Peter Horn – Dark Johannesburg: Norman Ohler‘s Novel Stadt des Goldes

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

Section | Sektion: Johannesburg in Literature

Dark Johannesburg: Norman Ohler‘s Novel Stadt des Goldes

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

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 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication


„In jail there is no love, only barter.
Here love goes to hell, perhaps for ever, for both of us.”
„Der Mensch ist gar nicht gut,/ drum hau ihn auf den Hut.“
(Brecht: Dreigroschenoper)


The outsider has the advantage of seeing things which the local writer overlooks because of their very familiarity or because he is afraid to go there. One such place avoided is Hillbrow and Ponte City. Ponte City, originally built for well-to-do whites, is occupied by foreign Africans and by well-to-do criminals. The novel, on one level, is therefore a crime thriller about drug dealers and similar characters, and about a woman, forced into this milieu by her poverty. Ohlers continues a tradition of describing the metropolis as a criminal milieu, which in Germany has been done before by Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and Zwerenz in Die Erde ist unbewohnbar wie der Mond. However, Johannesburg cannot simply be described within the genre of the thriller. One needs to make plausible how and why people become criminals. The weakness of the novel is the attempt to be documentary, where it should be fictional, and the tendency to report criminality rather than explaining it.

“Man is a vicious animal”, wrote Joseph Conrad 1899 and concluded that this viciousness needs to be organized: “crime is a necessary condition of organized existence. Society is fundamentally criminal, – or it would not exist”.(1)  Especially vicious is the metropolis: that is a topos of German literature since Kleist’s letters from Paris(2) and Heine’s reports from London.(3) Since then the city is again and again described as a criminal milieu.(4) Ohler’s novel, on one level, is a crime thriller about drug dealers and similar characters, and about a woman, forced into this milieu by her poverty. Ohler thus continues a tradition of describing the city as a criminal milieu, which in Germany has been done before by Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and Zwerenz in Die Erde ist unbewohnbar wie der Mond, among others. However, Johannesburg cannot simply be described within the genre of the thriller.(5) Yes, the thriller, dramatizes the irruption of violence into the private sphere. Thrillers analyze human extreme situations by showing society as dark, corrupt and dangerous with enigmatic, macabre, grim or farcical humor, and use suspense, tension and excitement; their main elements are an atmosphere of menace, violence, crime and murder.(6) Nevertheless, the question needs to be asked, why the city is fundamentally “criminal” and violent.

The modernizing process, which started in Europe in the 16th century and which is not yet concluded today, led to a massive dislocation of rural populations into industrialized cities, especially in the 19th century, to horrendous exploitation of labour (including child labour), to poverty and criminality of unheard of scale. The serfdom, as it existed in the 18th century, and which has some similarity to the influx-control of the apartheid state, and the attempts of the freed serfs to make a living in the cities, were described by Bettina von Arnim in her book Das Buch gehört dem König:

You want to fetter the poor to the soil of his birth. Can he sow there or harvest? Where can he stretch out his hand for bread, where sleep? – You keep him jailed under the open sky, and damn him to serfdom, hard labour and taxes even without income. If he tries to flee, a humane state hunts him back to the place of his misery, and then you see in him a vagabond, who has arranged himself with theft and murderous robbery! And then your axe has to execute your ruling of wisdom on these hardened villains.(7)

On the one hand the individual was “freed” in this process from feudal bonds and the concomitant economic, social and ideological contexts. But this “free” individual is also deprived of all social support structures, and the freedom often does not mean more than the freedom to die of hunger. The exchange value replaced pre-capitalist and pre-modern social contexts as that which created coherence and unity.

