Cruising the Transvaal: Queer Inventories and Itineraries

The project takes as its starting point Halberstam’s argument for the “utility of getting lost over finding our way”, of conjuring “a Benjaminian stroll or a situationist derivé, an ambulatory journey through the unplanned, the unexpected, the improvised, and the surprising” (2011:15-16). Cruising the Transvaal responds to the queerer aspects of Malcomess and Kreutzfeldt’s Benjaminian ‘stroll’ in Not No Place: Johannesburg. Fragments of Spaces and Times (2013) and contributes to an unfinished, tentative and thoroughly un-objective encyclopedia of the city. My concern is with what could be called queer spaces in the Transvaal between 1886-1994. Some of these were ‘gay’ spaces in the sense that they supported (mostly) secretive communities of homosexuals, for instance in bars like Mandy’s, Champions, The Factory, The Skyline; sex clubs like the London Health Clinic; cruising and cottaging spots like Zoo Lake, Joubert Park, the Rose Gardens and Park Station public toilets; and neighbourhoods like Forrest Town and Hillbrow. There are other spaces which I aim to catalogue and these are queer in other, sometimes less ‘gay’, ways. Here I’m interested in the pool—public and private. From the sexually charged men’s change-rooms at the Summit Club pool in Hillbrow, to an attempt at the archaeology of the ‘kidney-shaped’ domestic pool, I attempt swimming as a kind of flâneurie. The project is implicitly (i) spatial and (ii) queer, (iii) provisional, but also, perhaps, counterintuitively focussed, planned and rigorous. My interest is research that is tentative, exploratory, unfocused, experimental and ‘data’ that is silly, personal, unproductive, unreliable, ephemeral, sleazy, incoherent in order to produce a study that is unfinished and meandering.

Working Bibliography

Bunn, D. 1998. White Sepulchres: On the Reluctance of Monuments. In: Vladislavić, I. & Judin, H. eds. BlankArchitecture, Apartheid and After. Rotterdam: NAi.

Dreher, N. H. 1997. The Virtuous and the Verminous: Turn-of-the-Century Moral Panics in London’s Public Parks. Albion. 29(2), pp. 246-267.

Ferguson, J. 1999. Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Galli, P. & Rafael, L. 1995. Johannesburg’s ‘Health Clubs’. In: Gevisser, M. & Cameron, E. eds. Defiant Desire. New York & London: Routledge, pp. 134-140.

Gandy, M. 2012. Queer Ecology: Nature, Sexuality, and Heterotopic Alliances. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 30, pp. 727-747.

Gevisser, M. 1995. A Different Fight for Freedom: A History of Gay and Lesbian Organisation from the 1950s to the 1960s. In: Gevisser, M. & Cameron, E. eds. Defiant Desire. New York & London: Routledge, pp. 14-87.

Gevisser, M. 2014. Lost and Found in Johannesburg. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.

Halberstam, J. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press.

Harrop-Allin, Clinton. 1975. Norman Eaton: architect: a study of the work of the South African architect Norman Eaton 1902-1966. Cape Town: C. Struik.
Malcomess, B. & Kreutzfeldt, D. 2013. Not No Place: Johannesburg. Fragments of Spaces and Times. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.

Mortimer-Sandilands, C. & Erickson, B. 2010. Introduction: A Genealogy of Queer Ecologies. In: Mortimer-Sandilands, C. & Erickson, B. eds. Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 1-49.

Pienaar, M. The Norman Eaton Legacy. Unpublished MA Dissertation, University of Pretoria.

Taylor, H. A. 1995. Urban Public Parks, 1840-1900: Design and Meaning. Garden History. 23(2), pp. 201-221.

The Man Who Drove with Mandela. 1999. [Film] Schiller, G. & Gevisser, M. South Africa: Jezebel Productions.

Note on images: I’m currently in the process of attributing the images used. All images belong to their creators or agents and are used for educational purposes.


