Nicky Falkof considers the Parktown prawn as a metaphor for the anxieties of apartheid and post-apartheid suburban life, in an excerpt from Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global South City.
Header image: Martin Heigan on Flickr
Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global South City
Edited by Nicky Falkof and Cobus van Staden
Wits University Press, 2020
Read the excerpt:
Ugly Noo-Noos and Suburban Nightmares
By Nicky Falkof
While our language about cities generalises them, makes them comparable with other cities, able to circulate as part of urban (or sociological or cultural) discourse, cities themselves are unique. They are unparaphrasable … They have more in common with poetic than literal language, with literature than information.
—Lindsay Bremner, Writing the City into Being (2010, 44)
When I think about my childhood in suburban Johannesburg in the 1980s, I encounter a discomfortingly nostalgic mishmash of pastel colours and swimming pools, long summers of men braaiing and women in kitchens, the ubiquitous presence of my family’s domestic worker and her children, who felt like cousins except that they lived in a room outside the back of our house. I remember the parks where white children played on swings and black women chatted and fanned themselves on benches. I remember television: crowding around to watch a blonde Afrikaans contestant take the Miss World competition or trying to sync up the radio simulcast so that we could watch Dallas in English. I remember the vague sense of apprehension and the shuttered awareness that I lived in a place where violence happened but only ‘over there’, somewhere else that was never specified but was lurking in the quiet conversations of adults and the news reports that I wasn’t allowed to watch. I remember the warnings we were given at school about being vigilant and the looming awareness that the world—or rather our world—was fragile in ways that I could not understand.
But overall, my childhood was haunted by a far more potent and visible foe than the liberation fighters who stalked the nightmares of white voters. The monster of my youth was not the ANC terrorist or Angolan communist whom we were warned about. I did not fear stories of the murderous urges of ‘maids’ and ‘garden boys’. Rather, I was haunted by a more tangible demon: Libanasidus vittatus, the African king cricket, tusked king cricket or, to give it its most common South African designation, the Parktown prawn.
The Parktown prawn, its colloquial name derived from a suburb of Johannesburg, is an astonishing creature. It is one of the largest naturally occurring invertebrates in the region and can grow up to six or seven centimetres. It ranges in colour from pale yellow and white-flesh pink to brown to glossy red. Its head is dark brown, sometimes edged in yellow, with large, black and teardrop-shaped eyes. In males its large mandibles bear tusks that can grow to impressive sizes. The thorax and abdomen are paler, often with bands of black around the body. The legs are extremely powerful and covered in spines (Brettschneider et al. 2007, 111–13). Indeed, its appearance is so unusual that in the 1960s students at the University of the Witwatersrand ‘spread a rumour … that these large and intimidating insects were the result of genetic engineering gone wrong’ (Byrne 2015).
Libanasidus vittatus exhibits a range of defensive behaviours including hissing, ‘kicking, jumping, biting, stridulation, defecation and feigning death’ (Wolf, Bateman, and Brettschneider 2006, 76). It is known among humans for expelling a noxious black substance composed of stored faecal matter, thought to be more closely related to sexual communication than to predator defence. It is a nocturnal and opportunistic omnivore that often eats carrion and even live snails, as well as feasting on the pet food and faeces that are common to many suburban homes in Johannesburg. It is a sexually dimorphic and solitary insect, dormant during the winter, that has been known to grow in captivity for at least three years (Brettschneider and Bateman 2005, 382). Once extremely common in suburban homes and gardens in Johannesburg, it has undergone a dramatic population decline in recent years, although it continues to exist in the city in smaller numbers.
Parktown prawns are also notoriously difficult to kill. Johannesburg lore is awash with tales of prawns trapped under rubbish bins and sprayed with insecticide that refuse to die for days. They jump, often in the direction of threatening humans or predators, in a way that can seem to be an attack. Their spiky legs appear weapon-like. They spray their foul-smelling faecal matter at people and, as we have seen, they have the capacity to hiss, kick, bite and scratch (Byrne 2015). They like warm and dark places such as those found scattered around homes and in gardens.
