Johannesburg: The migrant city that is anti-migrants

Gallery by Mfuneko Toyana

The Market Theatre’s main stage was the platform where six diverse minds gathered to discuss migration, a topic central to all of their individual work.

The last day and the last panel discussion of the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival helped to make audience members and authors alike reflect on the movement of people in and out of cities and countries.

The poor accommodating the poor

Wandile Zwane from the City of Johannesburg’s Migrant Helpdesk, used an interesting anecdote from a conversation he had had with a woman, illustrating a point made earlier about migration being a situation where the poor are accommodating the poor. [pullquote]”…people migrate to places with a gravitational pull…”[/pullquote]

The woman talked about the hierarchy that existed when it came to where one slept in her house. As a young child one was in the main bedroom, the older one got you would move to the dining room and the kitchen to make space for the younger ones. Eventually one would land up in the outside room and from there move on to their own house with a spouse.

Unfortunately her marriage had not worked out so she had to move back to the outside room with her kids, but because there was an immigrant living in that room she had to go back to the kitchen. The story points to one explanation of the animosity that exists around migration in South Africa.


Chinua Achebe’s book ‘There was a Country’ was the theme around which the conversation around which migration had to bend itself.

The panel consisted of writers who had threaded together stories and books, all zooming in on migration and themes central to resettlement. The panel discussion was largely based on the different writers’ works and their experiences of bridging political and personal narratives in their storytelling.

A young writer making waves in the literary world, NoViolet Bulawayo, said emergent personal narratives are based on political events, and that it was not possible to separate the two in one’s writing. [pullquote align=”right”]“Johannesburg is a migrant city”[/pullquote]

While the works of the six on stage were central to the discussion, engagement with audience members opened up the dialogue and brought up issues that were left out in the initial conversation.

Photographer and self-proclaimed book lover, Victor Dlamini (@victordlamini) made a poignant point from the floor, which steered the conversation to a meaningful point. He commented on people who are migrants themselves taking issue with people who migrate. He used Johannesburg as an example, saying most people who are in this city are not even from this city. “Johannesburg is a migrant city,” he added.

Panelist and writer, Achmat Dangor responded by saying that he agreed with Dlamini and pinned negative attitudes around migration on mechanisms of ‘othering’. He added that people migrate to places with a gravitational pull because of new ideas in that specific place. This is always the case with ‘big cities’, the activity and promise of economic emancipation lure people in, be it across borders or provincial lines.

Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, author of The Bookseller of Kibera, added to Dangor’s response, saying that human beings had a tendency of finding one another’s differences and using them to oppress one another.

Another audience member asked why was it that only Africans were considered immigrants. He did not understand why the Chinese and Europeans who come to this country were not treated with the same hostility that “our brothers” were.

In response Kwanele Sosibo (@KwaneleSosibo), journalist at the Mail & Guardian, simply said “we do it to ourselves”. He went on to narrate an anecdote about how people in an Eastern Cape community believe in measuring people according to certain pedigrees. Mining house recruiters divided them up according to body size, using pedigree determine who’d make best workers, exemplary of systematic ‘othering’.

Writing Invisibility

The Writing Invisibility e-book was launched. Some of the writers on the panel were contributors in the book which was a project done in collaboration with the Wits African Centre for Migration & Society.

The book is available for free download here.


The great South African novel?

SOLD: All the books discussed were on sale for audience members to buy during breaks. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

SOLD: All the books discussed were on sale for audience members to buy during breaks. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

An old acquaintance barely seen since primary school days, in a chance meeting recently complained that our country had yet to produce “the great South African novel”. With the 2013 Mail and Guardian Literary Festival a few short hours away, his observation was an attractive alternative to the small talk gnawing for attention at the corners of our conversation.

Appalled and mystified in equal degrees at the valid line of enquiry, I asked him what he meant by the “great South African novel”? He fired off a series of answers whose sum total escapes the memory of a mind that was blind with excitement at the prospect of three days immersed in South Africa’s finest literary offerings.


The great novel, as Dickens, or perhaps Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, was to the British? There was sense of this in my acquaintance’s response. Nigerian-born literary scholar, Aghogho Akpome, in a panel discussion chaired by South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer about Chinua Achebe’s Man of the People, made a remark along these lines.

On the second day of the festival in an airy under-construction Market Theatre, he recalled that his English-teacher father would refuse to engage him in literary conversation until he had read Pride and Prejudice. Our reading culture as Africans, and the canons which we instinctively reference, are inherently Western. A moot point Akpome acknowledged. What the University of the Free State research associate was getting at however, was that there did not exist one African story or one way of telling it that was more valid than another, and that its formation could take any number of trajectories.

LEGEND: Nadine Gordimer opens a discussion by outlining some of the major themes drawn from Chinua Achebe's works, in tribute to him. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

LEGEND: Nadine Gordimer opens a discussion by outlining some of the major themes drawn from Chinua Achebe’s works, in tribute to him. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

Gordimer herself could be said to have penned at least one the great South African novels. My acquaintance hazarded JM Coetzee or Antjie Krug as possibilities only to immediately reject them, saying the latter author was “too self-flagellating”. I thought of suggesting Njabulo Ndebele’s Fools or any works from the Sophiatown school of writers.


But after factoring in a few racial, proudly South African variables, and sensing that he was thinking of something more contemporary and light-hearted, I eventually suggested Chris van Wyk’s memoir Shirley, Goodness and Mercy. He had not read it but said he would. One might have also suggested the book by Gordimer and Akpome’s fellow panellist, Imraan Coovadia’s remarkable Institute of Taxi Poetry, which is about as South African as it gets.


The many possibilities created by the thought of “the great South African novel” beget an inevitable question, one that seemed a preoccupation of the festival as a whole if the theme, Chinua Achebe’s children: Africa’s suspended revolutions, is given due consideration.

What is the nature of the relationship between literature and society in societies on the brink of, or newly emergent from, revolution?

Chinua Achebe, the organisers seem to have been saying, had already written the great African novels. His choice as the spiritual conduit through which these questions and that of the continent’s “suspended revolutions” would be explored, then, set the scene for a confrontation: A joyful exorcism and harrowing incantation of the complexities of the times we live in. “[T]he fourth annual M&G Literary Festival aims to foster robust debate about political, social and literary revolution,” according to books editor at the Mail and Guardian Darryl Accone.


And the festival kicked-off on that urgent note with the presentation of newly installed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand Professor Adam Habib’s new book, South Africa’s Suspended Revoultion: Hopes and Prospects. In it, Habib suggests that “it is not the foibles or wisdom of our leaders” that will ultimately determine a prosperous future for the country. He advises rather, that it is imagination and commitment from the political elites and ordinary citizens that will forge a path to transformed society.

LET'S TALK: Investigative journalist, Adriaan Basson and Adam Habib spoke about "Hope and Impediments" in the South African political and social context in the first panel discussion of the day. Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

LET’S TALK: Investigative journalist, Adriaan Basson and Adam Habib spoke about “Hope and Impediments” in the South African political and social context in the first panel discussion of the day. Photo: Mfuneko Toyana

A score of other great South African publications and their authors were engaged on these and similar questions, with Achebe’s scorn for African leaders who have hijacked and short-circuited Africa’s revolutions as omniscient guide.

The great South African novel? Nadine Gordimer guessed the character of its author when she quoted Albert Camus: “The day I am no more than just a writer, no longer will I be a writer”.