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Drawing the LineToward an Aesthetics of Transitional Justice$

Carrol Clarkson

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780823254156

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823254156.001.0001

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Visible and Invisible

Visible and Invisible

What Surfaces in Three Johannesburg Novels?

(p.137) 6 Visible and Invisible
Drawing the Line

Carrol Clarkson

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter opens with a photo essay, recording a walk taken in Hillbrow with Phaswane Mpe, retracing the footsteps of the characters in his novel, Welcome to Our Hillbrow. The discussion opens onto a reflection of a phenomenology of the city, and refers to two other very different novels, also set in Johannesburg: Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf, and Ivan Vladislavic’s The Restless Supermarket. Each of the novels depicts a physical urban landscape that bears the traces of an immediate and absent past, yet in the moment of the characters’ recognition of features in the landscape that register buildings and people no longer there, the novels articulate a chiasmus of the visible and the invisible, the spatial and the temporal, drawing attention to the contingency of each cultural and political moment, challenging the reader through literary representation about what can be seen, and said, and thought.

Keywords:   Phaswane Mpe, Marlene van Niekerk, Ivan Vladislavic, Johannesburg, Hillbrow, Maurice Merleau-Ponty


When Welcome to Our Hillbrow was published in 2001, I asked my friend and the author of the novel, Phaswane Mpe, to sign my copy: “Welcome to our Heaven of fictions!” he wrote, alluding to our earlier joking conversation about the novel’s Heaven TV lounge. I was pleased with this inscription. Certainly, “our Heaven of fictions” seemed a more congenial place to be welcomed to than “our Hillbrow” at the turn of the twenty-first century. (Figure 1.)

Hillbrow, an inner-city area of Johannesburg, has undergone momentous social change in the last hundred years or so: The gold claims on this ground were first sold off as residential properties in 1895, and according to The Standard and Diggers’ News of July 25 of the same year, Hillbrow was set to become “Johannesburg’s chief and most fashionable suburb” (cited in Smith 1971, 213). In 1896, the estimated population of Hillbrow was 300 (according to the map on the dust jacket of Smith’s Johannesburg Street Names); by 1993 (p.138)

Visible and InvisibleWhat Surfaces in Three Johannesburg Novels?

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Visible and InvisibleWhat Surfaces in Three Johannesburg Novels?

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Visible and InvisibleWhat Surfaces in Three Johannesburg Novels?

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Visible and InvisibleWhat Surfaces in Three Johannesburg Novels?

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Visible and InvisibleWhat Surfaces in Three Johannesburg Novels?

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Visible and InvisibleWhat Surfaces in Three Johannesburg Novels?

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Visible and InvisibleWhat Surfaces in Three Johannesburg Novels?

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Visible and InvisibleWhat Surfaces in Three Johannesburg Novels?

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Visible and InvisibleWhat Surfaces in Three Johannesburg Novels?

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Visible and InvisibleWhat Surfaces in Three Johannesburg Novels?

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(p.146) it was approximately 30,000 (Morris 1999, 3), and by 2003 the population was estimated to be over 100,000 during the week and possibly over 200,000 during weekends (Mpe 2003, 190). These figures become more striking with the realization that Hillbrow comprises less than one square kilometer. Increasingly today, the population of Hillbrow consists of immigrants from other parts of Africa (Mpe 2003, 188).

Until 1991, when the Group Areas Act of 1950 was scrapped, Hillbrow was the legal preserve of white residents, but by 1970 people classified as Indian and Coloured had started moving into the area, and by mid-1993, approximately 85 percent of Hillbrow’s population was black. Thus, as Alan Morris points out, “Hillbrow is one of the very few neighbourhoods in South Africa that, despite the Group Areas Act, moved from being an all-white neighbourhood (in terms of the flat-dwellers) to being predominantly black” (Morris 1999, 3).

As students at Wits in the late nineteen eighties, we used to walk from the university, through Braamfontein, to browse in the record shops and book shops in Hillbrow.1 We would go to the movies and frequent the Café de Paris and the Café Zürich. Hillbrow today presents a different scene. Abdou-Maliq Simone provides a graphic firsthand account of the Hillbrow of 2004:

I have always seen violent incidents [in the stretch between Goldreich and Caroline streets]: a single shot to the head, or even an assengai [sic], a short spear, quickly thrust and removed. Crowds gather, mostly in silence, as calls are made to police officers who are in sight just a few blocks away, stopping cars in the cocaine zone.