For humans, who are often (and often violently) unwilling to cohabit with any other species barring those we have domesticated, the Parktown prawn presents a pressing set of problems. It is larger and more solid than most insects and its dense materiality can sometimes appear more akin to a mammalian or vertebrate than an invertebrate, insect species. This shifting between categories can lend it a quality of the uncanny (Freud 1990), something that is both frightening and familiar, a thing that is not what it ‘should’ be and not what it ‘is’ but rather hovers somewhere in between, suggesting the thinness of both positions. Its size, colouring, nocturnal behaviour and appearance place it into an aesthetic category that many of us align with monstrousness. Completely harmless to humans, it is nonetheless easy to anthropomorphise as an aggressive interloper into the controlled environment of the suburban home.(1) Indeed, until undertaking the research for this chapter I had never questioned the common notion that the Parktown prawn was a mutant cockroach rather than a perfectly normal and, in fact, rather impressive species of cricket.
My childhood memories are peppered with instances of being chased around the garden by a prawn-wielding older brother, of prawns lurking menacingly in the corners of bedrooms, of shrieking groups of children abandoning swimming pools that had been infested by exploratory prawns. They loom large in my own and others’ imaginary landscapes of the city; and it is this affective force, this quality of seeming both metaphorically and physically larger than life, that lends them their peculiar power as a symbol of some of suburban Johannesburg’s pressing communal anxieties.
In this chapter I draw on popular culture, personal narrative, and urban and environmental histories to consider the prawn as both a living creature and a powerful, if obscure, metaphor for the shifting neuroses of Johannesburg’s most privileged residents.
THE CULTURAL CRICKET
Parktown prawns play a small but significant role in popular culture in and about Joburg, performing various functions in the collective imagining of the city. In many of these they are related to experiences of otherness, particularly race, and more specifically to expressions of white anxiety.
In 1988 the actor Andrew Buckland first performed his comic satire The Ugly Noo Noo, an award-winning piece of physical theatre in which the primary character was a Parktown prawn. According to one critic, ‘Buckland confronts and exposes the fear and the violence of the particular period by displacing the events and political issues onto a series of comic skits, replete with scatological references and expletives’ (Blumberg 1997, 86). The play used mime, comedy, physical performance and voice to bring alive the ‘noo noo’, the ‘ugly yet harmless creature, who terrifies the inhabitants of the wealthy Johannesburg suburbs’ (Blumberg 1997, 85), and thus to satirise white South African fears in the last years of apartheid.(2) Buckland’s play was enormously popular in South Africa, performed both at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and at the Baxter in Cape Town. The Ugly Noo Noo inaugurated the portrayal of Parktown prawn as metaphor, firmly linking the frightening insect to the frightened white suburbanite.
Parktown prawns also make an appearance in Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 science fiction film District 9, which has been celebrated for its arch urban satire. Scholars have commented on its multilayered critiques of South Africa’s apartheid past, of current explosions of xenophobia, and of contemporary neoliberalism, globalisation and corporatisation (Heller-Nicholas 2011). Many have also pointed out the irony in its casual portrayal of Nigerians as violent, voodoo-obsessed gangsters, in line with the darkest stereotypes of xenophobic and Afrophobic South African hypernationalism (see, for example, Heller-Nicholas 2011; Janks and Adegoke 2011). The film is set in a near-future Joburg above which hangs a menacing alien spacecraft. The inhabitants of this craft, marooned far from their home planet, are confined to makeshift refugee camps in the city’s less salubrious areas, where they live in shacks and squabble over trash. They are despised by ‘legitimate’ residents, experimented on by shady medical corporations, and stalked by a Nigerian warlord who wants access to their advanced weaponry. The aliens have been nicknamed prawns owing to their shiny carapaces, powerful legs and insectoid appearance, all of which recall Joburg’s favourite monstrous invertebrate.
Comparing the film’s refugee aliens to Giorgio Agamben’s notion of homo sacer (1998), the figure of ‘bare life’ who is subject to but not protected by law and can thus be killed without consequence, Greg Bourke writes that the word prawn is ‘a prejudiced and derogatory term that implies that the aliens are bottom feeders who scavenge for left-overs. Clearly, the term is not one of affection or endearment, but rather reflects the xenophobic turn of the polity.’ The alien prawns ‘inhabit a space where they are treated with impunity and never afforded any of the protections we, as citizens, take for granted’ (Bourke 2012, 443, 455). The film’s main character, Wikus, is a white Afrikaner man who works for a multinational corporation that is studying the aliens. On one of his journeys through their shantytown, Wikus ingests a mysterious substance that leads to him slowly transmuting from human to prawn, in the process becoming both an object of corporate greed and an abject example of miscegenation, a cause of horror and disgust for his community, forced to flee to the prawn ‘township’. In District 9, then, the Parktown prawn connotes a despised otherness or outsiderness.