Similar developments were introduced into African societies by the forced colonisation and industrialization by European colonial powers. Thus African cities and their inhabitants show many of the traits described by European authors about the European city of the 19th and early 20th century. Here, too, the freeing of the individual from its pre-modern contexts and the freeing of the individual led to a lack and the necessity to counterbalance this lack. At the same time the colonial powers, afraid of the revolutionary potential of these “freed” individuals, developed strategies to contain these threats to their rule. Among these essentially pre-modern models apartheid was the most successful strategy for a long time, in that it contained the “freed” African masses within a restricted domain.(8) During apartheid Johannesburg was designed as a cosmopolitan European city in Africa. When the political power went from the white minority regime to the black majority, whites fled to northern suburbs and gated communities.(9) In the context of modernisation and colonialism Mbembe and Nuttall see Johannesburg as “the premier African metropolis, the symbol par excellence of the ‘African modern’. It has been, over the last hundred years, along with São Paulo, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Seoul, and Sydney, one of the critical nodes of Southern Hemispheric capitalism and globalization.”(10) They see it shaped “in the crucible of colonialism” and as a “highly concentrated command point in the organization of the world economy” (ibid., 3). They do not see Johannesburg merely as “a spatial embodiment of unequal economic relations and coercive and segregationist policies” (ibid.10) nor do they emphasize the failing infrastructure or the spectacular architecture of decay, the ruined urbanisation, although they note it (ibid. 7). While attempting to write the African city into theory, they pay little attention to the criminal, who “moves between the surface and the underneath”, “attacking from a darker, more underneath place”, nor about the total incompetence of the municipal bureaucracy and the allegations of corruption and nepotism. Nevertheless the “spectre” of crime “hovers over the text like a shadow” (ibid. 23).

As soon as the influx control and the racial segregation ended, Ohlers notes, “with the fall of the race-wall, people from the townships streamed in their hundred thousands into the city” (8),(11) creating a class of “superfluous” men and women, people for whom the city has no use, a mass of human material ready for exploitation.(12) Ohler describes the situation of the “freed” black South African in the character of Lucy Busisiwe Tshabalala. The German reporter Roman Kraner meets her for the first time on 16th December 1992(13) On Top of Africa, the outlook platform on top of the Carlton Centre. In this moment of transition, the Central Business District just begins to open up for Africans, who before were excluded from the “white” areas of the city.(14) Lucy is still in school and has just come second in the “Miss Young Soweto” beauty competition. (9) The next day Kraner takes her to the Lost City, where the Miss World pageant is held for the first time. (10) After Kraner has returned to Germany and Lucy finishes school, desperately looking for a job in a boutique, she gets involved with a Nigerian, who brings her to a drug dealer called Umshlanga Kingsley,(15) who eventually sends her to America, where she gets incarcerated for drug smuggling.(16) The novel starts when years later in 2001 Lucy is released from jail and Kraner travels from Germany to meet her in Johannesburg. They rent the penthouse on top of the Ponte City. Lucy, who insists that the drug dealers pay her the promised $10 000.00, despite the fact that she did not succeed to deliver the drugs in America, puts herself in danger of her life. (94) Eventually she finds Umshlanga, but he does not have the money, even if he were prepared to give it to her. (108f) Roman Kraner is worried, because „Lucy had disappeared twelve hours ago and he had to search for her, that was the only thing which he had to do, now.“ He is in love with her and “Without her the penthouse was horribly empty” (90) He is determined to find Lucy, even if he has to search every flat in Ponte City (103). Lucy, who sees herself as “born to suffer”, is the puzzle which Africa has posed for Kraner. (149) Lucy’s and Roman’s stories are thrilling, frightening and nightmarish. The book reads like a puzzle to be solved, but the parts of the puzzle remain hidden until the extremely violent ending of the book (233ff). The commander gets killed by Umshlanga, who first hits the gun out of his hand and then rams his walking stick through Jeff’s eye into his brain. Kraner defends himself against Umshlanga, grabs his walking stick, breaks his knee with the walking stick, and forces Umshlanga over the rails, who then slides down the Coca-Cola advertisement to his death. Fleeing from four policemen, Kraner gets caught in a TV-Antenna on top of the Ponte City, loses his equilibrium and falls down 54 stories to his death. Only Lucy survives, finds the $15000.00, which Kraner has hidden for her, buys her own house in Pimville and opens a little shop.