The next block is inhabited by homeless squatters, whose cardboard edifices and stolen shopping carts line mounds of burnt ash from fires they use to cook and keep warm. There is an acrid smell and the incessant sounds of whistles and catcalls.

Simone 2004, 414

The more time I spent reading Welcome to Our Hillbrow, the more Phaswane’s inscription (“Welcome to our Heaven of fictions”) began to disturb me. The novel explicitly welcomes the reader to “the world of our Humanity” (Mpe 2001, 113), to “our All” (Mpe 2001, 104), but insistently, a readiness to be welcomed to these places is predicated on a willingness to be welcomed to our Hillbrow—that inner-city area of Johannesburg. In his essay (p.147) “Our Missing Store of Memories,” Mpe discusses a poem by Kwa Ngwenya: Hillbrow is presented as a hiding place for the “forsaken.” Mpe writes that “while the poem does not say who the forsaken are, or who has forsaken them, and under what circumstances, it is clear that Hillbrow, in its own way, provides sanctuary, and that people who do not live or stay in Hillbrow bear some responsibility for their fellow human beings, a responsibility that leads them to discover Hillbrow’s sanctuary” (Mpe 2003, 192). Increasingly, I felt that only by acknowledging Hillbrow’s “sanctuary” in person, allowing myself to be welcomed to the inner city, would I begin to do justice to the novel. “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” took on all the resonance of an ethical challenge. I felt that I did not deserve to be welcomed to, or find sanctuary in, our Heaven of fictions without taking Phaswane Mpe at his word and allowing myself to be welcomed to our Hillbrow. It became important to me to retrace, in person, the path of the central character, Refentše, as he walks from the city center through Hillbrow and along Twist Street to Vickers Place in Caroline Street. “You have some fascinating ideas!” Phaswane responded to my suggestion that he take me on a walking tour through Hill-brow. It was not safe for Phaswane and me to do this on our own—Phaswane was anticipating “more than a couple of would-be muggers.” But after some elaborate arrangements, and in high spirits, we walked in Refentše’s footsteps through Hillbrow on Sunday, March 14, 2004; Phaswane’s brother, Tamela, and another friend, Thabiso Mohlele, accompanied us.

We soon got the sensation that, in walking side by side through Hillbrow, we were animating a dynamic, holographic urban landscape. “Why are you taking a photo of Hyper Hillbrow?” Phaswane asked when I took a photo of one of the buildings. But I had not been taking a picture of Hyper Hill-brow at all—I was taking a photograph of where the Café de Paris used to be: You can still see the Eiffel towers on the balustrade of the upper level. (Figure 2.)

The art deco detailing on a balcony (Figure 3) … Twist Street (Figure 4) … an alleyway between Hillbrow and Braamfontein (Figure 5) … marimba music broadcast from the top of a building, and Tamela’s quiet lovely singing in response (Figures 6, 7, and 8) … my thoughts of Rodin’s white marble bust of Miss Fairfax in the Jo’burg Art Gallery which backs onto Edith Cavell street, where homeless people were tending to oily fires on the tar … Where were we?

“Don’t shoot without permission,” the street kids yelled out to me, hustling me off the pavement and into the road. “Ja, ja! Ba-be-las!” Thabiso (p.148) called. “You’ve been snifing too much glue!” In other places it was just too dangerous, or too painful, to take pictures at all.

There would be blind spots in the photographs.

Sipping ice-cold drinks at The Voice in Smit Street later, we couldn’t quite assimilate what we’d done, and today I’m still haunted by the echoes of Thabiso’s words when I took the final photograph, with Th abo Mbeki smiling over Phaswane’s shoulder from a distance on an election poster: “It doesn’t get much better than this.” (Figure 9.)

Phaswane Mpe died on 12 December 12, 2004. He was thirty-four. (Figure 10.)


In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty makes the following observation:

It may well seem strange that the spontaneous acts through which man has patterned his life should be deposited, like some sediment, outside himself and lead an anonymous existence as things. The civilization in which I play my part exists for me in a self-evident way in the implements with which it provides itself. If it is a question of an unknown or alien civilization, then several manners of being or of living can find their place in the ruins or the broken instruments which I discover, or in the landscape through which I roam. The cultural world is then ambiguous, but it is already present.