Parktown prawns also appear in the music video for ‘Fatty Boom Boom’, a 2012 single by the South African band Die Antwoord. Die Antwoord have been heavily critiqued for cultural appropriation and commercial exploitation of black art and music (Haupt 2013, 471). Despite its claims to ‘apparently [poke] fun at stereotypical Western perceptions of Africa’ (472), this particular video received a large amount of negative coverage because it presents an ‘obvious instance of contemporary blackface’, alongside ‘Die Antwoord’s notorious use of hypermasculine imagery with misogynist and homophobic overtones’ (Schmidt 2014, 133).
The video features a male impersonator of American pop star Lady Gaga moving through a chaotic, stylised, hyper-bright version of contemporary Joburg, in what seems meant to present the fears of a white foreign tourist adrift in the concrete jungle. In a scene referencing both District 9 and a drawing by the South African artist Anton Kannemeyer, whose work appears in this book, the caricature Gaga finds herself in the office of a gynaecologist, complaining that there is something ‘really funny going on down there’. In response the doctor removes a Parktown prawn from her vagina, an image which is ‘loaded’, according to Talia Meer, in a ‘global culture that vilifies women’s bodies and sexuality and portrays vaginas as requiring douching, perfuming and bejewelling … this music video is yet another depiction of women’s bodies as sexualised, violated and diseased’ (quoted in Haupt 2013, 472). In this context the Parktown prawn connotes dirt, decay and the disgusting. In emerging quite literally from within the woman, it depicts her as rotting from the inside.
Parktown prawns appear elsewhere in popular and personal texts, usually in hyperbolic terms that are primarily concerned with the emotions they inspire. In February 2018 the US musician Amanda Palmer crowd-sourced, wrote and performed ‘The Parktown Prawn song’ at a gig in Johannesburg, to much audience enthusiasm.(3) They are the subject of posts on popular blogs and websites like JHBLive (Rivers 2012) and 2Summers, whose author calls them ‘Joburg’s most legendary insect … Part cricket-on-steroids, part giant cockroach, park prehistoric monster’ (Mason 2013). Local journalists define them as one of the five ‘ugliest, creepiest insects on planet earth’ (Horn 2017) and as ‘crickets from hell’ (Saks 2009).
In the preparation for writing this chapter, I discussed them with a number of people. Friends, colleagues and students responded with a litany of alarming tales of their interactions with these insects. Stories abound of Parktown prawns hiding in shoes, clothing and other warm dark places. One acquaintance told me:
Everyone in my family is terrified of Parktown prawns. I think it’s epigenetics or something. My mom, in the seventies, pulled on tight pants and laced up knee-high boots before realising she had something in her knickers. And my gran once had one attach itself to her bum when she was making a wee.
I was in Grade 3 at school and pulling on my white tackies to go play tennis … and felt a sharp prick in the front of my shoe. I ignored it and ran down to the school courts but it got worse. I took my shoe off to see what the issue was (maybe a blackjack on my sock?) and a half-smushed and very angry Parktown prawn clawed its way out. I screamed, the loudest scream ever in my entire life, dropped the shoe and bolted to the other side of the court.
A friend from Europe related the following tale:
It was the second month after I arrived to Joburg. I was packing at two in the morning to go somewhere in Mpumalanga for fieldwork. Everybody had told me about crime in Joburg but not about the local entomology fauna of this city. Suddenly, among my sandals I noticed something moving. It was the biggest cucaracha that I have seen in my life … I was not going to sleep in that room with such a beast. Suddenly, the thing throws ink, I have no words to express my feelings of horror. I gathered a lot of strength to take my sandal and kill the massive cucaracha. I was traumatised by the act. It was like if I killed a mammal.
Stories like this are told with a mix of hilarity and horror at the incongruity of the prawn’s appearance and behaviour and the excessive, often unintentional reaction it produces.
