal boy’, who ‘has to fit himself in the vast, fast-moving, frenetic life in the big city.’ (33) They also learn that fitting in the city requires a change of identity because in the city ‘identity became so large that a man sounded ridiculous for boasting he was a Mopedi or a Mosuto or a Xhosa or a Zulu – nobody seems to care….’ (33)
Soon after entry into Wits, the institution spurns each and everyone of them in more ways than one. Firstly, it does this by constantly reminding them to pay fees when in fact they do not have the means to do so. This is evident in the following extract from the novel Room 207.
‘Your mother works as a washerwoman. Your father, at fifty-one, is on the blue card, leaving his house every morning to take refuge and comfort with his mates in the war against alcohol. If you’re lucky you have a grandparent or two and through them some pension money, which doesn’t really help with anything, but is better than nothing. Then there are seven of you. Your two older sisters, who are sitting at home with one-year computer certificates waiting for that job, which, lets be honest, isn’t coming. But what is coming is a child, whose father won’t show up, even at its first birthday party. The other two are doing grade twelve this year, and others are in grade ten and grade eight respectively. Then you get admitted to the great institution and, before even three months have passed, the last cent from the blue card is gone.’ (34)
In addition to the stress caused by the constant threats of deregistration, these students’ social lives are negatively affected by lack of money. Evidently, with no money at all, in a city in which only money matters, they are unable to enjoy student life. This culminates into a cruel as well as psychologically damaging event where a student from destitute families like themselves is crowned ‘the most unfashionable student of the year (35).’ The latter incident not only serves to exclude them from student life, but it identifies them as ‘aliens’ who do not belong to the white institution in which they pursue their education. Thus, it is not surprising that they all drop out with the exception of D’nice, who also admits that ‘when he looked back and thought about how he made it, it puzzled him (35).’ The pain and isolation felt by black students at universities such as Wits is vividly articulated in the following extract:
‘Have you ever been at university? With two pairs of black shoes (the good pair and the other pair, in which your feet act as the sole – thank God your toes are still intact), two T-shirts, two round – neck skippers, one V-neck, one vest, two pairs of underwear (that should be written off ), four pairs of jeans and four pairs of smart trousers. Not to forget about the pair of washed – every-evening socks. You have absolutely no pocket money at all, and then there is the institution itself, which keeps reminding you that you need to pay your fees or you are out. As if you were not their student at all, but were working. Four months pass with their share of peer pressure and stress. Then comes the student awards and they award you the most unfashionable student of the year or, worse still, they look at you as some kind of socially handicapped library-dweller…It gets too deep inside, into the soul, and then you start to lose a kilogram every two and a quarter days and now your well-cared for clothing hangs on you like it never was yours. Have you ever been at a tertiary institution of education and witnessed what the black students are going through?’ (35)
This lengthy extract not only paints a picture of the negative forces which collude against the characters of room 207 attaining their dream of achieving an education, but it also captures the pain, humiliation and psychological damage they suffer at this institution.
Since going back home, where poverty and deprivation are part and parcel of life, is not an option, and after the dream of escaping poverty through education dies so quickly, the author’s view of Johannesburg rings true:
‘Its dream city and here dreams die each and every second, as each and every second dreams are born.’ (19)
What is then left for them to do is to dream another dream, and that is making money. For all of them, but especially Matome and Zulu-boy, the manifestation of this dream will be the out-of-Hillbrow party they all desire which is a marker of success. However, there is a condition for the fulfilment of their next dream. They have to undergo some kind of transformation and reinvent themselves by gaining new identities. This notion of transience and fluidity of life in the city is supported by Raban (1974) in his description of the city as a place where ‘nothing is fixed, the possibilities of personal change and renewal are endless and open (57).’ In their case, as university dropouts with no jobs or money, they are forced to share a one-room space among them for shelter. In spite of the fact that six of them share the rent, they suffer numerous shutdowns by the landlord for failure to pay the rent. The main reason for the shutdowns is the excessive use of alcohol, Isando, as they call it, as a form of escape. Paul Gready’s term ‘unreal reality’ of their life in the city, is suggested by their place of abode, one room which serves as ‘the study cum dining room cum sitting room’ as well as their ‘safe haven in Hillbrow (19).’ However, the narrator’s constant reference to room 207 and their stay in it with words such ‘temporary’, ‘locker room’ and ‘long sojourn’ suggests that the room functions as a stop-over en-route to some destination.
