Johannesburg is rarely spoken of with glowing praise. Modern depictions are generally of a city that is poverty-stricken and crime-ridden, defined by murder, theft, prejudice and squalour. Much of it harks back to the city’s history of sprawling urban slums which sprang up in South Africa during and before the inter-war period. With the formalisation of the apartheid system in 1948, the dismal reputation of South African townships was used to justify their widespread demolition by the state.
Yet although outsiders saw them as defined purely by suffering and deprivation, these communities were often hotbeds of literary and musical activity. Although novels like Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country were notable for depicting black urban life as plagued by alcohol abuse, prostitution and general immorality, by the late 1930s artists such as the African-American Paul Robeson, were narrating films that celebrated black city life. Africa Sings, released in 1937, promoted the apparent desire of black South Africans to embrace ‘civilisation’ and modernity, while newspaper reports from both and black and white communities extolled the virtues of the jazz, ‘native’ war dances and beer-brewing which defined life for many slum-dwelling black South Africans.
Johannesburg in particular was seen by many South African writers as akin to a ‘modern metropolis’, defined by cohesion and creativity. Examples include reports from white newspapers as early as 1926 advertising performances of “real barbaric jazz” by black miners for outside spectators. Although still laced with racism, such accounts were resoundingly positive about what they saw as ‘black’ industrial culture.
Such themes were explored in a recent talk given by Professor Vivian Bickford-Smith, a lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, and author of the upcoming book Cities and Identities in Twentieth Century South Africa. Central to his thesis is that much of the literature of the time from writers like Peter Abrahams and Can Themba had been influenced by Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. As such, novels by Abrahams like Mine Boy and Tell Freedom, along with investigative magazines like Drum were often a vehicle for reclaiming their identity as well as for protest. “The short stories, poems and articles they produced were often about stressing their individuality and humanity in a society that was denying it to them, and attempting to find some hope in the world they inhabited,” says Bickford-Smith.
This was particularly the case with the apartheid government’s conclusion to ‘the Native Question’, which was that black Africans could only be visitors to white cities – a belief leading to the formalisation of a policy of slum clearance and destruction. As Bickford-Smith describes: “Quite often there was a political purpose to the creativity; it was a way of saying, ‘We have something worth preserving; don’t look down on us and attempt to destroy our communities'. ”
It was only in the 1960s when protests against oppressive legislation such as the “Pass Laws” began escalating that black writers projected a more dystopian view of urban life. With many anti-apartheid writers being sent into exile, places like Johannesburg, Sophiatown and Sharpeville were seen through a more overtly political lens, depicted increasingly as places of misery and oppression.
Bickford-Smith also claims that for many years white South African writers refused to engage with urban South African life. Seminal works like Themba’s The Will to Die were often not widely available until the 1970s and ‘80s, ensuring white audiences especially were unexposed to the dynamism at the heart of slum literary communities.
The negative view still held of many South African townships makes it all the more important to recognise the nuanced histories of places often denigrated and derided by outsiders. In South Africa, the perception of areas dominated by blacks as being savage, squalid and chaotic went beyond the political. But poverty led to an assertion of identity among black writers that was bold, fruitful and inspiring beyond its lack of recognition.