INSECTS OUTSIDE, INSECTS INSIDE
The visceral horror and physical disgust that Parktown prawns inspire in many humans lead me to think about Julia Kristeva’s conception of the abject (1982). Kristeva writes about the intense and bodily experiences that we have when viewing a corpse, also occurring in more common reactions to shit, sewage, even the skin that forms on milk, as instances of the possible breakdown of meaning which occurs when the differentiation between the self and the object, or the self and the other, becomes unstable. I do not want to suggest that coming across a Parktown prawn is necessarily an equivalent experience, or that it requires diagnosis in psychoanalytic terms; rather, I am employing Kristeva’s notion rhetorically to consider what the Parktown prawn’s confusing body and boundary-breaching behaviour may suggest within the narrative and mythological landscape of the city.
For suburban, usually white Johannesburgers, the distinction between self and other is powerfully manifested in the distinction between inside and outside the city, the suburb and the home. Apartheid brought in a pernicious set of laws that were designed to facilitate so-called influx control, limiting black people’s access to cities and the potential social and economic mobility promised by urbanisation. Influx control ‘was seen as a regional version of much wider efforts to engineer and restrict cross-oceanic and cross-border migration’ (Nightingale 2015, 253). Certain areas, including the ‘leafy green forest of Johannesburg’s affluent northern suburbs’ (Gevisser 2008, 318), were legally zoned for whites-only residence. In these ways whites attempted to maintain the always spurious distinction between inside and outside: the city was presented as a whites-only space and black people were imaginatively discarded outside its limits.
Of course, these curbs on mobility were always flawed, not least because of white reliance on the physical labour of black bodies. In particular, black working women unsettled the idea that suburbs were for whites only: they ‘occupied literally all corners of Johannesburg’s residential neighbourhoods and as a result they knew the suburbs intimately and distinctly’ (Ginsburg 2011, 2). Perhaps more importantly, as Rebecca Ginsburg shows, they used their ‘back room’ accommodation as an illicit landing station for friends, family and acquaintances arriving in the city. Nonetheless, black women were ‘careful not to draw attention to themselves through their dress or their bearing, [so] their ubiquity made them invisible to whites; their positions as family servants made them appear innocuous’ (Ginsburg 2011, 53). Familiarity and invisibility allowed whites to maintain the fiction that their homes and neighbourhoods were free of ‘outsiders’, and that the ‘inside’ was safe and controlled. Incursions from the outside, such as workers’ husbands or children, were often considered illegitimate and even frightening. Overall, barring domestic and garden workers in their comforting uniforms, white South African suburban residents seldom saw black people in their neighbourhoods, allowing them to maintain the collective fiction that the boundary between inside and outside remained solid.
In the years since formal apartheid ended, South Africa has replaced looming civil war with a high rate of often violent crime, responses to which draw on existing apprehensions about outsiders. Lindsay Bremner writes that ‘old notions of race and the contemporary malignant, though blurry, figure of the criminal have combined, very quickly in the South African imaginary’ (2010, 92). As in other major South African cities (Durington 2009; Lemanski 2004), suburban Joburgers invest heavily in what Martin J. Murray, among others, calls ‘siege architecture’ (2011, 222). Private houses in ‘Fortress Johannesburg’ (Lipman and Harris 1999) are surrounded by high walls and automated gates. They are festooned with security gates and bars, warning signs, spikes, barbed wire, electric fences and beams that trigger alarms linked to armed private security companies. Meanwhile, ‘neighbourhood associations have blocked off streets, erected boom gates, and built checkpoints and sentry posts staffed with private security operatives’ (Murray 2011, 273; see also Comaroff and Comaroff 2017). The external architecture of suburban Johannesburg and the security industry that serves it are designed to keep the outside from accessing the inside.
But despite our best attempts, such boundaries are difficult to apply to other species or to the natural world as a whole. Things have a way of creeping in. Kristeva writes that the abject is that which ‘disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules’ (1982, 4). The appearance of a frightening Parktown prawn within an otherwise fortified home can mirror the experience of abjection, of the sudden instability of meaning, precisely because it reveals that the home—and, by extension, the self for which it stands—is permanently vulnerable; the borders do not hold. With their disturbing colouring, their fleshy materiality, their impossible leaping, their foul smells and their refusal to die, Parktown prawns make an easily available monster. They are an instance par excellence of the debased outside forcing its way into the sanctified inside and in the process revealing the fiction of the division between them. The qualities that make them intimidating are comparable to our worst stereotyped fears about intruders of our own species. They are solitary, and thus untrustworthy; they are predators and bottom feeders, so are both dangerous and without morality; they are outsized creatures that appear too large and solid to be ‘normal’ insects, and thus seem exceptional and monstrous; they ‘attack’ in a way that can be experienced as unprovoked and even violent; they spray foul-smelling faecal matter and are thus dirty pollutants impacting on the hygiene of the suburban home. They reveal the porousness of arbitrarily constructed divisions between inside and outside in a way that suggests greater anxieties: about crime, about safety, about others.
