The great book lockdown

Griffin Shea recounts the glory days of Joburg’s Public Library as well as its disasters, closure and those who fight to revive it

29 October 2023 - 00:00 By GRIFFIN SHEA
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The Johannesburg City Library in the city's CBD. Picture: Alaister Russell
The Johannesburg City Library in the city's CBD. Picture: Alaister Russell
Image: Alaister Russell

The man walking out from the ClearVu fence was in a hurry. With a leather satchel, a tidy jersey and neat slacks, he  exuded librarian vibes, but maybe that’s just because he was leaving the City Library.

“No, no. There is nobody inside,” he said.

Indeed, the cast bronze doors were closed. Two people, possibly security guards, stood casually beneath the entryway’s three arches. Carved into the facade reads the library’s Latin motto: Libri thesaurus animi. “Books are the treasure of the soul.”

It’s a reassuring thought, that a city built on gold declared books its real treasure. But since the Covid lockdowns began in March 2020, the treasures here have been locked away. The only visible explanation hangs on a laminated sheet clipped to the fence: “Library closure notice — 10 May 2021. The Johannesburg City Library will be closed for major repairs and maintenance from May 24 2021 until work has been completed.”

The notice directs readers to the Mayfair Library,  2km away, and to the Yeoville Library, about  5km away. The message ends with formulaic sincerity: “We apologise for the inconvenience.”

Even in a city where abandoned buildings hang over the skyline like architectural ghosts, this sign leaves City Library in a strange purgatory. Neither open nor fully closed. Filled with 1.5-million books, and no people.

The demand [for books] is endless. People often think Joburg is full of gangsters. That may be, but it’s also full of nerds

There are plenty of people outside. Beyers Naude Square — née Market Square, aka Library Gardens — fills with schoolchildren in the afternoon. Some play soccer on the dusty grounds, the ball ricocheting from the brick amphitheatre around the Cenotaph. Someone has used a koki pen to draw a penis on the base, in a style globally ubiquitous to middle school boys’ notebooks.

Adults lounge on the grass in the shade. A homeless man snacks from a Styrofoam tray partially wrapped in blue plastic. Women rest their shopping bags next to tiled chess tables, taking a break from their trek through the city.

It’s a well-used park. Not a perfect park.

Every few months, the city paints over walls that are heavily tagged. One side is still freshly cleaned. On the other, someone has styled “vrotbek” in metre-high blue letters. Barbed wire coils over a planter near the library, a relic from an ill-conceived attempt to improve safety and prevent public defecation. That plan never worked out. Earlier in the day, someone had dropped a turd next to the bronze sculpture just outside the library’s fence.

These are typical big-city problems. In 2020, Amsterdam tried out hemp-filled planters that double as urinals, hoping to get men to stop peeing on its sidewalks. New York’s subway frequently has an  odour with a certain je ne sais quoi. Sunday mornings on Bourbon Street in New Orleans can smell like the afterbirth of a frat party.

Until March 2020, when the world shut down, City Library was even busier. The children’s section filled with young people and charming librarians reading with them. There was an art gallery and a music library, where you could both listen to music and find sheet music. Workshops taught small business skills. Free  Wi-Fi drew in students. A book club I attended had men in business suits, gogos in felt hats, kids in school uniforms and EFF members in red overalls good-naturedly discussing Donna Bryson’s It’s a Black-White Thing, about the Reitz video at the University of Free State.

Because the space is so well-loved, its closure hurts all the more. When explosions rip open streets and fires kill our neighbours, why can’t we at least keep the library open?

Fire is a big part of the reason. The city says that in March 2019, a report raised concerns “on civil, structural, wet services, electrical and mechanical services”. Under the lockdowns, repairs couldn’t be done. When the Covid restrictions on the library were lifted in May 2021, the building was closed to attend to repairs.

Scaffolding rose to cover the building, but about a year later, when librarians were hoping to reopen, inspectors found more problems. 

“These include addressing the roof leaks, upgrading the fire safety system and ensuring compliance with all relevant regulations and standards,” the city said in a statement. “Due to the complex nature of the repairs and the need for careful planning and execution, it is anticipated that these renovations will take some time to complete.”

Originally, the city hoped to reopen by February 2024. That’s an impossible goal now. Among a half dozen officials I spoke to, none could speak on the record, but most estimated the work could take three more years.

If that estimate holds, the city’s main library will have been closed for five years.

It’s easy to romanticise libraries, especially for readers like me. Getting my first library card as a child — handwritten, on card stock — was a rite of passage, a ticket to literary freedom. As a teenager, finding a collection of stories about other gay teens was the first time I knew there were other gay teens. I was too scared to check it out, so I read it furtively between the stacks.

I became a writer, and opened a bookstore seven years ago. When Bridge Books first opened in an old marble-floored banking hall on Commissioner Street, people routinely walked in to ask if our tiny collection of a few hundred books was the grand City Library,  two blocks away. So many people were disappointed that Bridge only sold books, we started the non-profit African Book Trust to give books away. Sometimes we give them to the kids who hang out at the store after school. We send books to schools and libraries around the country. And we’re running two street libraries in Alexandra and Orlando, housed at popular community centres.