With the need for shelter satisfied, all the characters of room 207 re-emerge this time as professional ‘hustlers’. Indeed hustling becomes the only option available to them. For example, Molamo becomes writer, director, actor, poet, comedian, producer. Matome becomes the ‘owner/manager of a recording company cum printing house cum artist, management agency owner. D’nice becomes the conductor of a philharmonic orchestra cum conductor of an adult choir cum rock album compiler. The narrator becomes a writer cum film script writer, producer, manager of a musical group etc. These changes are necessitated by the fluid milieu in which these characters find themselves as well as by the need to survive. Much of the literature in Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis by Nuttal & Mbembe (2008) has addressed the transience of Johannesburg and its people. Examples include Niq Mhlongo’s phrase ‘dog eat dog’ world in a novel by that name, Matshikiza terms it ‘an ever-changing movie that no one has quite managed to produce,’ Muponde refers to Johannesburg as ‘a place of self-making in many senses.’(250) As such, it requires those who aim to survive in it to undergo some form of metamorphosis and the characters of Room 207 rise to the occasion.
In an interview which Achille Mbembe has with Nsizwa Dlamini and Grace Khunou, which appears in Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis, Johannesburg is seen by people from the townships as ‘a different place … where one goes to make money’. Previously (during apartheid), it was viewed as a clean space, a ‘white only’ space. However, these views about the city have changed since the migration of whites to the various gated suburbs of the city in search of safety and the entry of blacks downtown. Since the change in demographics of Hillbrow, many ‘old people complain about how the city used to be clean but is now populated by hawkers and thugs.’ (242) The issue of dirty Hillbrow indeed becomes a hot topic for the narrator of the novel, Room 207, Zulu-boy and Molamo. Molamo attributes its dirty state to what he calls ‘a personal, national hate.’(88) He says, ‘we [blacks] do not like ourselves. In each and everyone of us there is no love but hate and anger (88)’. Zulu-Boy too attributes the fact that dirt has become a permanent feature of Hillbrow since the departure of whites as indicative of lack of self-love and respect for fellow blacks. Zulu-boy sums this up in the following passage:
‘How can it be that blacks were and are still cleaning this city but it is rotting today? We black people are the majority of city cleaners the world over, but we can’t clean our very own city. Why? Because a black man doesn’t have even a tiny amount of respect for another black man. Look at how clean Sandton and all the other white suburbs are and no white man cleans there, they are cleaned by our very own black people. If we all moved to Sandton today, I give us four weeks only and it will look like this.’ (91)
The point these two characters raise here is an important one indeed for it seems to suggest that black people have not only accepted their construction by apartheid as non-deserving, non-white, non-human, non-everything, but they have internalized their inferiority and lack of worth with the result that they will not keep their own surroundings clean and safe.
The question of crime in South Africa, especially in Johannesburg, is well-documented in works of both fiction and non-fiction. Gauteng in particular is fraught with high crime rate reports. This created perceptions that led to the invention of the ‘ridiculous’ stab-proof vests by some British alarmists in the run up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup games that were held in South Africa from June 11 to July 11. However, that crime is part and parcel of life in Johannesburg is beyond debate. The characters of Room 207 also suffer their fair share of crime. For example, Molamo gets shot and almost dies (due to loss of blood) when bullets are shot indiscriminately into a crowd of black people who were having fun. The narrator also becomes a victim of crime one night after having lost his mind to what he calls ‘pleasures of what the female species can offer to a man’ and consequently never realises until it is too late that he ‘was looking into a wall’, (60)a slang expression for being robbed. Although he loses his cell phone, his expensive watch, R132, his shoes as well as seventy-seven cents, and was left bleeding, his roommates are not alarmed by this incident. Instead they receive it in a way that indicates relief that it has finally happened – something that had to happen. According to Matome, the violent act against the narrator functions to legitimise his sojourn in Johannesburg. In particular, the fact that the narrator’s blood spills and in the process mixes with the soil is symbolic of an establishment of harmonious relations between the narrator and the city. Hence he says, “Welcome to Johannesburg, baba… Your blood runs in its veins as it runs in your blood.’ (70) These random acts of violence aimed at black people by fellow black people are also perceived by some of the residents of room 207 as indicative of lack of self-love and self respect on the part of the perpetrators, who also happen to be black. In spite of the senselessness of the crimes committed in Hillbrow, there is a suggestion that the author views this form of deviant behaviour as depicted in the examples above as a construction of apartheid which left young black people with no options. Indeed the relationship between the individual and the criminal appears to be amicable. This is evident in the manner in which the narrator describes the thugs who mug him as ‘poor – hungry unemployed darkie brothers of the city’ who need to ‘pay the rent’. He further offers advice to the would-be victim saying,