Classifications of spaces
(After Borges; and Malcomess and Kreutzfeldt*)

for swimming
free for pensioners
accessed with a card
the event of the lawn*
before AIDS

Villa Mairea, Finland
(Alvar Aalto 1939)
Likely the first ‘kidney shaped’ pool

Donnell Garden, California
(Thomas Church, Lawrence Halprin, George Rockrise 1948)

Greenwood House, Pretoria
(Norman Eaton 1951)

… the edges fall away to roundness. Outdoor recreational areas are shaped like kraals; swimming pools look like gourds … at the edges of the domestic world, there is a reminder of another kind of sensory experience.” (Bunn 1998)

Hakahana - House Stauch, Pretoria
(Hellmut Stauch c.1959)

Photographer: Arthur Barker (2008)

No Problem
(Sabelo Mlangeni 2013)

An abandoned house in Sandton (2013)
Swimming pool (2013)
Roses at Hollywood Glen (2013)


Men’s changing room
In the entrance to the men’s changing rooms of the Wits pool is a noticeboard on which are pinned now-faded postcards of better days. Tours abroad, pools, and the ethnographic/pornographic image I have captured below. There is, of course, an intensely erotic aspect to the locker room. Men and young men in underpants, naked, urinating, showering in wide open showers, covert looks. The homoerotic frisson is familiar to many. However, how out of place the bare-breasted woman seems to me. How does she function here? How has she been allowed to remain her for so long? What should we do about her?

Breitz, C. Ghost Series 4 (1994-1996)

Orania ‘Public’ Pool
In 2009 we visited Orania. It was as hot as the desert and so we went swimming with the ‘mayor’s‘ grandchildren at the ‘public’ pool. The mayor’s grandson was as hot as the desert, too, and he was also only visiting for the holidays. There were photographs of that day, which were lost (not by me) drunkenly in a Cape Town gay bar. I photographed Betsie Verwoerd’s bathroom later that hot day. Those photos survived.

Graaff’s Pool
Used for, among other things, crusing, it was demolished.

Brett, J. Burn Boys (2009)

Summit Club, Hillbrow
Jonathan Cane: Your photograph At the Summit Club pool on Claim Street, Hillbrow has always stuck with me, as a swimmer who used train as a little boy at the now defunct Summit Club. Do you have any other images the club? Did you also train there?
David Goldblatt: I cannot properly swim. My only and limited ability is in backstroke. So there was a winter when I went regularly to the Hillbrow pool and did 30 or 40 lengths on my back. In the changeroom one day, a fellow swimmer asked me: What event are you training for? I was greatly flattered.

Goldlatt, D. At the Summit Club pool on Claim Street, Hillbrow (1971)

In the eighties our parents dropped us little white kids off on Claim St for winter training; summer was at Megawatt Park in Sunninghill. The pools were profoundly different. In summer I was painfully cold; the pool was sunk into granite, so never warmed and I was painfully thin and so never warmed. I hated swimming practice, I think many because I was cold but also I couldn’t watch My Little Pony on TV. Winter was warm: the Summit pool water was green and steamy. I don’t remember anything fishy going on but surely in the changerooms there must have been homosexuals and/or paedophiles. I have memories of a specific boy I swam with who trained in a red speedo. The Summit had changing cubicles with doors. There was so much chlorine.

The Summit Club pool is now empty (A picture of the empty pool is from Not No Place.) The Summit Club is now an “Adult Entertainment Center”.

I won a bronze medal for Transvaal Under 10 Breaststroke in 1989. I hated the Transvaal competitions which took place on Saturdays at the Germiston pool or Ellis Park.

Ellis Park pool

Rivonia Primary School pool
I was useless at every sport, so luckily I could swim.


How to write about Hillbrow
Or rather, how to write in the black stories that haunted, underpinned, challenged Hillbrow always. These could include the locations in the sky (domestic workers), black gay lovers, illicit affairs, builders who constructed the high-rises. What was always black about Hillbrow? And connected to that, what is always still white about Hillbrow? How is Hillbrow still queer? How was Hillbrow never queer; or what about Hillbrow was always heteronormative? What if we read Hillbrow backwards, i.e. invert the teleology? How do you escape the apartheid—greying—post-apartheid schema, when it seem so much to fit that narrative? What doesn’t fit that narrative? What are the continuities? How to use time as a way out of the bind? How does (a) Ferguson’s thinking on decline and (b) the queer approach to failure help to think outside of dominant narrative of regression? How do we escape or embrace and move through nostalgia? Can nostalgia be a productive mode—are there examples of studies or theories of nostalgia which could help?

Can the flâneur drive?
How to walk (move, explore, live, capture) Hillbrow when you are too scared to walk? What are the ethics of shooting from a car? What is flâneurie when the streets are inhospitable or unsafe? Which subjects have never felt safe or never been allowed to be flâneurs? What can we learn from their ways through the city? How to think the city not on foot—the ethics of not walking.