Every few months, the city paints over walls that are heavily tagged. One side is still freshly cleaned

The demand is endless. People often think Joburg is full of gangsters. That may be, but it’s also full of nerds.

Even with the City Library closed, Johannesburg has more branch libraries (89) than far wealthier Los Angeles (72). In the last bookshop census in 2012, we had 1,020 bookstores. New York had 814. Cape Town had 43.

If that seems like a lot, consider that the Mayfair Library — where the city is directing readers from the CBD — is just  2km away and on the same street as the City Library. I personally know of more than 60 other booksellers within six blocks of Bridge.


Joburg’s love for books emerged from the earliest days of the gold rush.

When the city’s first business directory was published in 1890, 11 booksellers were listed. Private libraries also opened, operating much like old video stores, where a membership fee allowed patrons to borrow books.

One of these was started by enterprising readers who crowdfunded from the mining camps, raising enough money to order 1,000 books from Mudie's of London in 1891. They were variously housed in the City Chambers, the YMCA and the Congregational church. The first dedicated library was built on Kerk Street in 1891. As the city grew, the library was handed over to the local government. Perhaps in a sign of the times, that first library building was knocked down to make way for a Woolworths store. The current building on Beyers Naude Square was completed in 1934, though it only stopped charging subscriptions around 1940, when it became the first library in the country funded by rates.

Along the sides of the new building, bas relief sculptures depict famous thinkers and writers from Socrates to Spinoza. They’re all white, all men — just like the intended patrons.

The city’s first library known to welcome black readers opened in 1929 at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre at 1 Eloff Street. Renowned author Herbert Dhlomo later became the librarian. Peter Abrahams, who also worked there, remembers in his autobiography how he discovered black writers for the first time. The library worked with the Carnegies, who at the time ran a Non-European Library Service that supplied books to South Africa. That’s how Abrahams discovered writers like W.E.B. Du Bois.

The city eventually took over the stocking of the library, which grew to 3,000 publications. By 1957, Johannesburg had eight public libraries open to blacks. They borrowed about 36,000 books that year, almost evenly split between fiction and non-fiction, according to research by Archie Dick at the University of Pretoria.

People were reading a lot, but only what the censors allowed.

Between 1955 and 1971, librarians as a profession did not protest when reading material was taken out and burned at municipal incinerators.

In Durban, librarians opted to pulp, rather than burn the banned books. But in Johannesburg, Dick writes that city librarian RF Kennedy said in 1955 that with banned books, “all copies are brought in to me, and I destroy them personally”.

An accompanying photo from the newspaper Wits Student, dated May 7 1971, shows the Kaserne furnace where a white man in formal military attire stands on a mountain of books. He’s feeding the leaping flames inside, as a black man in overalls and a white man in a suit hand him more stacks to throw in.

Librarians could have stored the books away from the public and complied with censorship laws. Instead, they went above and beyond, destroying copies of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, a record of Jesus Christ Superstar and a film in which Louis Armstrong holds hands with Bing Crosby.

Some librarians did push back, and some readers gathered up banned books before they could be burned. Stored in garden sheds or ceiling crawl spaces, these became secret libraries of censored texts.

And activists pushed back. Ahmed Kathrada’s Picasso Club spray painted across the City Library’s wall “Let Us Black Folks Read”. The municipality blasted it off, and the activists returned and painted “We Black Folks Ain’t Reading Yet!”

It’s easy to walk around the square now and wonder, where are the protests demanding that the library re-open? There’s no political graffiti, but plenty of oddly coloured posters offering penis enlargements.

Of course, the reason is that the building is closed, but the libraries are working. Their online app loans out free ebooks and audiobooks. Their partnerships with Microsoft, Google and IBM give free training courses. 

And yet, could the repairs go faster? If city officials were freed up to speak openly, and to say what they actually need, could we as a community find ways to speed things up?

There are ways to work together. In our neighbourhood, we’re calling it the Johannesburg Literary District — drawing attention to our reading culture in the city centre. We’re co-ordinating with City Parks to green Beyers Naude Square. For Earth Day, they provided saplings of indigenous trees that our volunteers planted and care for. We’re reworking flower beds with heartier local plants, and looking at murals that celebrate our book culture.

Through the Social Employment Fund, we work with nine other non-profits under the Johannesburg Inner City Partnership. Collectively, that’s created 1,300 jobs across the city. The 60 people working with us read stories to children, care for the street libraries and keep the neighbourhood clean. Artist Kevin Narain is teaching mural painting. The city’s department of community development funded our workshops to write new children’s stories. Sarah McGregor, the publisher of Clockwork Books, is now coaching our trainers on how to turn those stories into books, which our team is designing and rewriting in as many languages as they can speak.

Everyone I speak to loves the City Library, and loves the librarians. The question is how to harness that goodwill to get the doors back open sooner.

• Shea’s latest book is 'The Golden Rhino'. He is the founder of Bridge Books and the African Book Trust. Their year-end campaign to raise money for 1,000 new books in their Street Libraries is under way at

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