It is somewhat ironic, given how closely they are associated, that Parktown prawns should not in fact exist in Johannesburg. Libanasidus vittatus is native to the small mining town of Barberton, east of Joburg (Byrne 2015). It made its first appearance in the city in the 1960s and may have been carried there by migrant workers who moved between mining sites. It was colloquially named for Parktown, which was in the early twentieth century the city’s ‘quintessential white suburb’ (Nightingale 2015, 267), a ‘remote but highly fashionable’ area that ‘became the residential neighbourhood of choice for the wealthiest families of Johannesburg’ (Murray 2011, 43).(4) Parktown was developed as a place where the rich could escape the foul smells, poverty and moral decay that came along with the mining boom, and where they could build a neighbourhood that matched the sensory expectations of a newly minted upper class. To this end, Parktown and other areas became the focus of enthusiastic landscape architecture designed to distance them from the surrounding bleakness of the Witwatersrand ridges. Murray (2011, 43) writes that
the large-scale importation of exotic saplings, shrubs, and other plants from coastal nurseries fundamentally transformed the ecological landscape of the ‘villa neighbourhoods’ of Doornfontein, Belgravia, Hospital Hill, and Parktown, creating in almost an instant tree-lined streets and lush suburbs on the once wind-swept and treeless land plateau.
As well as inaugurating Johannesburg’s famous ‘man-made forest’, the greening of Parktown also created the perfect set of environmental conditions for Libanasidus vittatus, which thrives in moist forested areas. When combined with a lower number of natural predators and with suburban gardening and leisure practices (plentiful pet food and animal faeces to scavenge, water-heavy plants and grass), this ideal climate and environment led to a population explosion and consequently to Johannesburg’s ‘plague’ of Parktown prawns.
The presence of these creatures is a symptom of both the city’s wealth and its improbability. Located for mineral extraction rather than for proximity to water or other practical elements of human survival, Johannesburg is the largest city in Africa not situated near a coast, significant lake or river.(5) It is at base a deeply exploitative and hubristic endeavour, built on the criss-crossing shafts of gold mines and, consequently, the bodies of those who dug and worked in them. According to Nuttall and Mbembe, ‘There is no metropolis without a necropolis. Just as the metropolis is closely linked to monuments, artefacts, technological novelty, an architecture of light and advertising, the phantasmagoria of selling, and a cornucopia of commodities, so is it produced by what lies below the surface’ (2008, 21). In Johannesburg what lies beneath the surface is a complex and longstanding extractive economy that depends on both human and mineral capital, that spurred the city’s establishment and led to its formalisation as a financial centre and consequently to its ongoing existence as an African megacity. Geographically, Johannesburg should not exist. Economically, though, it is a regional and even continental powerhouse.
During the colonial and apartheid eras the greening of the northern suburbs allowed privileged white Johannesburgers to avoid knowledge of the human costs of where they lived—the sweat, the blood, the sewage, the broken bones and broken families—in favour of a sanitised and ‘civilised’ vision of a modern and aesthetically pleasing city. Landscape was an ideological tool in the creation of the suburbs (Cane 2019). The natural-unnatural forest (Johannesburg’s famous purple jacarandas are in fact an invasive imported species) smoothed over traces of the city’s underbelly so that white suburbanites could look away from the necropolis beneath their feet. The suburban forest helped to conceal both the geographical unlikelihood of building a major city on this high, arid and rocky plateau and the distasteful complications of migration, forced urbanisation, poverty and segregation that were a consequence of the mining industry’s rapacious hunger for disposable black labour.