Merleau-Ponty 1962, 348, my emphasis

It is this complex encounter with the “sediment of things” that confronts the characters in the inaugural narrative scenes of the three contemporary South African novels I discuss in this chapter. Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf (1994), Ivan Vladislavic´’s The Restless Supermarket (2001), and Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001) are all set in the urban landscape of Johannesburg in the mid 1990s—which is to say, around the time of the country’s first democratic elections. In each novel, the things encountered in the here and now are from a time and a place, a “civilization” (to use Merleau-Ponty’s word), different from the characters’ own. Each of these novels depicts a physical urban landscape that bears the traces of an immediate and absent past, yet in the moment of recognizing features in the (p.149) landscape that register a place that is no longer there (“this used to be …”), a spatial configuration is projected onto the plane of a meaningful temporal narrative, and a substrate of the past interrupts the present surface in ways that are psychological as much as they are topographical. The novels articulate this chiasmus of the visible and the invisible, of the spatial and the temporal, drawing attention to the contingency of each cultural and political moment, challenging the reader through a literary presentation of different articulations between the past and the present, of what can be said and what can be thought. In this chapter (with reference to Merleau-Ponty and Rancière), I address the implications of this encounter with residual traces of a different cultural past in the urban landscape that is also presently “home” to the characters, if not to the readers. At the same time, I am interested in the reader’s encounter with the novel itself as a cultural object from a different time and a different place. What disturbance to the reader’s immediate and supposedly stable “here and now” does the novel efiect? What change in the margins of the reader’s exposure?

“Literary locutions,” writes Rancière,

draft maps of the visible, trajectories between the visible and the sayable, relationships between modes of being, modes of saying, and modes of doing and making. They define variations of sensible intensities, perceptions and the abilities of bodies. They thereby take hold of unspecified groups of people, they widen gaps, open up space for deviations, modify the speeds, the trajectories, and the ways in which groups of people adhere to a condition, react to situations, recognize their images.

Rancière 2004a, 11

The discussions in this chapter filter these Reflections through three “literary locutions” of Johannesburg. To what extent does the novel have the capacity to “widen gaps,” to “open up space for deviations” in accepted thinking, and to modify the images a reader may have of the city and his or her relations to others living there? My discussion of the three novels extends into the next chapter, which focuses on questions of community.

The first novel I refer to is Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf, originally written in Afrikaans and published in 1994. The Benades, the poor white Afrikaners in the novel, occupy a tenuous cultural zone. As part of the government policy of the National Party to “sanitize” the city of Johannesburg, the black people of Sophiatown were forcibly relocated to the township of (p.150) Soweto in 1955.2 The ground of Sophiatown was cleared for government-subsidized housing for poor whites and renamed “Triomf” (which means “triumph”). The Benades, themselves relocated from the multiracial slum area of Vrededorp (which means literally “Peacetown”) and now live on the ruins of the black suburb. Even though the novel is set in 1993–34, it is the memory of the scene of the February 9, 1955, focalized through Mol, a poor white Afrikaans woman, that sets the novel into narrative motion:

Mol stares at all the stuff Lambert has dug out of the earth [in their own backyard]. It’s a helluva heap. Pieces of red brick, bits of smooth drainpipe, thick chunks of old cement, and that blue gravel you see on graves. Small bits of glass and other stuff shine in the muck. Lambert has already taken out most of the shiny things—for his collection, he says. He collects the strangest things.

van Niekerk 1999, 1

Immediately following this passage is a graphic recollection of the scene of the forced removal in 1955:

A lot of their stuff got left behind. Whole dressers full of crockery. You could hear things breaking to pieces when the bulldozers moved in. Beds and enamel basins and sink baths and all kinds of stuff. All of it just smashed.

That was quite a sight.

van Niekerk 1999, 1

I consider this scene in more detail later in this chapter, but first I turn to Ivan Vladislavic´’s The Restless Supermarket. The novel is set in Hillbrow, inner-city Johannesburg, and published in 2001. For the protagonist—Aubrey Tearle, a white, English-speaking South African—the traces of an uncertain and haunting history of the place have a visible topographic presence:

One Sunday morning not too long ago, on an overgrown plot in Prospect Road, I saw a body in the weeds, under a shroud of pages from the Sunday Times. I saw it from the window of my own flat, where I stood with a carton of long-life milk in my hand, and I could almost smell the pungent scent of the kakiebos crushed by its fall. It lay among the rusted (p.151) pipes, blackened bricks and outcrops of old foundations that mark every bit of empty land in this city, as if a reef of disorder lay just below the surface, or a civilization had gone to ruin here before we ever arrived.