The outsider has the advantage of seeing things which the local writer overlooks because of their very familiarity or because he is afraid to go some places, which are said to be too dangerous. Hardly any South African would even notice any longer the high walls, electric fences, razor wire fences or the signs of the armed response companies, (48) although Jeff the commander from the narcotics bureau says that all this security is useless, because the more elaborate the defences are, the more they attract thieves (134, 150) An example of such an illusory secure environment is Dainfern, which is advertised as a safe haven for the rich (198). One place to be avoided, because it is said to be insecure, is Hillbrow and Ponte City. When I studied in the fifties at the University of the Witwatersrand, Hillbrow was one of the suburbs, where students lived, and where protest and folk singers were at home “on the left bank of the railway”.(17) In the sixties I taught at the German School on a property in Hillbrow donated to the German community by Paul Krüger. These days I tend to go there rarely. In the late 90s Roman Kraner finds one solitary (black) student in the huge building, Seane from Mbabane in Swaziland, who studies economics at the University of the Witwatersrand. (105) Ponte City, originally built for well-to-do whites, is now occupied by well-to-do foreign African (mainly Nigerian) criminals. (38)(18) It is run down, certain staircases and lifts can no longer be used and have to constantly repaired (121), the swimming pool is a stinking hole of black brackish water and full of rubbish, the shopping centre is empty and decrepit (a familiar description of the deterioration of the South African city since 1994). When Kraner wants to rent an apartment in Ponte City, Jacques, the man in the office, which rents out these rooms, tells him “You must be focking crazy” [Thus in the German text] (52). Strangely enough, however, it is really a safe place. While many criminals are indeed living there, they want it safe and quiet, where they live. They do crime elsewhere, as one of the security guards of the building says (115).

Ohler has indicated, by inserting news paper reports (about a raid on a weapons store in Ponte City (32f), about various incidents of crime (35f, 151), about drugs mixed with rat poison (41), about the infestation of the city with rats and cockroaches (76), a shootout between a policeman and two robbers (102), the brutality of the “red ants”, when they destroy an illegal squatter camp (27f), the theft of telephone cables (232) etc.) that what he writes about is not merely fiction. That however is the real weakness of the novel: the attempt to be documentary, where it should be fictional, and the tendency to report criminality rather than explaining it. After all Kraner is a somewhat down at the heel reporter and writes for the Hustler (e.g.78).(19) The story of Lucy also suggests that it is authentic, the cited „documents“ (her letters from jail and the official documents from jail and from the psychiatric clinic (about her bipolar disorder) (64f, 169f, 173)) intimate “authenticity”. But precisely because of these “documents” the novel reads more like a newspaper report than a fictional novel, and the characters remain somewhat one-dimensional, the insights often dig no deeper than the well-known stereotypes about Johannesburg. As such, however, they offer us an opportunity to learn, how we are perceived by the outside world.

When the narrator Roman Kraner describes the Lost City in a report for Geo as a „gigantic fairy tale Africa“ (11f), he ridicules one of the Africa stereotypes: that of the lost city and the lost tribe, who mysteriously preserve African secrets, hieroglyphic magic knowledge, somewhere  in the jungle or the desert, but whose inhabitants are, of course, not “Negro” or “Bantu”. But a lot of what the novel tells us about Johannesburg is as stereotyped in its own way, even if it is entirely “realist”. Nobody will deny, for example, that criminality is a problem in South Africa,(20) and everybody who lives here probably has had a brush with crime or at least knows somebody who was a victim of crime. Ohler quotes a report in the Star that in Johannesburg there are eight car-jackings everyday (69).(21) There is no doubt that some MK veterans, and war veterans from neighboring countries, with a good military training and easy access to weapons, floating around South Africa from the various wars in the region, and now unemployed, take to crime easily. (189) On the other hand, security firms founded by Afrikaner, who during apartheid where involved in the police or the army, are said to encourage criminality to weaken the new government (191). Less than 10% of all violent crimes are ever brought to justice.(22) All this one can read daily in the newspapers. The attempts of the well-to-do to protect themselves against this anomic criminality may appear exotic in Germany, where the police cannot completely eradicate crime, but have reduced it to a level which is bearable.