Wealth and improbability thus go hand in hand. The first is required to create the second, and both helped build a city where no city should be. In this reading of the physicality of Johannesburg, Parktown prawns are a reminder of unpleasant realities that some of us prefer not to think about. They suggest what Stuart Hall calls the ‘constitutive outside’: ‘the radically disturbing recognition that it is only through the relation to the Other, the relation to what it is not … that the “positive” meaning of any term—and thus its “identity”—can be constructed’ (1996, 4). Their fleshy corporeality, brought to the city by the same strategies that made it pleasantly liveable for certain categories of humans, reminds suburban dwellers that the city is not ‘natural’. If Parktown prawns suggest the entry of the abject outside into the managed inside, and consequently the unsettling of borders and boundaries that shifts the stability of meaning, they do this precisely because of the way in which white racial capitalism attempted to formalise boundaries and to build a white city in its own image.
Like Johannesburg, Libanasidus vittatus should not exist on this Highveld plateau, and, like Johannesburg, it owes its unnatural prosperity to the mineral wealth that was brought up from underground and used to establish a suburban paradise. The monstrousness that so many humans perceive in it is emblematic of the monstrousness of the violent and unnatural city that suburban boundaries can never fully keep out.
In contemporary Johannesburg, Parktown prawns are more of a curiosity than a plague. Long-time residents comment on how they seem to have vanished in recent years, while thrill-seeking newcomers bemoan the fact that they have never managed to catch a glimpse of this famous local creature. One of the most popular theories surrounding their demise claims that it is due to the increase in numbers of hadedas, the prehensile ibis, or Bostrychia hagedash, known for its onomatopoeic call and fondness for feasting on crickets. Hadedas were also introduced to Johannesburg by natural range expansion, drawn by the city’s favourable climate, multiple gardens and constructed wetlands. It is more likely, however, that the drop in the city’s Parktown prawn population is due to a combination of human and environmental factors. Drought, unpredictable rainfall and small shifts in climate mean that the moist forest environment favoured by Libanasidus vittatus is no longer as common. Changes in the way in which people live in suburban Johannesburg may also be responsible. Patterns of labour, employment, ownership and space have changed as the city has become increasingly linked into global flows of capital, culture and people. Contemporary suburbanites often renovate domestic workers’ quarters to create so-called garden cottages (see Falkof 2015) for income-producing rental. This is part of the comparative densification of Joburg’s suburbs from large individual stands with extensive gardens to cluster homes, gated communities and golf estates (Murray 2011). For many, professional outdoor services have replaced the ‘garden boys’ of yore (Cane 2019), and gardening trends have changed, meaning that outdoor spaces are tidier and more manicured with fewer compost heaps and areas of moist decomposition. Increased use of pesticides has lessened the availability of food sources like snails. As a cursory search for sensationalist YouTube videos reveals, Parktown prawns persist in Joburg. However, their population has undergone a steep decline, to the point where they are now considered a rare phenomenon rather than a persistent problem.
I have suggested that Parktown prawns have a symbolic meaning that outweighs the realities of their physical existence, and that leads humans to misrecognise them as a source of legitimate threat when in fact common reactions to their presence are a manifestation of collective anxieties that characterise suburban life in the ‘elusive metropolis’ (Nuttall and Mbembe 2008). By getting in everywhere they can, Parktown prawns show the paucity of the myth that the suburbs can be kept separate from the city. They suggest the panic with which suburban dwellers approach the idea of outsiders being inside, as well as the pollution that this mixing anticipates. Perhaps most importantly, they act as a small reminder of Johannesburg’s underpinnings: that this is not just a ‘normal’ city in a ‘normal’ place (as though such a thing could exist) but is rather a city in which the beauty of the constructed landscape was designed to distance the privileged from the scars of colonial and apartheid practices of labour and segregation. The Parktown prawn is thus a creature of both excess and remainder. The outsized reactions it inspires reveal its symbolic weight as a signifier of the gross, uncanny and abject outsider; but at the same it drags with it unsettling traces of what the suburbs wish to forget about the city.