What do I mean by “we”? Don’t make me laugh.

Vladislavic´ 2001, 63

The characters in Triomf and in The Restless Supermarket recognize the tenuousness of their presence in the urban landscape. What is past, in that place, is buried, but the past surfaces in the residual signs of the lives of others that disturb complacent assumptions about the supposed stability of the here and now.

The sense of a dislocated present is poignantly explicit in Phaswane Mpe’s novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow. Like The Restless Supermarket, the novel is set in Hillbrow, and it was also published in 2001. But in Mpe’s text, the characters are Sepedi-speaking; they leave the place of their birth—the rural village of Tiragolong in the Northern Province—to seek their fortunes in Johannesburg. The narrator addresses the protagonist, Refentše: “Your first entry into Hillbrow, Refentše, was the culmination of many converging routes. You do not remember where the first route began. But you know all too well that the stories of migrants had a lot to do with its formation” (Mpe 2001, 2).

This passage in Mpe’s novel seems to resonate with a leading idea in Merleau-Ponty: “The perceived world … is the ensemble of my body’s routes and not a multitude of spatio-temporal individuals” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 247), and images of migrancy, transience, an “elsewhere” that inflects the present, are distinctive features of Mpe’s writing. For Merleau-Ponty, as Alphonso Lingis puts it, “the presence of the sensible thing is a presence by allusion” (Lingis 1968, xlix); further, “Being is visible as a theme for variation because the visible itself is not in time and in space, but not outside of them either” (Lingis 1968, xlv). What is in the present conveys an “immense latent content of the past, the future, and the elsewhere, which it announces and which it conceals” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 114). Thus, the sensible cannot be defined as a brute sense datum, as an undifferentiated and instantaneous “impact,” which, for Merleau-Ponty, “corresponds to nothing in our experience” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 3). Instead, “what we call a visible is … a quality pregnant with a texture, the surface of a depth, a cross section upon a (p.152) massive being … the total visible is always behind, or after, or between the aspects we see of it” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 136).

Now conversely, some things in plain view are not visible in the nuanced sense that Merleau-Ponty accords to the term. And further, for something to be visible, it has to have some reference to the invisible. Differently put, individual perspectives and understandings (realms of the invisible) are brought to the world of sensory perception in ways that actively influence what can be seen. The invisible world each of us brings to bear constitutes a different visible landscape in each instance, to the extent that it is not possible to delimit a perceptual field in an a priori or totalizing way. In one sense, that is not to deny the world’s physical objectivity, but while the visible is dependent on the physical, it is not defined by the visible.

To return to a consideration of Johannesburg and the contingency of the invisible histories underwriting the city in each of the three novels: In The Restless Supermarket and Welcome to Our Hillbrow, the characters walk through the same streets of the inner city—but in each novel respectively, the characters inhabit different worlds. The protagonist of The Restless Super market, the white, English-speaking Aubrey Tearle, has been living in Hillbrow for decades. He is a retired proofreader of telephone directories; his haunts are the European cafés in Hillbrow, which, by the 1990s had almost all closed down. In contrast, Refentše, the Sepedi-speaking protagonist of Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow, comes to the city for the first time in 1991.

The Café Europa provides a fictional setting for the characters of Ivan Vladislavic´’s novel, The Restless Supermarket, and like the Café de Paris in Hillbrow (which has closed down, and which I photographed on the day I went walking with Phaswane Mpe in 2004), the Café Europa in The Restless Supermarket has “cast-iron Tours d’Eiffel in the balcony railing” (Vladislavic´ 2001, 17). On the day I took the photograph of the building where the Café de Paris used to be, I was standing beside Phaswane Mpe. Each of us looked at the same building yet saw a different place. We confronted the realization that (to use Merleau-Ponty’s words again) “if we set ourselves to see as things the intervals between them,” there would be “in truth another world” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 16). Certainly, both Phaswane and I embodied the insight that “there are other landscapes besides my own” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 141).

