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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

As a child, Kentridge said, he felt “cheated of landscape. I wanted a landscape of forests, of trees, of brooks—but I had this dry veld, beyond the green gardens of the city.” He resolved this for himself by starting to draw “the terrain itself—partly as a way of taking revenge against its barrenness, its dryness.” And he describes the congruence between his medium—charcoal—and this barren, mutable landscape: “There is a way in which the dryness of the winter veld, when the sun is very harsh and the grass is bleached very white, or else is very black from the veld fires, corresponds to the tonal range of a white sheet of paper and charcoal…. There was a way in which the winter veld fires, in which the grass is burned to black stubble, made drawings of themselves.” You could rub a sheet of paper across the Johannesburg landscape itself, Kentridge said, and you would come up with a charcoal drawing.

Kentridge spoke of the danger of water in Johannesburg—how it floods the cavities made by mining, thus causing geological instability—but also of its function as a “utopian blessing” in his drawings: “You can draw a very dry landscape; then with a single line of blue, you transform it, you bless it with water.”

As a child, I felt not so much cheated of landscape as oblivious to it. Beyond my vivid childhood memories of the Sandspruit, I had no knowledge at all of the profusion of streams that flowed down the continental watershed of the Witwatersrand and fed into two substantial rivers, the Jukskei to the north and the Klip to the south, that drained into the Indian and Atlantic oceans, respectively. You need know only one thing about these two rivers to get a sense of their marginality to the development of Johannesburg: the black township of Alexandra is sited along the Jukskei, and the black township of Soweto along the Klip.

To the extent that I thought about nature at all, it was elsewhere. Given my father’s forestry job, we spent many weekends and holidays in the forests on the Eastern Transvaal escarpment: that was where wilderness resided, and even there, it was bounded by the battalions of pine trees marching relentlessly over the mountains. Nature was what we got when we arrived in Sabie after a few hours in the car, suffocating in the fug of my father’s Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes. What we drove through to get there was known as “the veld”: it was a transit zone rather than nature itself.

Or nature was the beach, and the sea, where we went for summer holidays. As a boy, I had read in a children’s compendium of Norse myths of Canute’s defiance of the tides, and I turned this into a solitary game I played along the shore: I would walk up and down the beach endlessly, controlling each wave by beckoning it in, commanding its arrest and then dispatching it out again. Every young child I have taught this game to has been enthralled by it, for the same reason that I was: the illusion of mastery it gives you over the elements. Nature bent to our will.

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The Central Witwatersrand Basin, which lies directly beneath downtown Johannesburg, was expected to begin decanting toxic water in 2016. Initially, when it was predicted that this would happen in 2012, a wave of apocalyptic anxiety was triggered in Johannesburg’s newspapers, with prophecies reading like something Lauren Beukes might write: a bubbling-up of foul, rust-red liquid that would finally envelop Frenchfontein, this city of sin. Reading one of these in a 2010 newspaper article, I was struck by the prediction that about 60 million liters of water a day would decant onto the surface, “equivalent to water from 24 Olympic pools hitting the city’s streets daily.”

The swimming pool as measuring unit for a volume of water to be unleashed upon the city seems apt for Johannesburg; well, for my Johannesburg, at least. Despite the fact that we went, occasionally, to the Zoo Lake (there was an annual holiday children’s show of Treasure Island performed there, on a pontoon stage set up in the skanky water), the only blue in my internal Johannesburg map was that which filled swimming pools. Like William Kentridge and Ivan Vladislavic, I, too, imagined my world as flat, thrown into relief by some mine dumps. Given the natural topography of the Witwatersrand as represented so beautifully in those conical scratches made by Tompkins, such obliviousness is inexplicable. It strikes the adult in me as precisely the consequence of the type of blinkering we endured as white suburban children in apartheid South Africa. We lived in an artificial world, our own void of sorts, dug out of the earth by the hunger for gold.

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