Strangers From Underground

Rats! In the 1980s, a young Jacob Dlamini was growing up in Katlehong, and rats were everywhere. “There were two kinds of rats when I was growing up: a striped rat we called imbiba and a big rodent we called iroto. The former you could eat: the latter you would not touch even if your life depended on it,” he says, in this loving, detailed account of the everyday of his childhood, excerpted from the ground-breaking book Native Nostalgia.


The rat occupies a special place in South African struggle mythology. Igundwane, Nguni for rat, is what you call a scab; amagundwane is what you call scab labourers. In struggle-speak, to be a rat is to be a traitor, vermin. It is not uncommon to hear striking workers shout: ‘Bulalani amagundwane! Kill the scabs.’ It is also not uncommon to hear of people being hacked to death, thrown off trains, doused with petrol and set alight – all for being scabs and crossing the picket line. To be a rat, then, is to be forever marked for gruesome death.

I am not a scab and do not think I am marked for death. But there may be hacks who see my question of what it means to be nostalgic for a life lived under apartheid as a sign of treachery. To these people, my attempt to upset the neat master narrative of the struggle in which blacks suffered and struggled at the same, might constitute behaviour no different from a rat. If these readers were indeed to think that way about this book, it would be, for a township boy like me, an ironic case of hunter becoming the hunted.

In a book on the rodents of southern Africa published in 1981, Gerrit de Graaff listed the following gas being among the predators of the yellow-footed squirrel: hawks, owls, genets, wild cats, pythons and ‘Black children using dogs and sticks’. We did not have squirrels in Katlehong when I was growing up, but the first time I read De Graaff’s book, I recalled an encounter in the early 1980s between my cousin S and a rodent. Cousin S was on his way to the local shops when, as he was cutting a double lap behind a neighbour’s coalshed, he came face to face with a rat, a white rat. He instinctively picked up a rock while the rat stared him down, threw it and knocked the rat dead. Satisfied with a hit job well done, S went on his way, leaving the dead rat lying behind. He had not gone far when he heard a scream. It turned out that the rat was a neighbour’s pet that had escaped from its cage. This explained why the thing had stared at S while he picked up the rock, instead of scampering off as the rats we were used to would have done.

Unfortunately for S, a neighbour saw him kill the pet and it wasn’t long before the pet owner confronted my mother, demanding compensation for her loss and punishment for my cousin. To keep the peace in the neighbourhood, Mother accepted the neighbour’s demands. S and I were about to go on a trip for a karate tournament but Mother decided that, as punishment, S would not go. S was devastated. We had been waiting for the trip for a year. But we were also incredulous. Who in his right mind kept rats as pets? We could not believe it. As De Graaff so expertly put it, we black children preyed on rodents. We would go on hunting trips against rodents, using fire to smoke them out of their holes and stones to finish them off.

There were two kinds of rats when I was growing up: a striped rat we called imbiba and a big rodent we called iroto. The former you could eat: the latter you would not touch even if your life depended on it. For some reason, imbiba was considered more hygienic than the slightly bigger roto. It was also believed that the eating imbiba could help bed-wetters get over their problem. But I could never understand why hunting imbiba was such a big deal. Hunting the bloody things was a lot of work for very little reward. Imbibas are such small rodents that you have to kill hundreds in one hunt and skewer them in a straightened hanger to have enough to eat. But hunt them we did. It was part of the fun of growing up in a township.

Looking back on my childhood, I can’t help thinking that part of what made rat-hunting such fun was that rats were not a common sight in our neighbourhood. They were there but they were not as ubiquitous as they seem to be today. Nowadays, the rat problem has become big in South African townships that tabloids have been feasting on the hysteria generated by the rodents. Municipalities have had to introduce owls to deal with the problem. In Katlehong, the municipal council has even hosted a ‘rat summit’ – such is the scale of the epidemic. For someone like me, with a pathological aversion to rats of any kind, the apparent profusion of rats has induced a new sense in me: dread. It is as if the whole township has become Orwell’s Room 101, where we each meet our worst nightmares. There is nothing like the sight of a big grey rat, long rubbery tail in tow, to fill my entire body with loathing.

According to RatZooMan, a European Union-funded research project intended to examine the prevalence of plague-bearing rats in southern Africa, ‘South Africa is a plague-endemic country and needs to have ongoing surveillance in place.’ The plague, which wiped out a quarter of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages, swept through South Africa during the Anglo-Boer war in 1899-1902, killing thousands of people. Rodents are vectors of diseases such as leptospirosis, toxoplasmosis, rabies, trichinosis, murine typhus, relapsing fever, plague, helminthes and salmonellosis, to mention a few. They are nasty little creatures and we are right to dread them.

Who can’t but feel a sense of revulsion when tabloids keep telling us that our rats have got so big that our cats, or at least the handful one finds in Katlehong, dare not approach them. Every so often, one local rag in particular will run stories showing pictures of corpses that have allegedly been gnawed at by massive rats, called amagalpentsi in some townships, in unkempt government mortuaries. There are also reports of babies who have been killed in their sleep by rats. As one scientific paper put it: ‘Recent newspaper articles have dramatized the apparent increase in … rodent populations, often exaggerating their physical size and spreading panic.’