And nobody will deny that some Nigerians are involved in the drug business and other criminal activities. Abdoumaliq Simone states: “The narcotics enterprises that constitute an important component of the inner-city economy are commonly seen as the purview of Ibo-dominated Nigerian networks. While this may generally be true, narcotics enterprises are by no means ethnically or nationally homogeneous.”(23) Simone argues that the drug economy has been able to entrench itself in Hillbrow and Berea because these areas have been vacated by their former residents and by government and finance. (ibid. 82)

Reading Ohler one could be of the opinion that all South Africans are drunk or under drugs (especially at weekends): “Hardly anybody in Johannesburg is arrested sober. The number of assaults increased markedly during weekends. People drunk: a nightmare for the understaffed police.“ (139) True, drug taking is a serious problem, not least because drugs are expensive and the money for drugs is mostly acquired by criminal (and often violent) means. The stolen goods often find their way to second hand dealers and pawnshops. On the third floor Roman Kraner finds the PONTE PAWNSHOP with the sign ANYTHING & EVERYTHING, the shop of Faithful from Zimbabwe. Kraner remarks in the conversation with Faithful: “that the police legalize a pawnshop in Ponte is like legalizing theft.” (107) The drug dealers and other criminals stereotypically wear thick gold chains around their neck (116). The police are not really interested in fighting crime, they only want to catch a group of drug smugglers from time to time to keep up with their “quota” and under pressure from the American Drug Enforcement Agency (141).(24) A homeless pauper even breaks into President Mbeki’s official residence (193).

Nevertheless neither Johannesburg nor South Africa can simply be described in the medium of the crime novel. Why Lucy agrees to run as a drug courier is made clear right at the beginning, when her hope to find a job in a boutique are dashed. She has to be thankful that Umshlanga looks after her. Why Ghanaians and Nigerians function as drug bosses, and whether there are any South African criminal gangs remains unclear. If one lives in a city where crime is an everyday occurrence and dominates the newspapers in its banality, one could think that crime is the only thing worth writing about in this city. If Professor Thomas Macho of the Humboldt-University in Berlin thinks, Ohler‘s book documents the reality of  Johannesburg, then one needs to say: yes, perhaps one reality of Johannesburg. Certainly the book is a racy, exciting story and reads well. That it penetrates deep into the history of South Africa after apartheid, as the Pfälzische Merkur thinks, is simply not true.

There is little about the real life of black or white South Africans in the book. Neither the groundbreaking changes which South Africans have experienced since 1990, nor the chances, which at least some had to better their lives, nor the important problems (unemployment, poverty, AIDS, lack of skills and education) are really visible in  the novel. Daily live is concerned with the fight for houses, water, electricity, which one cannot pay, school money and uniforms, badly stocked schools with often inadequately trained teachers, lack of arable land and hunger. Some of that  shortly touched in Lucy’s story about her childhood: they had no money, there was hardly anything to eat in the house. They were eating decaying offal which they got from the Early  Bird Chicken Factory, or bones from a neighbor, leftovers of dog food, Parktown prawns with pap and wild berries in the bush were people were killed. Sometimes she fainted because of hunger. (197) And Lucy’s father, who is a taxi driver, is humiliated by the taxi boss, “Keizer Chiefs”, an Albino, showing that black bosses are no better than white bosses. (217) Ohler quotes Richard Rorty: “Nothing is more important than the question of the relationship between human beings of different skin colour.” (95) However, race relations is not the only problem of post-apartheid South Africa.

