Hydrocolonial Johannesburg

Louise Bethlehem*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Johannesburg is a landlocked city, famously the largest human concentration in the southern hemisphere not located on a river. What opportunities does it afford for hydrocolonial analysis, given Isabel Hofmeyr's anchoring of that term in oceanic studies? How might a hydrocolonial orientation defamiliarize the relations between surface and depths that have shaped influential recent accounts of the city? This article outlines the contours of a “hydrocolonial Johannesburg” though combining Isabel Hofmeyr, Charne Lavery and Sarah Nuttall's invitation to “read for water” with existing methodologies that read for infrastructure. It sets these strategies to work in the context of Lauren Beukes' second work of speculative fiction, Zoo City (Beukes, Lauren. 2010. Zoo City. Johannesburg: Jacana Media). The novel propels its readers into a noiresque fantasy world whose spatial coordinates closely reflect the extra-textual city of Johannesburg. Taking my cue from Beukes' infrastructural allusions, I mobilize her text to provide the struts for my own as I explore the intertextuality of Zoo City with works by William Kentridge and Sarah Gertrude Millin. Alternately foregrounded or barely perceptible until deliberately sought out, water helps to distinguish the various locales of the novel from one another. My essay turns to Zoo City to offer three vignettes that trace the flows of water and the contiguous presence of infrastructures in Johannesburg, pursuing their intersection beyond the boundaries of the novel into a larger expressive cultural archive to reflect on the relations between privilege and forms of anthropogenic degradation in the life of the city.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)340-354
Number of pages15
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
My thanks to Isabel Hofmeyr, Charne Lavery and Sarah Nuttall for their insights and for organizing the conference from which this essay emerged. Thanks to Pamila Gupta who kindly shared an unpublished essay. I am also grateful to William Kentridge, Anne McIlleron and Natalie Dembo for generously affording access to William Kentridge?s work.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Johannesburg
  • Lauren Beukes
  • Sarah Gertrude Millin
  • William Kentridge
  • hydrocolonialism
  • intertextuality


Dive into the research topics of 'Hydrocolonial Johannesburg'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this