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Public Culture 16.3 (2004) 481-497

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Instant City

There must have been something here, where Johannesburg stands, before the gold rush, but it was never recorded in history. So Johannesburg became and remained, by default, an instant city, periodically growing and being torn down as the gold seams shifted course in one direction or another and the needs of its fickle residents changed. Beerhalls, brothels, and bioscopes rapidly outnumbered places of worship.

And speaking of places of worship—in the early days, when each cathedral was built it was granted a full block of the city's infrastructure to stand on, but Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal Republic, permitted the Jewish synagogue only half a block, arguing that Jews read only half of the Bible.

So it has always been a politically and racially charged city. It is said that Johannesburg has been built up and torn down no less than five times since it first appeared on the highveld in 1886. And each time it has reemerged even uglier than before.

It has its charms. They say that Johannesburg has the most extensive greenbelts of any city in the world—grassy parks with swimming pools and jacaranda trees. But to return to politics, we have to remind ourselves that it is only relatively recently that these beautiful amenities have been available to all its citizens, regardless of color.

Ten years after we liberated the city from its oppressive past, most of the parks have turned into brownish wilderness—particularly those around the center of the city, where the former inhabitants have abandoned their green pastures and moved on to armed townhouse complexes and shopping malls in the north. It is a [End Page 481] wealthy city indeed that can simply abandon its tallest buildings and move onward when the imminent arrival of the barbarians is announced. It is also a mark of a culture that accepts that its very existence is purely temporary and that a day will always come when it is time for the tribe to move on.

Johannesburg is an ever-changing movie that no one has quite managed to produce. It is a screenplay in progress. Like movie directors, leaders are thrown up out of the soil of the surrounding area to try to bring a sense of order to what Johannesburg is.

Of course, there was Cecil John Rhodes—who couldn't stand the place—but played his part in making it the mining town that it would later become, drawing the world to its waterless shores.

Then there was Paul Kruger, whom I have already mentioned. And in more recent times, we have had Winnie and Nelson Mandela. No one has really been able to wrestle Johannesburg into any kind of civilized order. The city remains what it is, with its own personality—here today, gone tomorrow.

For the millions who throng to it, Johannesburg is the perfect haven, all things to all people. It is a movie set with a host of superstars, starlets, heroes, villains, minor personalities, and as many extras as you could possibly want. And yet Johannesburg never quite comes together as the perfect movie, the picture you could make to turn Hollywood green. Johannesburg is an unfinished movie.

Johannesburg, the Unfinished Movie

What is tough is not to make a picture; what is tough is to make a deal.
Billy Wilder

If ever there was a town that was about making a deal, it is Johannesburg. Cape Town is known for scenic beauty: the sea, the mountains, the ever-changing sky hovering over its naked history. Pretoria has lyrical avenues of acacia trees framing its tidy business center and austere, gray-brown miles of government buildings that speak of a dedication to mind-control and other forms of order. Durban, on the Indian Ocean to the south, has the enticingly seedy air of a tropical seaport with the accompanying sense of easy-going disorder. Bloemfontein, the other great provincial capital, has yet to develop a describable identity.

But it is Johannesburg, ugly, hectic Johannesburg, which draws the energies that make the rest...


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