Image: Illustration by Manelisi Dabata

At the pottery class, in a narrow, overly lit studio in Darrenwood, Randburg, I look into the storage room to my left, where I can see shelves with ceramics, pots, jugs, cups. Through the door to my right, I hear and feel the rest of the city, humming, moving, dancing, fighting. In my hands, I knead white clay into a ball, emptying it of air, until it feels compounded and malleable. I lift it and bang it on the table, I repeat this until it is flat, and with each throw it stretches.

Clay turns into more clay, and then it breaks. I toss it in the bin and I repeat the process from the beginning. The clay, the storage, the city outside, the kneading, the stretching, the ceramic. This clay in my hands feels like the city: raw, malleable, fragile, unpredictable, concrete, ceramic, hidden, unfurling. Nothing about this city is certain, not its residential life, not its development, not its architecture, not its mayoral electoral process. Buildings go up in flames, into obscurity, into ruins. A child runs on the fourth-floor balcony while shouting after their sibling, laughter echoing across the city. A man sits outside a building, his table covered in chips, sweets, cigarettes.

New façades are built for old buildings. Buildings catch fire. Joburg is a vignette of beauty and horror. In the past 18 months, the city has had four mayors, all lasting long enough for photo opportunities next to a burst sewerage main, a broken substation, an illegally occupied apartment building. There is no development here, no drafted plans to prevent the city from collapsing, and so the city, as all infrastructure, continues to collapse. The politics are not holding it together.

What holds this city together, what holds it upright, are the people. If you make your way down Kotze Street, in Hillbrow, towards the city, there is a small incline in the road. It starts gradually, grows into a speed bump, and then gets to its highest point. Before you rise above it, the rest of the city, down that same street, stretching beyond the park on the left towards the MTN taxi rank on the right, temporarily disappears, along with the noise of the traffic. Over the mound, the city appears in its grand gesture, from the busy narrow streets to the tall buildings, to the quiet, to the noise, to the standstill. Every step, every move, every sight, feels significant and life defining.

At midnight one night, I lean over the dirty steel of the fifth-floor balcony of Hallmark House and stare at the city below me and beyond my eyesight. In my immediate view is a garage, its bright lights focusing on the cars that pull in for petrol. Opposite it, a dark street narrows into an even darker corner, menacing, deadly. Above the garage, against the backdrop of the night, pockets of light coming through windows decorate the darkness.

In the dark, the lit buildings appear to be floating just above the city. Nothing happens on this night, the quiet isn’t punctuated by a scream, but on any other night that is a well-rehearsed running order. On another day, the same stare into the same night, into the same garage, into the same building, only yields screams. It is impossible to take in all of the city at once, in one stare, in one gulp, in one step. It must be done gradually. That’s the magic of it, or else it would overwhelm.

It is impossible to take in all of the city at once, in one stare, in one gulp, in one step. It must be done gradually. That’s the magic of it, or else it would overwhelm

Even the modes of mobility facilitate this in the city. Each type of transportation reveals something new about the city, something beautiful, something ugly. Taxis keep everything hidden, only hinting at the chaos inside through the looming and peeking heads in the windows, finding their stop. Trains chug on the outskirts of the city, revealing swathes of landscapes and factories. Then the trains slowly swarm their way into the underbelly of the city before poking through to the station platforms. Bicycles uncover the world from an eye-level perspective. The interaction is immediate and intense.

You are one with the city and the city is one with you. You move through the city and feel the entire weight of the city moving through you. But the city can feel hostile and distant, forcing residents to find pockets of calm and safety. Places such as Maboneng, Jewel City, and Braamfontein offer an illusion of fully encapsulating city experiences. On weekends, those who live in the suburbs flock to the city like visitors, eating out, capturing enough images to last a few months, until the city itch returns. Even then they frequent the gentrified geographies, with security on either side of the street, parking, giving them a sense of security. But the identity of the city, like the clay, stretches unendingly, gaining in each geography a new texture, even a new identity.

To some degree, we knead, pound, and stretch it to what we want it to be. In this process, sometimes the city breaks, and other times, it doesn’t. In all of this, in the breaking, in the plasticity, the city is palimpsest, holding futures and pasts, all at once. The city is incomplete without the people, a puzzle to be put together by a second-long view, by a minute-long view, by the jacaranda trees blooming, by the trees cut down to make space for a new building, by a quiet night, by a raucous night, by a cold night, by a warm night.

Mqombothi is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and curator. He was the recipient of the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing.

• From the November edition of Wanted, 2023.

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