‘Let me advise you: these people will kill you for your own property. So next time they want your… please, give to them as fast as you can and save that life… Please don’t die paying their rent.’ (70)
The narrator’s reference to thugs with words such as ‘brothers’ and ‘people’ conveys a sympathetic attitude towards these tsotsis. This seems to suggest that while the author may not exonerate criminality he nevertheless demonstrates sensitivity and understanding of why some people may see crime as the only option for ensuring their survival in the city. Consequently, we are not surprised when we learn that Zulu-boy of Room 207 also did turn to criminal behavior at some point in his life ‘as a way of putting up with the Ices of the institution (64)’. Indeed the fact that crime is accepted (though not condoned) as part and parcel of Johannesburg life is articulated by John Matshikiza, (cited in Mbembe and Nuttal, 2008), who, like many Johannesburg city dwellers, admits that although he knows he is ‘destined to be subdued, disappointed, robbed, raped or murdered on its [Johannesburg’s] grisly streets, he ‘wouldn’t live anywhere else.’ (237)
Another group of people from the margins of society that is portrayed sympathetically and with sensitivity in the novel are the prostitutes. Prostitutes in the novel are not ‘othered’ or portrayed as the scum of society. They have names and faces and their activities are perceived as an honest attempt to earn a living in a hostile territory. The cordial relationships between the prostitutes of room 406 and most of the residents of room 207 are indicative of this.
The angels of the night all loved and worshipped Matome and Modishi, and sometimes on Sundays they would come to 207 and cook us some Sunday food acting like they were housewives and nursing us, which I didn’t like.’ (118)
In Room 207, these cordial relations between the guys of 207 and the girls of 406 culminate in Zulu-boy falling in love with one of the prostitutes, Ntombifuthi. Because of Matome and his ‘no-strangers lifestyle’, the narrator who initially hated prostitutes, later gets acquainted with these ‘city’s angels of the night’ and his changed view of them is evident in the following description:
‘they too are people, the same as you and me, and hopeful dreams. I once hated them more than you do, but I came to see they are human beings too, and so did the Zulu- boy. And then he fell deeply in love with one of them.’(66)
The portrayal of women characters in the novel in general is also ambivalent. There are numerous examples which depict women as objects as illustrated by the demeaning and disrespectful names they are called by the narrator in particular such as, the ‘female species’, ‘whore’, ‘bitch’, etc. Moreover, the common practice of the room mates to pass women around like a soccer ball also bear testimony to their treatment as sexual objects. This is evident in the following extract:
‘Lerato got naked with D’nice and to this day Modishi doesn’t know and will never know. It has passed beyond being a secret and is forgotten Then Molamo too got naked with Modishi’s Lerato, more than three times in our haven, s/he had reasons.’ (205)
The narrator too is not exempt from this behaviour. For example, when Matome refuses to have sex with Dimakatso on the grounds that ‘love is a process, [while] sex is an act. Sex ends, but love doesn’t end’, the narrator takes advantage of the situation. He triumphantly states:
‘And with that I got myself a girlfriend. First Dimakatso was Matome’s and then she was mine and we were living in the same room.’ (28)
Despite the above arguments, the women characters in Room 207 cannot be seen as victims of male exploitation and abuse. On the contrary, they are active agents who often initiate the relationships with male characters, demand sex from them and sometimes cheat on their men with their men’s room mates. A good example of this kind of a woman is Debra, the ‘streetwise’ woman from Mamelodi, who while standing and stroking her boyfriend brazenly addresses Matome loudly for all to hear and says,
‘Since the day I first saw you I have always wanted to fuck you … and you are always fucking running away, what’s wrong with you? This guy! …I want to give it to him for free, but he doesn’t fucking want it. Others have to sweat for it, but I’m giving it to you for free. Free.’ (26)
