Wake Up, This Is Joburg

Wake Up, This Is Joburg


Reviewed by Denise L. Lim

First Published:

19 Apr 2023, 3:12 am


Wake Up, This Is Joburg

Tanya Zack and Mark Lewis, Wake Up, This Is Joburg, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2023; 368 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-4780-1870-4, £24.99 (pbk)

Originally released as 10 separate booklets by Fourthwall Books, South African urban planner Tanya Zack and photographer Mark Lewis’ collection of stories and images has been republished as a single volume entitled Wake Up, This Is Joburg. As part of Nancy Rose Hunt and Achille Mbembe’s ‘Theory in Forms’ series, this collaborative project offers ‘new modes of writing, reflection, and timely interventions’ (Duke University Press, 2019) in African urban studies. In what many African scholars describe as ‘an elusive metropolis’ (Mbembe and Nuttall, 2008: 25), ‘Joburg’ refers to one of the city’s many monikers. Such spatial naming practices signal the authors’ sense of belonging, familiarity and knowledge about this place. Zack grew up in the inner-city suburb of Judith’s Paarl and Lewis moved to Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD) from the small town of Klerksdorp as a young man (Zack and Lewis, 2023). As Zack and Lewis write: ‘This is Johannesburg. It’s a place of reeling. A city where the public good is contested. Where making a living can be messy’ (p. 3). Both can attest to a certain depth of understanding given the decades of social change witnessed in their lifetimes. Yet their positionality as minority white, middle-class and middle-aged South Africans suggests there are multiple sides to Johannesburg that elude them.

As if rediscovering what makes their own city familiar and strange, the book aims to appeal to general audiences rather than a niche academic elite. It is written for those ‘who are inquisitive about urban living in ways and worlds that they do not encounter on a daily basis’ (p. 4). The goal is not to essentialise Johannesburg, but to explore select territories in greater detail, particularly people, places and activities that have been overlooked. Written as an accessible literary and visual ethnography, each vignette follows a few urban residents at a time as they labour in the city. Sometimes they are racially diverse, working-class South Africans; sometimes they are struggling African foreign nationals who emigrated to the city with hopes of securing a better future. Each story follows their highly mobile routes through various inner-city suburbs of the historic CBD, including Newtown (‘S’kop’ and ‘Master Mansions’), Yeoville (‘Inside Out’), New Centre (‘Zola’), Marshalltown (‘Good Riddance’, ‘Tea at Anstey’s’ and ‘Johannesburg. Made in China’) and Hillbrow (‘Bedroom’), with the exception of two stories that take place in the abandoned mine dumps of Langlaagte (‘Undercity’) and the Portuguese immigrant enclave of Rosettenville (‘Tony Dreams in Yellow and Blue’). Their everyday work reveals moments of ingenuity and struggle as each person strives to earn their livelihood.

Each story describes a complex spatial entanglement. As indicated by the inserted city map, the book’s aerial sightlines move between what colonial town planners considered Johannesburg’s economic ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’. The historic centre of town ironically retains peripheral ‘shadow’ spaces and the suburbs at the peripheral edges are beholden to the capitalist wealth and activity of changing centres such as the ‘real financial capital’ (p. 57) of Sandton City. However, these stories indicate that ‘periphery’ and ‘centre’ are not sufficient or static spatial categories but moving targets. One person’s economic ‘periphery’ is someone else’s ‘centre’ and vice-versa. This is most apparent in ‘Johannesburg. Made in China’, where the authors keep pace with a cross-border shopper from Zambia named Lucy Chakale. As she hustles through Marshalltown’s Jeppe Street to buy handbags from an Ethiopian retailer, readers learn that a large network of cross-border shoppers purchase Chinese-made goods from inner-city vendors and ‘China malls’ in south Johannesburg. These are later distributed to clients spanning Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania.

As one economist exclaims, cross-border shoppers spend approximately R10 billion a year in the inner city. ‘That’s equivalent to the annual turnover of two Sandton City shopping centers’ (pp. 302–303), the country’s most affluent square mile. Transnational migrants like Lucy are an integral part of reinventing the city’s contemporary economic structure. This chapter attests to what urbanist AbdouMaliq Simone meant when designating people as infrastructure. Though Johannesburg’s transient migrants and immigrants have limited means, their improvisations prove they are capable of ‘expanding spaces of economic and cultural operation’ (Simone, 2004: 407). Their stories make evident that opportunities for upward social mobility would not be possible without the inner city’s hidden corridors.

