So who is Johannes?

#143. Get some answers. On Saturday I was at Origins Museum at Wits (not a striking student to be seen) to listen to a discussion on Johannesburg/Kolkata, as part of a series of events that are linked to Words on Water, a South Africa-India Literary Festival. The discussion on Johannesburg prompted the question: Who is Johannes?

Nobody had a confident answer despite the audience being filled with writers and historians, literary academics and people who protect the city’s heritage. I remember watching a comedian in Grahamstown sometime in the early 90s who joked about how that Eastern Cape town got its name. “Dear mum, I have discovered a town. Yours Graham.” It’s seems Johannes wasn’t far behind with his burg.
This question seems to hanging about the city lately much like that mothership in District 9. A kind of who are we? Where did we come from moment.

Last week at a used book-store in Parkhurst (a gem called Pickwicks) I chatted to the owner who told me that books about this city — that had for many years lain gathering dust — are of late collector’s items. This sudden interest in who we are, he theorised, is an attempt by white South Africans to stake their claim to this city. An interesting thought.
I was there looking for a copy of Clive’s Chipkin’s Johannesburg Style: Architecture & Society, 1880s-1960s which I have been told I would be lucky to find — and for a hefty price. So far, no luck.
Passing by the Goodman Gallery on Jan Smuts Avenue I saw that artist Sue Williamson has also been asking some questions as part of her Other Voices, Other Cities exhibition:

untitled 3 (Large)(2)

And the answer to the question? I turned to The Joburg Book: A Guide to the city’s history, people and places (edited by Nechama Brodie, of Hunter Gatherer fame).
The book’s take on it is under the headline: “Which Johannes?”
“The exact origin of Johannesburg’s name has never been determined — despite the attempts of many historians and commissions and the existence of numerous urban anecdotes. There is a number of men who, individually or collectively, might lay reasonable claim to having lent their name.”
These are surveyor-general Johann Rissik, head of the mines department Christiann Johannes Joubert, Veldkornet Johannes Petrus Meyer and the president of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek at the time Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger.

So the Johannes’s were a dime a dozen… and the city’s origins lack the kind of panache that you would want out of a story like that. But I console myself with the thought it was a Johannes that won the day and saved me from having to write Nothing to do in Kakfontein/Blikkiesdorp besides…

* Pickwicks Books is at 37 4th Avenue, Parkhurst, Johannesburg.

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