A photograph such as the one I took of the Café de Paris / Hyper Hill-brow offers, for me, a strangely contemporaneous image of the past and the (p.153) present. As in Vladislavic´’s image of the wasteland in Prospect Road that I cited at the outset of this chapter, absences and traces from the past are registered in the here and now, thereby investing any supposedly stable present with a contingent temporal drift. Michel de Certeau elaborates:

Here, there used to be a bakery.” “Th at’s where old lady Dupuis used to live.” It is striking here that the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences. What can be seen designates what is no longer there: “you see, here there used to be … ,” but it can no longer be seen. Demonstratives indicate the invisible identities of the visible: it is the very definition of a place, in fact, that it is composed by these series of displacements and effects among the fragmented strata that form it and that it plays on these moving layers.

de Certeau 1984, 108

In Vladislavic´’s The Restless Supermarket, these “moving layers” are selfrefiexively linguistic as much as they are topographical. Th us Aubrey Tearle reads in the “outcrops of old foundations that mark every bit of empty land in this city … a reef of disorder … just below the surface, … a civilization … gone to ruin” (Vladislavic´ 2001, 6). As he proofreads the telephone directories, patterns on the printed pages give rise to Aubrey Tearle’s sociogeographic musings:

As my eye matured, I began to notice subtler things, submerged reefs beneath the placid surface, patterns that only came into focus when one had squinted until one’s eyes watered. I noticed, for example, a preponderance of Baums and Blooms in Cyrildene; and likewise of Pintos and Pinheiros in Rosettenville; and of Le Roux in Linmeyer. Fully eleven per cent of the Van Rensburgs in the book of 1973 had settled in Florida.

Vladislavic´ 2001, 127–28

Vladislavic´’s narrative deployment of etymologies, of “corrected” spelling mistakes in the “Proofreader’s Derby” section of The Restless Supermarket, and of Aubrey Tearle’s reading of the migratory patterns of surnames in the telephone directories, deserve a separate essay of its own. But for the moment, the point is this: What is invisible or past, in the here and now, informs one’s perception of the present in important ways.4 But if (p.154) the invisible past (that “foreign country,” to use Hartley’s phrase),5 disturbingly interrupts the topographic present in The Restless Supermarket, the past has no presence in the Hillbrow of Phaswane Mpe’s novel. Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow tells a story that poses a challenge to generally accepted notions of “home,” of what constitutes a “community” as the protagonist, Refentše, moves from the rural village, Tiragalong, to the Hillbrow of 1991. Refentše’s personal history and memories originate elsewhere: He is new to Hillbrow, and the place is new to him. Hillbrow, for Refentše, is devoid of a history and of an identifiable set of shared values or beliefs. It is as if Hillbrow springs into existence as he alights from the taxi that brings him to the center of town. Mpe’s novel is thus set into narrative motion by an event that interrupts social continuities, an event that immediately raises questions about the extent and limit of the individual’s social allegiances. Any sense of a shared past in this place is something that can only emerge only in the future. This reminds me of Derrida’s meditation on the date: “The date is a future anterior. It gives the time one assigns to anniversaries to come” (La date est un futur antérieur. Elle donne le temps qu’on assigne aux anniversaires à venir) (Derrida 1986b, 48).

It is in this context, of a void past in the present place, that the “Our” of the novel’s title is disturbing. “Our Hillbrow” calls up expectations of a community in historical and propertied relation to a specific place, but the narrative to follow systematically undercuts expectations of a stable and locatable community premised on a shared set of inherited beliefs and recognized obligations. Few of the inhabitants of Hillbrow are native to the neighborhood—the buildings and the people themselves are in a radical state of flux, which Mpe mirrors in pages of unpunctuated prose:

places collapsing while others got renovated … Quirinalle Hotel changing names … Chelsea Hotel closing down robbery moving flowing from Hillbrow into its neighbours … Mail & Guardian and David Philip Publishers and others changing offices moving out … others … coming in to build and occupy … and Makwerekwere drifting into and out of Hillbrow and Berea having spilt into Berea from Hillbrow … (p.155) the streets of Hillbrow and Berea and Braamfontein overflowing with Makwerekwere come to pursue green pastures.

