From her bed in a small Hillbrow apartment, Birthial Gxaleka runs an NGO and shelter. Her tenants all share her one-bedroomed space, sleeping and living on a large raft of beds that leaves only a narrow corridor of standing room. At any one time, there are up to thirty-four residents, because it is rare for Birthial to turn anyone away. Each person wants to make their way in the world: find a job, reconnect with lost family, get access to healthcare, or simply secure a decent place to sleep. They all have stories to tell. Some are of short-lived success, violence or loss, and others are about moving up in the world from this unusual starting place. But the stories all have this in common—Birthial’s no-nonsense generosity and hard-nosed pragmatism.
The seventh book in the Wake Up, This is Joburg series by Mark Lewis and Tanya Zack takes us to Hillbrow—the inner city’s crowded, highrise flatland. There, at densities that are ten times greater than those of Hong Kong, people find ways to get on with things. In Birthial’s flat, getting on with things requires assessing one’s attachment to privacy, ownership and belonging. It probably also demands a thick skin and a good sense of humour.
Wake Up, This is Joburg is a series of ten stories about ordinary, interesting, odd or outrageous denizens of the city of Johannesburg. Some are newly arrived, some are long-time residents, but all have found a way to inhabit urban space in unusual ways, carving out a living—and a life—in an alternative economy, flying by the seat of their proverbial pants, or working the same job in the same building for decades. All are, in their own ways, survivors: of the dramatic changes that the city has seen in the last twenty years, of successive waves of xenophobia, of political upheaval here and in countries elsewhere on the continent. But some have simply not moved in decades, preferring to sit things out and watch the city transform on their doorstep, making the most of what it brings them. Wake up, This is Joburg is a series of stories about that thing you can’t quite put a finger on when you tell people why you live here.