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For many people, Joburg stands for wealth. A city that was built on prospecting is still a place of prospects. Synthesised from gold, sculpted by ambition, its spiky reaching skyline still beckons to fortune seekers, promising riches and prosperity.

“The city swanks,” writes Tanya Zack. “Its conspicuous consumption has outlasted fads and eras. From its mid-twentieth-century extravagant department stores, with their displays of glamorous French fashions and delicacies, to its first hat factory and its current low-price fast fashion frenzy, it’s a ‘showoff’ kind of place.” Zack is an urban planner with a special interest in regeneration and sustainability. That’s the official description; in reality she is also a rarely perceptive commentator and chronicler of “the city we hate to love but do anyway”.

Beginning in 2014, Zack and masterful photographer Mark Lewis began creating a series of titles with the art publisher Fourthwall Books. There were 10 in all, 10 portraits of idiosyncratic, often hidden facets of Jozi that reflected a city shapeshifting from a hidebound past into a fully African metropolis. The series was called Wake Up, This Is Joburg.

The first book was titled S’kop and slammed the reader into the abandoned taxi rank of Kazerne, where informal butchers chop up and process cow heads. It’s a Hades of blood, meat, and bone, yet the businesses thrive, providing a living for dozens of dogged entrepreneurs.

The next book, Tony Dreams in Yellow and Blue, was radically different. Here Zack and Lewis headed south to the working-class suburb of Turffontein, to the deranged and cluttered home of outsider artist Tony Martins. This is kitsch as art, hoarding as rich source material, the crammed rooms bulging with the worthless and the valuable, the bizarre and the simply beautiful. A serene mural of Madeira oversees it all.

In Bed Room, Birthial Gxaleka reigns over a one-bedroomed Hillbrow apartment that accommodates 34 people and their belongings. The entire flat is a raft of mattresses with Gxaleka at its centre, doling out advice and words of support to the men and women who stay there, holding their documents and their secrets for safekeeping.

The story rings with humanity and dignity. Zack’s approach to all her subjects is quiet and respectful. She and Lewis would visit them over weeks or sometimes months, allowing their stories to unfurl, building trust and regard. They are acutely aware of the striving and hardship behind these narratives.

In the original editions, the text of each story is also translated into the first language of a key protagonist. In Master Mansions this is Gujarati, the mother tongue of the Prajapati family. The family took root in South Africa at the turn of the 19th century and changed their name to Master. They founded the legendary Mabro Hats (short for Master Brothers), which was so successful that in 1941 they built the impressive Master Mansions in Ferreirasdorp, which housed both the hat factory and generations of family, as well as a Hindu temple on the roof.

One of the city’s most famous landmarks is the subject of Tea at Anstey’s. The 20-storey Art Deco building was once one of the tallest structures on the continent, and certainly one of the most glamorous. Built over the four storeys of the ritzy department store, the Anstey apartments were home to the chic and the celebrated but, like so much of the inner city, fell into disrepair in the 1980s. It was very nearly demolished. Now it is inhabited by an array of families and Zack, who herself owns a flat there, introduces us to the photographers, musicians, nurses, DJs, graphic artists, and clothing designers who make up a unique community.

In other books, rich “transnational” shoppers, gold-dusted Zama Zamas, waste pickers, and informal caterers all step on to the stage. The pages, like the city, teem with characters, and with hope. As Zack says, “This is a city of extreme generosity.” Each book is a treasure and, not surprisingly, each edition sold out immediately after it was published. They are now sought-after collectors’ items. Fortunately, Duke University in the US has collected all 10 books into one edition, complete with Lewis’ eloquent photographs.

In a new foreword, the Indian writer Achal Prabhala, who lives on and off in Joburg, likens the experience of reading the book to “barreling down a hundred different motorways all at once, without a care for where you might end up, because wherever you do end up, you know one thing for sure: it will be a true place”.

 From the March edition of Wanted, 2023.

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