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My Johannesburg

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Drawing for the film Other Faces (2011), by William Kentridge

Drawing for the film Other Faces (2011), by William Kentridge

Upon arrival at Tudor Shaft, Liefferink pulled several bags of Woolworths groceries out of the back of her hefty four-wheel-drive bakkie and began to distribute them. In that listless, unfocused way of very poor and hungry people in the midafternoon heat, children were corralled into a line by an elder, each to be handed an Easter egg and a polished red apple. This ritual, she told me, symbolized her good intentions and ensured her continued access to the community. Still, when she stopped on the way out to caution a group gathered around a rough kiln making bricks out of the toxic sand, a woman came rushing up to the bakkie screaming bloody murder, accusing her—presumably because of her white skin—of being an agent of the opposition Democratic Alliance party.

Liefferink had found her own voice, she told me, fighting for her own rights: resisting the construction of a Shell super-service station in her backyard in bucolic Bryanston, close to where I grew up in the northern suburbs. In the process, she had come up against a corporate system that tried both to bribe and extort her; she had understood the enemy and vowed to fight it. “We have mined our gold,” she said to me as we drove back to Johannesburg. “We have benefited from it. It defines us. We are ‘eGoli’ [the place of gold]. We are Gauteng [the province of gold]. But gold has become our curse. If we had done a cost-benefit analysis in 1886, gold mining would never have been sustainable.”

She is right, of course, to hold both the mining houses and the state accountable. Still, as I tried to internalize the landscape of blood-colored water against the neon crust of yellow boy, this topography of my hometown, this dystopia just a few kilometers away from my birdsong-endorsed aerie on the Melville Koppies, it seemed to express a deeper dilemma. None of us would exist—the city itself would not exist—were it not for these violations against nature. There is no reason for Johannesburg before or beyond them, but now it exists, despite them. This is our inheritance.

* * *

And a part of this inheritance is being smuggled away before our very eyes.

In recent years, as the price of gold has risen, the city’s mountains have begun to fade away. The mining companies have begun resifting the mine dumps for gold deposits, and they are disappearing, taking the Top Star drive-in with them. In this second brewing of the mines, the original attempts to secure the dumps with grasses and trees have been disrupted: now, more than ever, the heavy mineral and sulfite deposits are blowing across Johannesburg and running off into its rivers.

The disappearance of our man-made mountains has become a favored trope for our labile city. Here is Lauren Beukes on the topic in her celebrated sci-fi novel Zoo City, and if you didn’t know Johannesburg, you might think that the description was part of her own dystopian vision of the city: “I drive out south,” says the novel’s spunky narrator, Zanele,

to where the last of the mine dumps are—sulphur-coloured artificial hills, laid waste by the ravages of weather and reprocessing, shored up with scrubby grass and eucalyptus trees. Ugly valleys have been gouged out and trucked away by the ton to sift out the last scraps of gold the mining companies missed the first time round. Maybe it’s appropriate that eGoli, place of gold, should be self-cannibalising.

I have always admired the way the artist William Kentridge depicts Johannesburg’s mutability by rendering the city in charcoal, making animated films that show its landscape being perpetually sketched and erased, built and modified. Once the mine dumps began disappearing, life seemed to be imitating Kentridge’s art, and he found a perfect new job for his eraser: in his 2011 film, Other Faces, we watch the Village Deep mine dump being rubbed out before our very eyes, and the big screen of the Top Star drive-in comes tumbling down. “A mountain is a fact,” said Kentridge in his acceptance speech for the Kyoto Prize in 2010. “You can turn around, you can come back in ten years, the mountain will not have moved. The mountain itself, the idea of a mountain, of a piece of heavy earth, stands as a metaphor for understanding eternity. The opposite is true of our mine dumps, which in my childhood I had assumed were my hills.”

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