Basedi, the doctor who attends to Molamo after he was shot is another good example, who actively seeks a relationship with Molamo. For example, when she suspects Molamo is avoiding her, she confronts him by coming to room 207 without an invitation and catches Molamo in a lie, red-handed. Michelle, the young white Jewish woman D’nice meets at Wits is another fearless woman character who comes to Hillbrow and walks to room 207 unchaperoned at night to see D’nice. Indeed although the male characters in the novel do abuse women characters and often treat them as objects, the women characters are not helpless victims. Some like Lerato are the ones cheating on their boyfriends with the boyfriends’room mates. The examples of behaviour highlighted here reveal how the fluid city norms give individuals free reign to push boundaries since there are no ethical standards of morality in place for distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable behaviour. In room 207 the lack of distinction between the private and public spaces is another indicator of the fluidity of urban codes of conduct. For example, both Matome and Lerato walk around the place stark naked on the grounds that ‘There is nothing you don’t already know (108). Love-making in room 207 is another intimate act that has lost its privacy. As the narrator’s comment suggest, it not uncommon in room 207 for one ‘to wake up in the early morning because Modishi is making love to Lerato. Or, you are woken by the track “Ooh! Aah! From the album Love Anthems, as D’nice is fiddling with Miss Lebogang the best he knows how.” (108)
Register as a signifier of a ‘Johannesburger’
Another feature that distinguishes Moele’s novel as Johannesburg-based is the register it employs. Code switching and code-mixing are used a lot in Room 207. Code switching is a conversational strategy used to establish, cross or destroy group boundaries to create, evoke or change interpersonal relations with their rights and obligations. This strategy is very useful in a place like Johannesburg, a melting-pot of people with different cultures and languages. Another strategy used in the novel is code-mixing which emphasises hybridisation. Words from all sorts of languages are inserted within a sentence. Slang and tsotsi-taal are also used a lot in Room 207. All these devices make the novel a typical city novel. The following examples illustrate use of slang: ‘Titos’ makes reference to money by establishing a connection between money and the then Governor of the Reserve Bank, Tito Mboweni; ‘Choose-day’ refers to Tuesday; ‘de-stress’ refers to having sexual intercourse with emphasis placed on the sexual act as having nothing to do with love; ‘orgasmify’ conveys sexual connotations, city-ise refers to making one belong to the city; lelaenara means streetwise, etc. This special register marks downtown Johannesburg and Hillbrow by extension as special linguistic spaces identifiable by different jargon from for example, the rural areas or the suburbs of Johannesburg.
In conclusion, Moele’s novel Room 207 looks at the life of six male characters who resided in room 207 at Hillbrow in retrospect from the perspective of the first person narrator. All characters initially come to Johannesburg to pursue a dream of an education, but when this fails to happen, a new dream is born, ‘money’. The novel documents the transformation these characters undergo as they replace traditional codes of conduct associated with village with new, perverse urban codes of conduct. The novel also captures stages they undergo such as loss of identity and loss of direction for some. Sadly, only one person, Matome, manages to host the out-of –Hillbrow party they all dream of hosting to mark their exit from life characterised with squalor to a better, middle class life in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Among other things, the novel shows that life in Johannesburg is the survival of the fittest. While all the characters of room 207, eventually leave, albeit one-by-one with the narrator as the last one to leave, for many of them Johannesburg remains the city of dreams or dream city depending on whether one is awake or asleep. After Matome, D’nice moved in with his girlfriend Miss Lebogang, Modishi moved to Lerato’s apartment in Illovo and later got himself and his wife a house in Midrand, Zulu-boy died of Aids, but before he dies, he invites his room mates personally to his funeral, Molamo moved in with Tebogo in Kyalami and the narrator is the last one to leave room 207. Sadly, for him the search has been that of the ‘holy grail’. As the novel ends, he leaves for Polokwane with broken dreams. He admits:
‘My adventure in Johannesburg has ended. The vow that I took with myself, of
driving myself out of Johannesburg, has been broken. I’m still going out like I
came in: taking a taxi out.’ (233)
- Matshikiza, J. 2008. Instant City (cited in Nuttal, S. & Mbembe, A. 2008. Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
- Mhlongo, N. 2004. Dog Eat Dog. Cape Town: Kwela Books.
- Moele, K. Room 207. Cape Town: Kwela Books
- Nuttal, S. & Mbembe, A. 2008. Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
- Raban, J. 1974 (cited in Stevenson, D. 2003. Cities and urban Cultures. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
- Stevenson, D. 2003. Cities and Urban Cultures. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
- Themba, Can. Kwashiorkor (cited in Medalie, D. ed. Encounters: An Anthology of South African Short stories. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
For quotation purposes:
Kulukazi Soldati-Kahimbaara: Johannesburg: city of dreams or dream city? –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.
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