But without romanticising every occupation, ‘Undercity’ presents a challenging example of the environmental injustice of mineral extraction. Readers learn of the dangerous and gruelling work of unregulated miners colloquially referred to as the zama zama, a term in isiZulu which translates as ‘to try’ or ‘to strive’. Today, the zama zama are predominantly Black male migrant workers from distant South African provinces and neighbouring African countries who attempt to mine gold from the ‘tailings, pits, and ravaged landscape of the West Rand’ (p. 317). The irony of their work is not lost on the authors, who carefully explain its connection to Johannesburg’s early development. The chapter opens with a sign at the entrance of George Harrison Park in Langlaagte: ‘This park is closed until further notice. Entry strictly forbidden’. Now a neglected heritage site, the park was built to commemorate the Australian prospector George Harrison, who was amongst the first European settlers to find and sell gold in 1886. Though the Witwatersrand Gold Rush once made South Africa one of the strongest economies in the world, few non-white labourers benefited from that prosperity. The social, environmental and health-related devastation still casts a long shadow on the desperately poor. Johannesburg is a highly stratified space of cities seen and unseen. The aptly named ‘Undercity’ is merely the underside of that same proverbial coin.

But where there is heartrending hardship, stories like ‘Inside Out’ caution readers to be attentive to how we decipher these experiences. We meet, for example, a Congolese vendor self-dubbed ‘Mama Senga’ who led 10 of her relatives out from political conflict in their home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Due to her entrepreneurial savvy, Senga has operated her own stall at a Pan African market in Yeoville since 2004 and financially supports her mother, seven brothers, a sister and a daughter. When she invites Zack and Lewis to her mother’s apartment to take a family portrait, she and her relatives engage in lively debate. Some are ‘deeply skeptical about the value of putting a family picture into the public domain’ (p. 111). They are astute to the politics of representation. ‘We are not like other Congolese families’, they tell Zack. ‘We are independent; we speak our minds’ (p. 111). Senga’s family is not shy to claim their right to frame the way others see them. One relative, Serge:

speaks of the discomfort of always being reminded that you are a refugee. No matter the freedom to succeed, to break class barriers, to raise a family of nine children, each of whom is productive and eagerly creating opportunity, the refugee stigma hovers over the in-migrants to this city. (p. 112)

In this scene, the use of first-person perspective renders Zack vulnerable to criticism. But this literary device functions to incisively show how she is also a character driving the plot of the story. She is rightly subject to scrutiny too. This reminds all researchers, students and readers that they must turn the reflexive eye upon themselves when interpreting these stories. For this reason, Zack and Lewis carefully parse a ‘politics of approachability’ (p. 20). As a photographer, Lewis carries his camera; as the writer, Zack carries her notebook. These objects signal their intentions, for better or worse. ‘Sometimes our intuition has failed us, and our miscalculation has shut down a potential story’ (p. 21). But for the times they get it right, Zack and Lewis provide urban ethnographers with an exemplar in how to utilise creative non-fiction and photography to make sense of cities that don’t conform to a Eurocentric mould. Wake Up, This Is Joburg effectively frames Johannesburg as one of the continent’s most important entrepôts where people journey from various nodes of the country and continent to earn a decent living. Rather than criminalise their activities, these stories provoke readers to ‘wake up’ and pay attention to those who make this city a fascinating but enigmatic place to live.


Duke University Press (2019) Theory in Forms: Series detail. Available at: https://www.dukeupress.edu/series/Theory-in-Forms (accessed 16 March 2023). Google Scholar

Mbembe A, Nuttall S (2008) Introduction: Afropolis. In: Mbembe A, Nuttall S (eds) Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 1–33. Crossref | Google Scholar

Simone AM (2004) People as infrastructure: Intersecting fragments in Johannesburg. Public Culture 16(3): 407–429. Crossref | ISI | Google Scholar

Zack T, Lewis M (2023) “Wake up, this is Joburg”– in discussion with authors, Tanya Zack and Mark Lewis. Talking Transformation, 25 February 2023. Available at: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/talking-transformation-po (accessed 25 February 2023). Google Scholar


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

An enclave entrepôt: The informal migration industry and Johannesburg’s socio-spatial transformation by Tanya Zack and Loren B Landau

Open Access special issue article from Tanya Zack and Loren B Landau argues that the global trade in Chinese ‘fast fashion’ transforms Johannesburg’s Park Station neighbourhood into an enclave entrepôt.


Towards a multi-scalar reading of informality in Delft, South Africa: Weaving the ‘everyday’ with wider structural tracings by Liza Rose Cirolia and Suraya Scheba

Everyday practices and structural logics: a multi-scalar reading of informality in Delft, South Africa.