Looking between the frames: Review of ‘Imagining the Edgy City: Writing, Performing and Building Johannesburg’

Author(s) Loren Kruger
Publisher Oxford University Press
Year 2013

In Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis, John Matschikiza described Johannesburg as an “ever-changing movie that no one has quite managed to produce” (Nuttall & Mbembe eds., 2008: 222). The incomplete nature of the movie is a metaphor for Johannesburg as a whole. Loren Kruger, in his book, Imagining the Edgy City: Writing, Performing and Building Johannesburg, seems to find this metaphor helpful in understanding that the meaning behind the city may lurk between this unfinished movie’s frames.

In looking in between these frames, Kruger aims to unpack Johannesburg‘s chequered history through the prism of performance in its various guises. This is a unique contribution to the city’s narrative in that it is able to reflect the history of the city as told by writers, artists, directors, thespians and musicians. In so doing, Johannesburg takes a multi-textured appearance in which the meaning behind the performer’s work tells the story of the city and its people. It sees the city, in other words, as a stage, looking not only at performance in the narrow sense but as a site for the “production of culturally and ultimately socially compelling narratives through fictions that capture the imagination of city dwellers at home and abroad” (Kruger, 2013: 10).

These fictions are divided up into a number of critical periods in Johannesburg’s history, although this begins in 1936 – fifty years after Johannesburg’s founding as a city. This jumps 20 years later to 1956, in which the 70th anniversary of the city is celebrated in the shadow of increased nationalist violence and repression. This jumps again 20 years forward, to 1976, a year which Kruger describes as Soweto erupting into Johannesburg through the mass student protests which occurred in the township. Twenty years later, in 1996, the reader is led to understand Johannesburg as undergoing a metamorphosis in which it seeks to shed off its repressive past, but in so doing uncovers new modes of repression that begin to dominate its narratives. Sixteen years later, we are again transported back to Johannesburg, looking at public art in the inner-city, as well as the appropriation and habitation of inner-city spaces within a regeneration narrative.

In this way, the reader is taken on a journey through Joburg’s contemporary history, offering insights into South Africa’s political, economic and social variations that have been impacted as much by a Johannesburg narrative as that narrative itself has been impacted by South Africa’s own history. More so, however, the reader embarks on a time travelling exercise into the minds of people who have shaped the city, and whose concomitant appropriation, habitation of, and participation in the city is reflected in a myriad of ways through performance.

Kruger’s piece may seem quite particular to the discipline of performance, but there is value to be ascribed to the book from a broader urbanism discipline. For Kruger, the city is a stage for those who study the city. The props on stage form a backdrop to the actions of the actors and actresses making up the city. After all, Kruger notes that when describing these interplays, those who study the city “routinely use the language of theatre, from tragedy to playfulness” (Kruger, 2013: 11).

This is especially true in terms of Johannesburg. This is a city that perhaps more than any other city is impacted by an image created over some form of media, and which oscillates between depictions of euphoria and despair.

Kruger’s aim does not appear to be to make a judgment call on these depictions, but to rather map them out in an engaging tapestry of experiences. In so doing, not only is the reader able to better understand the way in which the city and its various productions exist currently, but the reader is also given a thorough historical context in which these productions take place.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the reader is also able to explore the varying nuances behind these productions, and how our imagining of the city edges it towards a particular place – not one that is necessarily good, or bad, but rather one that just is.


Thomas Coggin is a lecturer in law at the University of the Witwatersrand. He has an interest in the relationship between law and the city, and how the city facilitates the realisation of rights in the bill of rights. He is also editor of urbanjoburg.com, a blog which aims to instigate a deeper understanding of Joburg and its varying complexities.

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