Mpe 2001, 25–266

Mpe’s Hillbrow is always already a site of transit and transience; there is not yet a still point to mark for future reference, and the physical world is devoid of what Merleau-Ponty would call a “latency,” a “depth.” Th is brings me back to the photograph, and to the question of the past. Merleau-Ponty writes:

This table bears traces of my past life, for I have carved my initials on it and spilt ink on it. But these traces in themselves do not refer to the past. They are present; and, in so far as I find in them traces of some “previous” event, it is because I derive my sense of the past from elsewhere, because I carry this particular significance within myself.

Merleau-Ponty 1962, 413

It is in this sense that the body activates what is invisible in the physical present, that it brings to bear what is absent or elsewhere. Thus, as Merleau-Ponty puts it (citing Cézanne): “The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness” (Merleau-Ponty 1964, 17). Further, once this “body– world relationship is recognized, there is a ramification of my body and a ramification of the world” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 136n2).

It is when Mpe writes that “Tiragolong [the far-off rural village] was in Hillbrow” (Mpe 2001, 49) that “another landscape” is instituted, that the field in Hillbrow is open for an “intercorporeity.” “Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world, since the world is flesh?” asks Merleau-Ponty. He goes on to say: “The superficial pellicle of the visible is only for my vision and for my body. But the depth beneath this surface contains my body and hence contains my vision. My body as a visible thing is contained within the full spectacle” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 138).

In Ivan Vladislavic´’s novel The Restless Supermarket, the taking of what is absent, distant, and invisible and relating it to the shifting, physical present instantiates a dialogic nexus among the characters. Aubrey Tearle, the protagonist, comments on a mural of Alibia, an imaginary city painted on a wall of the Café Europa in Hillbrow:

(p.156) A Slav would feel just as at home there as a Dutchman. It was a perfect alibi, a generous elsewhere in which the immigrant might find the land marks he had left behind. I had seen pointed out St Peter’s and St Paul’s, the Aegean and the Baltic. A receptionist at the German Consulate had shown us a bridge over the Neckar, and once an engineer from Mo star … had pinpointed the very house in which he had been born.

Vladislavic´ 2001, 19

At a party in the Café Europa at the end of the novel, Alibia is up for discussion again: “I can check it’s only Cape Town,” says Floyd to Aubrey Tearle, “Look. Here’s Khayelitsha” (Vladislavic´ 2001, 253). With multilayered irony, Vladislavic´ has Aubrey Tearle announce himself to be a “true Johannesburger” because he was “born within sight of the Hillbrow Tower,” but the Hillbrow Tower had not yet been built: “Had it been standing at the time of my birth, I would have seen it from my crib” (Vladislavic´ 2001, 19 and 20). Its landmark significance is thus situated in a future anterior and is allocated on the basis of an elsewhere Tearle has never visited: It is, for him, “our very own Bow Bells” (Vladislavic´ 2001, 20). Even in its strident presence on the Johannnesburg skyline—it stands up “like the attachment for a vacuum cleaner”—it exists as a “touching contrast” (Vladislavic´ 2001, 17) to the Eiffel Towers on the cast-iron balcony of the Café Europa, where Aubrey Tearle finds conviviality. But the Café de Paris, for Vladislavic´, “endures as no more than a fiction of the remembered city” (Vladislavic´ 1998, 310).

I return now to the opening chapter of Marlene van Niekerk’s novel, Triomf, with its depiction of the forced removal of black residents from Sophiatown in 1955. The white Afrikaner protagonist, Mol, registers:

A lot of their stuff got left behind. Whole dressers full of crockery. You could hear things breaking to pieces when the bulldozers moved in. Beds and enamel basins and sink baths and all kinds of stuff. All of it just smashed.

That was quite a sight.

van Niekerk 1999, 1

The passage works in complex ways. Van Niekerk’s characters stage a shocking racism, but interrupting the linguistic surface of a dehumanizing discourse is Mol’s empathetic acknowledgment, amid the broken shards of crockery and glass, of a domestic world shared. The litany of beds, baths, and basins bespeaks a lifeworld related to her own. The significance of these (p.157) percepts, to return to Merleau-Ponty, “far from resulting from an association, is in fact presupposed in all association” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 15). Further: “In the cultural object, I feel the close presence of others beneath a veil of anonymity. Someone uses the pipe for smoking, the spoon for eating, the bell for summoning, and it is through the perception of a human act and another person that the perception of a cultural world could be verified” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 348).

Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible speaks of “the sensible thing” as “the place where the invisible is captured in the visible,” since “in the midst of the sensuous experience there is an intuition of an essence, a sense, a Signification” (Lingis, xli). Thus the invisible lives of others are activated in van Niekerk’s character Mol, through her relation to cultural objects in a ruined urban landscape. She understands that what she encounters are the broken pieces of a home life once lived in the place she occupies now. That the sedimentary patternings of things are part of Mol’s phenomenal world, rather than of a purely unreflective physical world, plants a thought seed for political change. At the very least, Mol acknowledges that other human lives have been disrupted and destroyed, making her own domestic existence possible in that place.


In this section the discussion returns in some detail to Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow. The idea of walking with Phaswane through the streets of Hillbrow was at least in part inspired by Sarah Nuttall’s essay “City Forms and Writing the ‘Now’ in South Africa.” The abstract announces Nuttall’s project: “This essay considers ways of theorizing the now, or the contemporary, in South Africa. It seeks a method of reading that offers unexpected and defamiliarizing routes through the cultural archive” (Nuttall 2003, 1). The essay is inspiring in two ways—in its thinking through of literary representations of the city of Johannesburg, but also in that it led me to question: Is theorizing enough? What would happen to abstract notions of “the contemporary,” “the now,” the “routes through the cultural archive” if I took Mpe at his word, walking through streets just a stone’s throw away from the Wiser Institute at Wits, where Nuttall’s paper was first presented in August 2003? Could literary and cultural theory be linked to the act of walking through Hillbrow in a meaningful way—and, taking a step back— what would be the point of wanting to do this in the first place? In a sense, (p.158) these are the kinds of questions posed by Rancière in The Flesh of Words. “In the beginning was the Word,” writes Rancière, beginning his book by citing the opening sentence from the Gospel of St. John. Rancière continues: “It is not the beginning that is difficult, the affirmation of the Word that is God and the assertion of his incarnation. It is the end” (Rancière 2004a, 1). What would be the end of the word—its purpose, its destination, its future, if I took Phaswane Mpe at his? The walk with Phaswane opened interstitial zones for both of us: past and present, self and other, visible and invisible. In these zones, could we discover ways of making sense of our Hillbrow? And what is that, to make sense of a physical world?

Mpe’s novel is explicitly written in the second person, addressed by an anonymous narrator to Refentše, who is already dead and spends much of his time in Heaven’s TV lounge. Yet in its relentless address to you, the narrative has the disorientating effect of addressing the reader rather than Refentše. In the process of reading, it becomes increasingly difficult to place oneself in the position of a third party, simply overhearing a narrator’s address to a fictional character in a novel. You are performatively engaged in the implied community signaled by the “our” of the novel’s title; the question of social answerability extends to you as much as it does to any of the fictional characters. Through this engagement of the reader at the site of the utterance, the text reconfigures what “here” is and who “we” are. Walking through Hillbrow with Phaswane was a way of activating the novel’s “here” and “now,” making these words flesh. Merleau-Ponty writes:

With the first vision, the first contact, the first pleasure, there is initiation, that is, not the positing of a content, but the opening of a dimension that can never again be closed, the establishment of a level in terms of which every other experience will henceforth be situated. The idea is this level, this dimension. It is therefore not a de facto invisible, like an object hidden behind another, and not an absolute invisible, which would have nothing to do with the visible. Rather it is the invisible of this world, that which inhabits this world, sustains it, and renders it visible, its own and interior possibility, the Being of this being.

Merleau-Ponty 1968, 151

Walking through Hillbrow with Phaswane was to experience “the opening of a dimension that can never again be closed.” Primarily this led to different perceptions of the urban landscape in Hillbrow. By virtue of the invisible worlds each of us brought to bear (that is, our memories, personal (p.159) histories, values, cultural capital, expectations, assumptions, fears, prejudices, hopes …) as we talked and walked through the streets, our Hillbrow presented itself differently.

