Book Review – Jozi captured through time

2012-11-23 13:33

Telling the story of a place and the people in it is a daunting task.

Where do you start? When do you start? Who are the people who created it? Whose stories do you give prominence to? Whose voices have been silenced by illiteracy or powerlessness?

History is a multilayered, ever-moving thing. Something that is changed, reimagined and reanalysed endlessly by infinite people with different viewpoints.

Yet the past is always intricately linked with the present and the future, particularly in terms of place. We share the same piece of land with our ancestors and our descendants.

Who Built Jozi? tackles the job of telling the history of the city from the geographical focal point of Parktown and the people who came to settle there through the years.

A new development of university residences for 1 200 students, and the process to name them and the streets that link them, is where the author Luli Callinicos begins.

Callinicos is a historian who specialises in telling the stories of ordinary people.

The answer she provides to the book’s title question is that a whole lot of diverse, ordinary people built Jozi.

At the new residences, Wits Junction, where one of the original markers of the city founded in 1886 stand, Callinicos’ story of a city founded on gold and the people who came to dig it up begins.

The residences are named after songs that were sung by the workers who came here – Zimbabweans (Shosholoza), Americans (Sarie Marais), Chinese (Kum Saan), Malawians (Ulimbo) and Basothos (Baile), among them.

As this book has at its heart Wits’ integral place in the city’s history, the roads that link the residences are named for the university’s Professors Lee Berger and Phillip Tobias. After all, they uncovered and told this place’s prehistory story, making Wits the centre of The Cradle of Humankind’s studies.

Stories of families abound, of rich men’s wives holding court like new world aristocrats, of the man who planted all those trees in Forest Town and Saxonwold, of the pepper tree that stands outside the residence named after Solomon Linda’s Mbube, of the miners who knitted jerseys to make a little extra money.

The pictures in the book complement the stories – from the nameless milkman, to the mine policemen disparagingly called “mine boys”, to the likes of activist Mary Fitzgerald.

All these personal stories – in words and images – form the network of time, place and people that informs this book.

The artery that connects the inhabitants of the city – past, present and future – isn’t solely, as you might expect, the veins of gold in the ground, but rather the sheer variety of faces, experiences and circumstances of all the people who have come, and who still come, to succeed in the city.

This convergence of the world in Jozi is reflected by the students who come here to study, thus bringing Callinicos’ historical stories full circle to her starting point – a collection of university residences on a piece of land with endless histories in an ever-changing urban landscape.

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