The paper said that resident of Durban’s informal settlements viewed rodents as ‘primary competitors for scarce resources. There are many tales of rats performing amazing and brazen thefts of food, such as opening lids on a food source.’ It actually does not matter whether what the papers say about rats is true. It is enough simply that there are sufficient numbers of these four-legged creatures to induce panic in many people. Perhaps in the rat, democratic South Africa may have found a more fearsome and enduring symbol that the criminal.

Although I do not know if this is a question of life imitating art. I do find it telling that in its broad outlines Winston’s nightmare in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four echoes some of the standard tabloid tales about rats in South Africa. Listen to the torturer O’Brien torment Winston: ‘The rat … although a rodent, is carnivorous. You are aware of that. You will have heard of the things that happen in the poor quarters of this town. In some streets a woman dare not leave her baby alone, even for five minutes. The rats are certain to attack it. Within quite a small time they will strip it to the bones. They also attack sick or dying people. They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless.

In the rat, it seems to me, all the fears, anxieties, hysteria and uncertainty come together that make living in South Africa today such a nerve-racking experience. I once wrote a column asking where all these big rats came from. Many people responded with obvious answers about human population increases, the spread of informal settlements, poor hygiene in many of these places and shoddy service delivery by the government. However, one colleague suggested that the big rats we see in South Africa’s big cities, especially the former mining areas around Johannesburg, might actually come from abandoned and flooded former mines. According to this man, rats are to South African mines what canaries were to European mines. He said it was all well and good when the mines, which are some of the deepest in the world, were still operational. Then the rats underground could get feed through human traffic going up and down the shafts. But with the closure of many mines and their flooding due to lack of maintenance and to prevent illegal mining, the rats had nowhere to go but up. If this is indeed the case, the denizens of South Africa’s economic foundations, the mines, may be coming to the surface to claim some of what belongs to them. The rat, then, may be the symbol par excellence of Gauteng’s duality as a place of the ground and the underground.

The duality is brought out by Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall in their book Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. They point out that the city would not have existed without mining. In other words the city owes its existence to the subterranean. They write: ‘It is at these deeper levels and in the way the world below interacted with the surface and the edges that the origins of the city as a metropolis are to be located. Beneath the central business district and the environs of Johannesburg lie thousands of boreholes and drilling footages of varying depths …’ To be sure, Mbembe and Nuttall are writing about Johannesburg, but their conversations hold true for the conurbation that contains Katlehong. Cities such as Germiston, Boksburg and Benoni also owed their existence to the same process which lead to the founding of Johannesburg townships such as Katlehong, Vosloorus and Daveyton grew out of the same economic and cultural drives that made Gauteng, the place of gold, the commercial and cultural capital of South Africa. Again as Mbembe and and Nuttall point out, for far too long ‘the township’ has been treated as a marginal ‘site of social struggles or of contestation over the allocation of public goods.’ This treatment had tended to ignore the ways in which townships are ‘both of the city and not of the city’.

In the rodents that roam the townships today, one is confronted with both the past of urban South Africa with its underground origins and fragility of the new order. There is seemingly not much we can do to control the rat epidemic. Wherever human are, rats will always find a niche for themselves. In the rat problem, we are also shown the limits of state power. There is only so much the government can do – and getting rid of rats is not one of those competencies.

Once saw this failure in the hamfisted way the municipality that controls Katlehong went about its business of pest control when residents started complaining about the rats. It introduced owls. A resident of Thokosa, the small township to the west of Katlehong, told a focus group that the rats were so big, not even owls knew how to tackle them. ‘What owl in its right mind would attack a rat that can stand on two legs?’ The council was aware of the fact that owls occupy a negative place in township cosmologies. They are associated with witchcraft. Some people believe that seeing an owl during the day means the same thing as seeing a black cat in broad daylight: death for you or someone close to you. The council knew this. After all, the majority of the people running the council today come from townships. It does not matter that these views are quaint , nonsensical or downright silly. However, the council believed that the residents would change their views about owls overnight – all because the council told them to. Well, they were wrong. People started killing the owls with as much enthusiasm as the hated rats. In fact, some of them did not even know that the owls had been brought in by the council to feed on the rats.

One relative, a good marksman, took to shooting owls as they perched on electricity poles. He had no time for the righteous nonsense being peddled by the municipality. The rats might have been a nuisance but at least, for him, they were not the omen that owls were. It took a while to persuade him that seeing an owl during the day did not mean death. But many residents still see owls as a greater evil than rats, even though there are more of the latter. It also seems not to matter that rats are, in the greater scheme of things, certainly  more dangerous than owls could be. In a sense, one must feel sorry for the municipality. How can it possibly be expected to factor witchcraft into its planning strategy.