What the Ohler’s novel completely leaves out, is that Johannesburg is a vibrant metropolis in terms of technology and wealth, as well as cultural practices, peopled not only by criminals, but by “artists, playwrights, craftspeople, investigative journalists, poets, writers, musicians, and civic-minded public intellectuals of all races” and that “there is no question that Johannesburg is a city that, from its origins, has symbolized novelty, exuberance, adventurism, and, to a large extent, the possibility of a kind of freedom”.(25) Mbembe points out that “Johannesburg, for many blacks who migrated there, offered a sense of cultural release, a partial state of freedom, inebriation, and ease.”(26)

The House of Love and Nervous Breakdowns (145f), designed by the famous colonial architect Herbert Baker (146), over whose entrance there was an „inflatable pink plastic heart“, (138) is probably the best chapter in this novel: it is the most imaginative part of Ohler’s novel. Kraner lives there, when life in Ponte becomes too dangerous, in the library of the previous owner of the house, with “A Military History of the Empire”, “England’s Commerce in the 19th Century”, “Sugar Trade with Africa”, and “Sophisticated Gardening”. Especially funny is the description of occupation of the house by a criminal gang of ex-MK soldiers (one would wish that things were always this peaceful) (185ff). 

Stadt des Goldes is a book about  Johannesburg: it shows some of the things which characterize this city, and it is very readable, like most of the books by Ohler. But it is neither comparable to his Berlin novel Mitte, nor to some books which were written in Johannesburg itself about Johannesburg, such as Phaswane Mpe’s  Welcome to our Hillbrow,(27) and Brooding Clouds, Triomf by Marlene van Niekerk, The Restless Supermarket and The Exploded View by Ivan Vladislavic, People like ourselves by Pamela Jooste, Room 207 by Kgebetli Moele, Sad at the Edges and My Brother’s book by Joanne Richards, People who have stolen from me by David Cohen, and Ways of Staying by Kevin Bloom.(28)