The Dungeon
A: The old Castle Brewery place, on several levels, it was the most popular weekend and new year’s eve venue. We used to got her stand in a queue and wait at 5. On NYE the queue was three blocks long. On top of the building was a terrace where hotdogs were served.

B: They had very good drag shows. Competitions. Crews from Olympic airways and BA; there were a lot of people from overseas. I don’t think there’s anything like that left.

Joubert Park
Mark Gevisser’s research provides a singular resource for the exploration of Joubert Park’s public sexual exuberance. As co-editor of the ground-breaking queer volume Defiant Desire (1995), his role in co-curating the exhibition Joburg Tracks (2010), through his involvement in the documentary film The Man Who Drove with Mandela (1999) and in his latest book Lost and Found in Johannesburg (2014), Gevisser has gathered together one of the very few collections of fragments about this central space. Two recurrent characters—Phil and Edgar—provide the narratives for much of Gevisser’s memory making. Both men were ‘after nines’; that is to say, black gay men who lived ostensibly heterosexual lives before nine o’clock at night, when, with their family asleep in the township, they would pursue queer encounters, often in the ‘white’ city. Gevisser writes about Phil and Edgar’s youth, around World War II when Joubert Park began to take on an important role for male gay life:

Having delivered the goods for his mother, Edgar told me, he would go ‘fishing’ — as he liked to put it — in Joubert Park or at Park Station on his way back to [Pimville]: ‘I was sixteen, a Zulu boy. Hefty! Plumpy! I wore shorts, very tight shorts! I was a fit young boy; men of all races would be attracted to me.’ Delivering washing for his mother provided Phil, too, with access to the city: he was seduced by one of her clients, and realised the possibilities of the world beyond Soweto. He dropped out of school, much to the fury of his parents. ‘I was too streetwise,’ Phil explained to me. ‘I liked the money. It was my chance of meeting men.’ One of Phil’s favourite haunts was Union Grounds, in Joubert Park, where white soldiers were barracked after the war. ‘He is on one side of the fence and you are on the other, he pulls down his pants, and puts his whatsisname through the fence, and you put your hands through the fence to get hold of him, and you do your thing. There and then. And he gives you two and sixpence.When I asked if he was worried about being seen, he deadpanned back: ‘The lights in those days were not as bright as the lights today.’” (Gevisser 2014:194)

In the patriarchal order, under the apartheid vision of black family life and gender roles, places like Hillbrow and Joubert Park potentially provided blurred space for the articulation of difference and subversive connections. On a practical level, it was one of the very few places where black and white men could encounter each other. Phil and Edgar describe the “possibilities of the world beyond Soweto” as a certain kind of worldliness; a world of interracial relationships (characterised, of course, by profound asymmetry), money, sexual liberation, physical freedom to wander. The following is from The Man Who Drove with Mandela:

Gay life in Johannesburg was very tough. To be gay back then as a black man, one had to be rich, because, point number one: you had to have your own privacy. Blacks by then, if you are not married, you were not allowed to have a house. Number two: you wouldn’t come into town to enjoy your gay life, to stay in a hotel. There were no hotels for blacks. We had to stand outside the gates of Joubert Park or go to the Union Grounds’ soldier barracks; there were a lot of soldiers there. They were white. Nobody who was not gay would come near the fence” (1999:21.20).

Cruising happened on the north side of the park.

Sabelo Mlangeni, A Space of waiting (2012)

Other cruising to investigate
Zoo Lake
Emmarentia Rose Gardens
Park Station toilets and parking

London Health Clinic
Nugget St, south of the railways

The London Health Clinic seems to be the building with the red roof. It was allegedly an old church. Day-time was for straight (married) men and night-time for gay men. No rent boys were inside because of the entrance fee.

See: Galli, P. & Rafael, L. 1995. Johannesburg’s ‘Health Clubs’: Places of Erotic Languor or Prison-houses of desire? In: Gevisser, M. & Cameron, E. eds. Defiant Desire. New York & London: Routledge, pp. 134-140.

The Atwater
Opposite Carlton Hotel
Rupert: “This was such a neat rack — a sleazy dump — on the first floor of a broken down building. It was painted black and noncommittal pictures of landscapes and the like were scattered all around” (Galli & Rafael 1995:134)

Clubs still to locate
The Black Sun
Le Ber
Umhlanga Rocks Shebeen
Skyline, Hillbrow
The New Library Bar
The Waldorf
The Silver Chalice
Iron Butterfly