In talking about the clash between instrumentalist reason as exemplified by the government and township cosmologies that cannot be subjected easily to such reason, I am also trying to extend Mbembe and Nuttall’s argument about the connection between the visible and invisible in the making of South Africa’s commercial capital. They write: ‘In fact, the entire history of Johannesburg’s built structures testify not only to its inscription into the canons of modern Western urban aesthetics, but also to the originary tension virtually built into its morphology and geological structure between the life below the surface, what is above, and the edges.’ Put another way, the coming of the rats might be my nightmare, my Room 101, come true. But it is in a larger sense Gauteng and its political economy opening up to the world. The rats might be a bad dream come true for me. But they are in effect among some of greater Johannesburg’s original inhabitants.

Although, according to De Graaff, there are ’73 rodent species known to occur in southern Africa’, I think it would be fair to say that in townships such as Katlehong, there are two rodent species known to occur there: big rats and very big rats. That, at any rate, is what many township residents seem to think. I was persuaded of this when I heard a 4-year-old grandnephew make what has now become a standard township rat joke: ‘The rats are so big they look like cats.’ The boy’s comment was made all the more interesting by the fact that, as the township pet-owning business goes, there are very few cats around. In fact, there is a greater chance that the boy has yet to see a real cat and only knows about them from talk or TV. No matter, it is probably just as good that possibly every township kid knows what rats look like. Properly channelled, this could be their first lesson in the urban history of southern Africa.

As Mbembe and Nuttalll say, ‘In many senses, there is no metropolis without a necropolis. Just as the metropolis is closely linked to monuments, artifacts, technological novelty, an architecture of light and advertising, the phantasmagoria of selling, and cornucopia of commodities, so it is produced by what lies below the surface.’ This makes me wonder, though, if the dread I feel at the sight of a big township rat is not perhaps an aversion of a side of South African history that has always been there but is often talked about only in terms of political economy. My sense of dread is real enough. But it comes only when I see rats not when I think in abstract terms of the origins of South Africa’s economy. That is why, I think, it is so important to start writing histories of urban South Africa that more consciously foreground the senses.

To do that would be a way of confronting the legacy of apartheid. As Mbembe and Nuttall write ‘The work of apartheid was to make sure that the lower depths of the city, without which its modernity was unreadable, were made to appear as strangers to city, apart from the city.’ The challenge perhaps is to see the rats that today populate urban South Africa in ever increasing numbers as an integral part of the city. We should not see them as strangers that have suddenly appeared from we don’t know where.

Here, we might even extend this point to confront the way in which we tend to talk about the bodies that populate the two hundred or so informal settlements around greater Johannesburg and the East Rand. As more and more mines throw their workers above the surface and into a sea of redundancy and superfluity, many of these former mineworkers have flocked to the informal settlements. With nothing but the certainty of a bare life to return to in their rural areas, former miners have opted to eke out an existence on the margins of the cities they helped build. They have chosen to survive on the informal settlements which are home to many of the rats that have seized the popular imagination and sparked such fear and hysteria. Not quite sure what to make of people who have appeared on surface as if from nowhere, many of us are asking: ‘Where did they come from?’  The miners of course answer back but they did not seem interested in justifying their existence.

It seems to me now that, by seeing the rat epidemic purely as a public health issue, one would be blinding oneself to one of the greatest revenges of history possible. Greater Johannesburg, not to mention Katlehong and its environs, may be among the most segregated cities in the world. But, as we know from the European plague in the Middle Ages, the Black Death did not care for social distinction. It was as equally brutal with the nobility as it is with the common people. It may ablso be that in the rat, which is just as prevalent in places of privilege as it is in poor areas, South Africa also faces one of the greatest social and epidemic levellers we have ever seen; something akin, in fact, to HIV/AIDS. Interestingly, many of the diseases borne by rats are not necessarily fatal to humans – save for individuals with compromised immune systems because of conditions such as HIV/AIDS. This may be just one of the many ways in which South Africans are forced to confront – despite the panic, hysteria and exaggerations inspired by everything from crime and corruption to rodents – the many problems we share in common. For my part, I am not interested simply in the racialised social distinctions that traditionally define South Africa. I am also keen at examining social distinction as a key historical feature of black life. Black South Africans may experience the rat epidemic the same way. But that doesn’t mean they are the same.


We cannot deal with these meanings without engaging with the role of memory in the production of space and time. If space and time are categories of measurement that are, at the same time, mutually constitutive of human exchange, if space and time are not ‘natural’ entities but socially produced products of the human imagination, there are serious implications for how we think about history. This is for the simple reason that to think about history is to think about a given place in a given time. What, after all, are our memories if they are not of given places in a given time?

To remember, then, is a political act. It is not, however, to articulate the past ‘the way it really was’.

I cannot emphasise this enough. In securing memories of my township, I want to alert us to the role that townships must play in the constitution of the public sphere, the evolution of nationhood, citizenship and identity in post-apartheid South Africa. Lefebvre says no revolution can succeed if it does not reconstitute space.


Excerpted from Native Nostalgia (Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd, 2009)

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