Abrahams’ bare realism picks out the small details of

Abrahams’ representations of the city in Mine Boy valuably emphasise the spatiality of black
subjectivity and the importance of urban places in the formation of black identities. He makes the
places of black subjugation and marginalisation central to the city’s definition, giving them and
their inhabitants a prominence suppressed by the white state. Movement across Johannesburg
discloses the functionalist and separating spaces of colonial capitalism, while simultaneously
disassembling it through the realisation of individual potentiality. Forms of movement in the
text—walking, dancing, running—reveal the spatial character of social life and its organization
around the demands of production. Simultaneously, movement allows its practitioners to become
actors and subjects in the places they inhabit rather than simply passive objects of state
Abrahams’ bare realism picks out the small details of his protagonist’s movements in ways that
stress his uncertainty and strangeness to the city. In the dark, its spaces and meanings are literally
veiled to him. At this early point in the text his understanding of the city is negligible. He is like a
man without sight groping his way through the alleys and shadows, the ambiguities and
uncertainties of its landscape. He is ‘Xuma from the North’, a country interloper. Reflecting his
ignorance of the urban, Abrahams presents Xuma as a consciousness not yet fully formed. Still
no more than a representative of the rural he has left behind, Xuma is too bewildered by the city
to perceive the politicality of its spaces.
The walking of the swankies appropriates and reorganises the social space of the street as a site
of performance and in so doing transgresses the functionalist topography of the location. Their
actions open up vital possibilities for new notions of black identity and being. And yet it is a
space only briefly won. The arrival of the police reasserts state authority over Malay Camp.
“People ran in all directions…the two ‘swankies’ disappeared down the street.”39 Popular culture
facilitates discursive redefinitions of blackness but while it remains unattached to class
mobilisation it cannot act decisively against the real effects of state control. Performance may
buy you a means of expression but this is only a breathing space. For Abrahams the social
relations that structure the cityscape can only be transformed through an active and conscious
overthrow of an old order for a new one. These spatial and cultural practices enable the black
inhabitants of Malay Camp to survive the dehumanising effects of the city but they do not
represent the politically conscious actions necessary to alter the status quo