At the same time, we gained an appreciation, too, of what a novel—a cultural object in the world—had caused us to do, to see, to hear, to think, and to say. In The Flesh of Words, Rancière writes about the “quality” or “status” of the literary text with reference to Plato’s Republic. For Rancière this “quality” has little to do with the genre in question (poetry or narrative prose); instead,

it depends on the encounter between a way of speaking—a way of posing or eliding the “I” of the poet—and a way of representing, or not representing, people “as they should be,” in the double sense of the expression: people who are as it is fitting they should be, and who are represented as it is fitting to represent them. The enduring lesson of Platonic conceptualization is this: there is no pure poetics. Poetry is an art of composing fables that represent characters and act upon characters. It thus belongs to a political experience of the physical: to the relationship between the nomoi of the city—the laws that reign there, but also the songs that are sung—and the ethos of the citizens—their character, but also their humor. Poetics is from the beginning political. It is so by the conjunction between a certain type of individual that should or should not be imitated and a certain place of utterance that is or is not suitable to what must be the tone of the city.

Rancière 2004a, 11

On a thematic level, that is, in the world conjured up in the pages of the book, Mpe’s novel is radical: Its sympathetic yet disturbingly graphic presentation of characters living with AIDS, its provocative questioning of traditional beliefs and practices, and its frank speaking about xenophobia directed against black people from other countries in Africa are risky topics for a South African novel published in 2001. A reader’s understanding of the tone of the city of Johannesburg is surely altered in an encounter with Welcome to Our Hillbrow. In Drawing the Line against AIDS—the catalogue for the forty-fifth Venice Biennale held in 1993—the curators write that “there are, of course, many kinds of lines; but none of them can prevent or cure AIDS” (Cheim et al 19937). Their Reflection on the exhibition continues:

(p.160) “What sort of lines are being drawn here? There is the line we ask ourselves and you to draw—to draw a line against the blindness, racism, and searing indifference that, all too frequently, still greets this devastation” (Cheim et al 1993). On a thematic level, these are central preoccupations in Welcome to Our Hillbrow.

Yet further, on a performative level, Mpe’s novel has a radical impact too, not least because of the effects of the second-person address, and a quotation from W. E. B. Du Bois that serves as an epigraph: “Reader, be assured, this narrative is no fiction.” The introduction to the catalogue continues: “The other line that is being drawn here is obviously the line that the artists have charted in their fervent quest to bring visible shape and meaning to the mercurial flux of our consciousness. Lines that, if we’re willing, let us know ourselves better; lines that may even help us to locate our dignity” (Cheim et al. 1993). A key phrase for me here, in relation to Mpe’s novel, is “if we’re willing”—a willingness to accept the role of addressee, to become you, allows Mpe’s work to introduce “lines of fracture” in a given social calibration; it opens the possibility for “reconfigurations of the shared sensible order” (Rancière 2004b, 39–40).

Each of these novels discussed in this chapter can be considered to be part of a sedimentary patterning along the shoreline of a South African society in transition. With each reading (or refusal to read) comes the presupposition of a shared human, cultural act, the response to a call from the place of an addressee. If the protagonist of Vladislavic´’s Restless Supermarket views Johannesburg’s urban landscape with a jaundiced eye—“This endless cycle of building and demolition, this ceaseless production of rubble” (Vladislavic´ 2001, 161)—it is worth considering the invisible forces each of us brings to bear in making sense of these landscapes. Reading a novel that attempts to do just that presupposes, and does not simply result from, the perception of a world shared.


(1) . Wits: the University of the Witwatersrand.

(2) . For a detailed history of the social geography of Johannnesburg, see Beavon’s Johannesburg: The Making and Shaping of the City. The forced removals from Sophiatown began on February 9, 1955 (see Beavon 2004, 132). For an account of the urban history of the poor white Afrikaner, see especially pages 106–33.

(3) . Aubrey Tearle’s question leads the discussion in chapter 7 of this book.

(4) . In his essay “Street Addresses, Johannesburg,” Vladislavić refers to photographs taken by the French artist Sophie Calle. Calle speaks about this photographic project: “I visited the places from which symbols of the former East Germany have been effaced. I asked passers-by to describe the objects that once filled these empty spaces. I photographed the absence and replaced the missing monuments with their memories” (Calle cited in Vladislavić 1998, E11).

(5) . The prologue to L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between opens with this striking sentence: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (Hartley 1984).

(6) . Makwerekwere: a pejorative term for a black person who is not South African.

(7) . There are no page numbers in this exhibition catalogue. I presented the initial version of this paper at the Critical Legal Conference in Johannesburg in 2003. Thank you sincerely to Peter Fitzpatrick: His generous invitation to present my work to a Critical Legal Theory audience opened new fields of enquiry for me.