1 The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Vol. II, p.159 2 Heinrich von Kleist, Briefe 1793-1804. (= dtv Gesamtausgabe Bd.6), München 1964, 186; the city is the place of mutual „heartless“ indifference, where „treason, murdr and theft“ are „entirely negligible things“, the „news of which does not affect anybody.“: „adultery o the father with his daughter or the mother with her son are things,   dont on a eu d’exemple, and which the neighbor is not even interested to hear about.”  Cf. Peter Horn. „Fast täglich fallen Mordtaten vor.” Die Großstadt als Ort der Moderne bei Heinrich von Kleist und Heinrich Heine. Trans 17. 3.6. 3 Heinrich Heine, Sämtliche Werke. Leipzig 1914, Bd.5, 86f ; Dolf Oehler, Pariser Bilder 1 (1830–1848). Antibourgeoise Ästhetik bei Baudelaire, Daumier und Heine. Frankfurt am Main 1979, S.28f; Georg Droege, Deutsche Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte. Frankfurt am Main 1972, S.149. 4 See also E.T.A. Hoffmann, Das Fräulein von Scuderi  Poetische Werke in sechs Bänden, Berlin: Aufbau, 1963. Bd. 4, p. 175ff and Patrick Süskind, Das Parfum – Die Geschichte eines Mörders.  Zürich: Diogenes 1985. 5    Gero von Wilpert:, Lexikon der Weltliteratur. Band I: Biographisch-bibliographisches Handwörterbuch Stuttgart:Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1988. S. 319; Band II: Hauptwerke. S. 59. 6 See also 7  Bettina von Arnim: Werke und Briefe. Herausgegeben von Gustav Konrad, Bd. 1–5, Frechen: Bartmann, 1959. Bd. 3, S. 148. 8 Cf. Peter Engelmann, Einführung. Postmoderne und Dekonstruktion. Stuttgart: Reclam p.8f. 9 AbdouMaliq Simone, “People as Infrastructure. Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” In: Mbembe/Nuttall (eds), Johannesburg. The Elusive Metropolis. Durham and London: Duke University Press: 2008, 68. 10 Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall, “Introduction: Afropolis.” In: Mbembe/Nuttall (eds), Johannesburg. The Elusive Metropolis. Durham and London: Duke University Press: 2008,1 11 Norman Ohler, Stadt des Goldes. Roman. Hamburg: Rowohlt 2002. All references to this edition with the page number only. All quotations translated by me. English translation: Ponte City. 12 Achille Mbembe, “Aesthetics of Superfluity.” In: Mbembe/Nuttall (eds), Johannesburg. The Elusive Metropolis. Durham and London: Duke University Press: 2008, 41 13 „the boer holiday, which then was still a national holiday in memory of the victory against the Zulus at the Bloed River“ (8). Of course the 16th December is still a national holiday. 14 On the rise and fall of the Carlton Centre see Ivan Vladislavić, Portrait with Keys. Joburg & what-what 28f, and Anette Horn, Reimagining the Post-Apartheid city: Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with Keys. Joburg & what-what, forthcoming, in Trans. 15 I doubt whether an African from Ghana would be called Umshlanga. When asked by the police he says he is from Ghana (20). 16 A recent high profile case involves Sheryl Cwele, the wife of Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele, who is accused of sending drug mule Tessa Beegte to Brazil, where she is serving an eight-year prison sentence. The Times 11.10.2010.  Another case of drug smuggling involved fifteen members of a South African Airlines flight crew, who were arrested at Heathrow airport after cocaine worth R3,6-million (£250 000) was discovered in a bag on an overnight flight from Johannesburg. Mail & Guardian, Feb 17 2009. Cocaine is relatively freely available in South Africa: Hip-hop artist Jub Jub tested positive for morphine and cocaine after a drag race that killed four schoolchildren. Mail & Guardian, Mar 17 2010. 17 Anette Horn, Reimagining, quotes Vladislavić: “the ghosts of cafés, the Pigalle and the Zürich, the Café Wien and the Café de Paris”. (37) 18 Ohler quotes extensively from a brochure of 1973, which praises Ponte as the chic futuristic living experience in the city. Mbembe, Aesthetics of Superfluidity, 59 points out that the white population has abandoned Hillbrow, “leaving behind an infrastructure now occupied, inhabited, or used by blacks in ways sometimes radically different from its original purposes.” 19 Norman Ohler himself used to be a reporter for Die Zeit, Geo, and Der Spiegel. 20 The violent Nature of Crime in South Africa. A concept paper for the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster. Prepared by The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation 25 June 2007. The Crime Situation at National, Provincial, Area and Station Level – Assist. Comm. Chris de Kock – Head: Crime Information Analysis Centre, South African Police Services (Figures). Crime Research in South Africa. UNISA. Volume 1, Number 1 (October 2000) 21 It is interesting to note that the older crime statistics of the SAPS have been erased from the internet: e.g.;   
; the statistics for 2010 are available: see categories. htm. 22 See Jonny Steinberg, The Number, Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball 2004 about prison gangs in South Africa. 23 “People as infrastructure. Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” In: Mbembe/Nuttall (eds), Johannesburg. The Elusive Metropolis. Durham and London: Duke University Press: 2008, 81. 24 Fact sheet – cocaine use in South Africa. Fact sheet prepared by:
Alcohol & Drug Abuse Research Group. Medical Research Council. 25 Mbembe/Nuttal, Introduction: Afropolis, 25. Cf. Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk to Freedom. 1995. 26 Mbembe, Aesthetics of Superfluity, 51 27 Pietermaritzburg : University of Natal Press, 2001. 28 See Anne Putter’s contribution on Kgebetli Moele’s Room 207 (2006), Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome To Our Hillbrow (2001) and Ivan Vladislavić’s The Restless Supermarket (2001); Kulukazi Soldati-Kahimbaara „Kgebeti Moele’s Room 207„; Princess Bembe, „Caught between two worlds: Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog„; and Heather Acott, NAT NAKASA: AN AFRICAN FLANEUR; Anette Horn, Reimagining the Post-Apartheid city: Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with Keys. Joburg & what-what.


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For quotation purposes:
Peter Horn: Dark Johannesburg: Norman Ohler‘s Novel Stadt des Goldes
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.

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