What happens, then, to a city whose constitutive outsides begin to disappear? I have written elsewhere (Falkof 2012) about the slow vanishing of other visual reminders of Johannesburg’s extractive histories, ‘the city’s second mountain range, the artificial one, [which] rose slowly throughout the twentieth century in the form of enormous, bright-yellow piles of waste-earth known as the “mine dumps”’ (Nightingale 2015, 230). Gerald Garner calls these the ‘remnants of besmirched mine dumps that are symbols of disintegration … and resemble an uninhabitable and polluted moonscape’ (quoted in Iqani and Baro 2017, 113). As time progresses, these fake hills—tinted innards scraped from deep beneath the surface, piled up haphazardly and decorated with weak attempts at plant life—have begun to crumble and fragment. Eventually they will slide back into the ground, taking with them a by-blow of the violence of Joburg’s birth. The same applies to the collapse in the population of Parktown prawns. In vanishing from sight and from the city’s collective imagination, these creatures remove a certain awareness of what Johannesburg was. Their disappearance is part of its ‘sociohistorical amnesia’ (Murray 2011, 329), an urban tendency to demolish and build over the remnants of the past, to insist that the ‘world-class African city’, as its current marketing slogan presents it, is a hypermodern and global place or product ‘in which tradition and the past have become stylised constructions forged out of the present’ (Murray 2011, 329).
If we consider the Parktown prawn as a metaphor for the anxieties of apartheid and post-apartheid suburban life, then we must also consider what its vanishing means for the urban imaginaries of the most fortunate—and often most separate—denizens of this ‘new’ Johannesburg, a city that is ‘porous, indefinite and open-ended’ (Bremner 2010, 34), built on the bones of the old one but refusing to recognise its situation as part necropolis, part charnel house. Those who are not affected by them on a daily basis can, even more blithely than before, forget the legacies of migrant and domestic labour, influx control, spatial engineering, xenophobia, Randlord rapacity, even the mines themselves. Without the lurking potential of the insect-monster-outsider-other, the hermetic frame of cloistered suburban self-imagery remains sealed. No liminal creatures burst in to reveal the weakness of the fictions supporting suburban Johannesburg life. The particular uncanniness of the extractive city is exchanged for more general forms of urban anxiety, in which Johannesburg is just another big, frightening and crime-ridden southern city whose threats can be managed (although never exterminated) by wealth, taste and private security.
For its middle classes, then, the vanishing of reminders of certain aspects of the past has allowed Johannesburg to become truly ‘global’. Generic urban fears about crime, immigration, environmental problems, political instability and other concerns have papered over more existential anxieties that once haunted the imaginations of many suburban whites. As the Parktown prawns have vanished, so too has their capacity to imaginatively undermine spurious claims about the city’s meritocracy and post-racial transformation. This ‘new’ Johannesburg is not simply shorn of memory, a claim that can be made about its many incarnations, from mining town to modernist experiment to edge city sprawl (Murray 2011). Rather, it is shorn of symbols, barring those that are approved (and often paid for) by the heralds of the new globalism.
The ubiquitous Libanasidus vittatus of my childhood has devolved from a constant token of the weirdness lurking under Johannesburg’s glitzy skin to a minor curiosity of local urban mythology. With it has gone one of the many necessary reminders of the city’s violent origins and histories of racial exclusion.
Many thanks to James Harrison, the zoological curator of the Wits Life Sciences Museum (WLSM) based at the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences (APES) at Wits University, for generously sharing his insect knowledge; to Sara Orning, for her insightful comments and skill at reining in melodrama; and to Greg Falkof, for spending much of the 1980s terrorising me with Parktown prawns.
1 Although my focus here is on what Parktown prawns meant and mean within suburban anxieties, they are by no means confined to the suburbs. Township and inner-city residents are equally likely to share personal and apocryphal stories of their interactions with these creatures. The forested and gardened conditions of the suburbs provide their most appropriate environment, but they do often spread further afield within the greater city area.
2 Between 1989 and 1991 The Ugly Noo Noo was nominated for multiple international awards. It won eight, for acting, production, script and comedy, in South Africa and at the Edinburgh Festival in the UK. A version of its script appears in the book More Market Plays (Kani 1994), although this cannot do justice to the physicality of the piece.
3 I am grateful to Lauren Beukes for this point.
4 Despite its many heritage sites, twenty-first-century Parktown is neither remote nor particularly fashionable. It is extremely close to Hillbrow, discussed in the chapter by Aidan Mosselson, one of the densest and most crime-ridden parts of central Joburg. Its sprawling homes and gracious apartment blocks are surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by security. Parktown has become a liminal suburb: the architecture of the rich in uncomfortable proximity to the poor.
5 Research suggests that, along with Birmingham in the UK (also at one time a heavily industrial city), Johannesburg is one of only two major cities in the world not built on a water source (Kings 2016).
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