Travel, News & Trends

Explore Joburg's Parts Unknown in 'Wake Up, This is Joburg'

The team behind the fiercely collectable Wake Up, This is Joburg series reveals more of the city's secrets
Mark Lewis, Fourthwall Books

Even if you call Johannesburg home, it remains a city of secrets. But for those interested in its parts unknown, there’s a whole lot to discover in Fourthwall Books’ 10-part series called Wake Up, This is Joburg. The wildly successful collection of titles tells the stories of the golden metropolis in thoroughly readable essays by urban planner and researcher Dr Tanya Zack, accompanied by extraordinary images taken by photographer Mark Lewis.  

The ‘dark concrete cavern’ of Kazerne taxi rank’s highway-underpass butchery in the first book – S’Kop (2014) – is where, according to Zack, you’ll find the city’s best-fed rat colony. The second instalment, Tony Dreams in Yellow and Blue (2014), relates the story of central character Tony, and his living museum of a house in the working-class suburb of Turffontein. In the third volume, Inside Out (2014), the explosive colours and personalities of the Rockey Street Market in Yeoville are explored, and Master Mansions (book 8; 2017) tells the epic tale of how an Indian migrant family built a millinery empire in the now-defunct Mabro Mansions. The entire series is a tribute to everything that makes Joburg such an exciting place to live in. 

As a city trader in book 9, Johannesburg. Made In China (2017), says to Zack, ‘Joburg is a great place. It’s a half-London. Whatever you need, you can find it here. You can never say “I couldn’t find it in Joburg.”’

We sat down with Zack, Lewis and Fourthwall Books’ Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, who edited the series, ahead of their launch of Undercity – the 10th and final book in the series – to learn more about their discoveries. 

WIN one of three copies of Undercity here

What prompted this series of books about Johannesburg?

Bronwyn: When Tanya and Mark first came to see Fourthwall Books about the project, they had in mind a single book with a dozen or so stories. Knowing how difficult it would be to raise the funds for such an undertaking, we proposed a series of stories, released at intervals to people who would, we hoped, be eagerly awaiting the next instalment. We especially liked the stories because they represented a cross-section of Joburg. The focus was not on victimhood or poverty or failure, but on tenacity, agency and getting on with things. 

How have locals received them?

Bronwyn: They have sold out. People love to believe in Joburg and it is wonderful to be able to add to the many creative projects that reflect on this place. The books are all very different – but what binds them, and the city, to each other? The stories in the series are mostly, but not all, set in the inner city. Joburg is not easily reduced to a few themes and we avoided trying to do that. Instead, what links these stories is precisely that each offers a different view of the city and reveals to us a world that we might otherwise have seen in quite flat or stereotyped ways.

They are all intimate connections with a person, a place, an economic activity. They are bound by our curiosity and often our bewilderment about things that happen not just in secret but certainly away from our daily lives – things we don’t pay close attention to but which are important parts of so many people’s lives and the ways in which they make a living here.

The books reveal much that is hidden: how did you find such fascinating stories? 

Tanya/Mark: We walk the city, we talk to people. Some stories were suggested to us, but mostly we have found them by thinking about and going to interesting places, of which there is no shortage [in Joburg]. One or two were stories we had a personal connection to – Tanya owns an apartment in the Anstey’s building, for instance. Some stories are all around us, like the stories of the waste reclaimers in Good Riddance [book 5; 2015]. 

Why do you think the perception that parts of Joburg are ‘no-go’ areas exists, and have you ever been frightened by the city?

Tanya/Mark: This is a violent and scary city. We are always aware of that. Our work allows us to get closer to what’s happening in spaces that seem scary. It is only by entering and by talking that we find the real lives and stories that exist in places that are intimidating from the outside. The dangers we are aware of are the dangers many of the protagonists of our stories confront daily. It’s not primarily about how safe we feel, but about how unsafe the city is for many people who do not have our privileged lives.

The camera and the notebook allow us to look more closely, to meet people, make new connections in the city and so broaden our own access to places that seem to be ‘no-go’ zones. 

What can we expect from Undercity?

Bronwyn: Undercity is about the thousands of  ‘artisanal miners’, or ‘Zama Zamas’, who enter abandoned mine shafts in the Witwatersrand. The work is fraught with danger. But the money earned sends children to school, pays rent and keeps households and communities afloat. It’s also about the legacy of the mining industry: what has been extracted and the wastelands it has left behind. 

What is your favourite thing about Joburg?

Tanya/Mark: This is a city of extreme generosity. It is a glorious space, for writers and photographers, in which to work. There are so many stories. You just have to look. And listen.