Vaya: Untold Stories of Johannesburg

By: Kirsty Barnes


Johannesburg is busy. People come and go. Something is happening around every corner. Small businesses pop up. Big corporations go down. Like London and New York, this fast-paced city has its own uber glamorous people who walk its streets, and its mansions in Sandton, as well as the very many who flock to the city annually to start their lives and live the dream of making money. The glamour of this metropolitan city, however, is not the typical lived experience for many of its residents.

Vaya: Untold Stories of Johannesburg by Harriet Perlman and Sarah Charlton is a book that depicts the lives of the people living and working on the city’s cold, dark streets as well as those affected by gang violence, crime and the sheer grind of daily struggles. Vaya the film is based on the lives of four young men from the Homeless Writer’s Project: David Majoka, Anthony Mafela, Madoda Ntuli and Tshabalira Lebakeng, and rooted in their experiences of coming to Johannesburg.

The book is full of arresting and heart-breaking stories that portray how different the lives of these individuals are. From the narrative of selling vetkoek, being kidnapped by drug dealers, and a stabber in the park readers will have a better understanding of their lives.

Crime and gang life in Johannesburg are a real issue that many choose to ignore, but Vaya offers a glimpse into the lives of those who deal with these hardships daily. The book is accompanied by beautiful, real pictures that depict the harsh realities of these storytellers’ lives. The book provides a brief insight into how severe their living situations really are.

One of the storytellers in Vaya is club DJ, Anthony Mafela, who has an immense passion for music. “Understanding jazz helps you understand life,” he says. It’s people like this who reveal that there is light at the end of that dark tunnel.

Vaya takes you from one extreme to the next, exploring the stark contrast of Jozi life. Picture overcrowded slum-like conditions, people sleeping in whatever space they can find, disease, crime, and inadequate sanitation. Women and children are raped, people are murdered, but life simply goes on.

While this is the painful daily reality of too many people, there is also much to celebrate – in particular the resilience and grit of those who keep on keeping on. The tie in of the book and the movie is a tribute to the rich and potent collaboration between South African storytelling and movie-making. This marriage of entrepreneurship and art is heartening at every level.

Vaya is published by Bookstorm.