The road: a literature review

Words: Hedley Twidle

The road is a ubiquitous and common feature of daily life. Seldom viewed as more than utilitarian infrastructure connecting here with there, South African roads have nonetheless generated a substantial literature

You see them all along the N2: a red circle bisected diagonally, the universal code for no, not allowed, don’t, though in this case the line is drawn not through a cigarette or a knife but a thumbs-up. The sign means “no hitchhiking”, but if you are lucky enough to be flashing by in a vehicle it can produce an instant of cognitive dissonance (anti-good times, anti-like?). In 2014 the sign is hardly true to life—it has been outstripped by rising petrol prices and hard-nosed financial logic. Most people waiting on hard shoulders on the N2 hold currency in the air: ten, twenty, fifty rands. It is also a simple lesson in semiotics: even the simplest, most programmatic signs—whether pictographic, linguistic or property of the South African National Roads Agency Limited (SANRAL)—can be infiltrated by unintended and contradictory meanings.

N2. Curled up in that tiny alphanumeric are thousands of kilometres, hundreds of service stations, millions of tons of concrete. N2 can mean a London bus route; an intelligence officer in the US Navy; an anti-nuclear song by the Japanese indie group Asian Kung Fu Generation. But for my purposes it is the longest highway in South Africa, which starts at an unfinished flyover near the docks in Cape Town, follows the eastern seaboard of the country (roughly) for over 2000 kilometres, then bends west below Swaziland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga. Major highways like the N2 are not liked, or at least, not thought about much.

Writing a hidden history of the UK’s motorway system, Joe Moran suggests that this bland corporate terrain of tarmac, underpasses and thermoplastic road markings is “the most commonly viewed and least contemplated landscape” in Britain. “The road is almost a separate country, one that remains underexplored not because it is remote and inaccessible but because it is so ubiquitous and familiar.” Sometimes people (generally men) might discuss a particular route as a great “driving road.” In general, however, these are zones of dead time, sameness and forgetfulness—a physical and psychological space to be endured on the way to somewhere more interesting. At worst, they are spaces of antisocial behaviour, injury and death.

“Why would you do a thing like that?” is a common reaction when people hear that I am trying to write a “cultural history” (for want of a better phrase) of the N2. Often they confuse it with the N1, which is inexplicable, given that they are such different propositions: one strikes inland through the arid Karoo to Johannesburg in straight and deadly lines; the other labours over coastal platforms, fold mountains, river after river. The first section of any respectable research project is the literature review. Still holed up in Cape Town, waiting to make my escape, I assembled a range of materials and checked into the Nelson Mandela Boulevard Holiday Inn, expressly asking for a room with a view—of the N2 outbound, that is. No Table Mountain and no Wi-Fi required: I knew that to make it through some of the urban planning “literature” I would need to be entirely offline. The following represent notes toward a bibliography of the N2, and also an enquiry into how the road might figure in our cultural imaginary.

Road passes might be imagined as the asphalt equivalent of what translators call lexical ‘rich points:’ complex and vulnerable sites where much attention and labour has been concentrated

Looking down at the Boulevard through a tinted sliding door, with rush hour slowly draining under wind-tormented palms, I opened the Norton Anthology of Poetry:

…light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.


Walt Whitman’s lines stand near the beginning of a huge and by now international road literature — the archetypal American trip under big skies, refracted into a thousand road novels and road movies. The long brown (unsurfaced) path evolves into the tarmac of Route 66, Highway 61 and many other iconic routes—an open-ended, unfurling ribbon of text, celluloid and song.

But I invoke this tradition only to dispense with it as soon as possible, since such road literature is in fact about anything but the road itself. “I took the first opportunity to lose the N2 and made for Nature’s Valley,” writes Justin Fox in his 2010 journey around the perimeter of South Africa, The Marginal Safari. The book quotes Whitman in the opening pages and breathes a sigh of relief whenever it can exit the main highway for its crinklier precursors, those ghost arterials running in parallel through the coastal forests. “The R102 was how a road should look,” writes Fox, “a sympathetic meander, two lanes humbled by trees, twisting to reveal a new delight at each bend, never allowing the car to become a projectile.”

Most travel writing is eager to get as far away from a highway as possible. Lonely Planet, Getaway, Weg — the names of these publications all imply that the post-Beat voyagers following most closely in the tracks of Kerouac’s On the Road should really be off the road. Or at least, well away from any major, national route. This is all part of the interminable tension basic to the late 20th century travelogue: a desire for singular, authentic experience set against the mass mobility and vast trans-individual infrastructures that enable the genre in the first place.

Switching on a lamp fixed above my small, businesslike desk, I reached for three quick correctives to the narrative of the open road:

1) My clippings file of the Cape Times and Cape Argus: “Chaos as N2 Shut Down”, “Corridor Crisis”, “City Vows to Tackle N2 Protest Menace”. Again and again in the last years, the N2 has made the front page, registering social discord. A major highway, as many protesters have realized, may be the Achilles heel of the modern state. “If our freeways are going to become a battle scene,” commented one transport official, “Then this very painful breakdown of law and order could have frightening consequences.”

2) A City of Cape Town Special Minute of 12 September 1946 found in the National Archives and secretly logged on my camera phone. There are thousands of documents detailing Cape Town’s various urban planning disasters — from the Foreshore scheme to the N2 Gateway housing project — but it was this particular page that stayed with me. The document uses the word “fly-over” in inverted commas throughout, still feeling its way into the new vocabulary. A foldout diagram shows a sketch of the proposed Grand Boulevard East (now Nelson Mandela Boulevard), “sweeping down” into central Cape Town, shaded in blue pencil. The swathe of blue cuts through the narrow tenements of Woodstock and Walmer Estate, outlining condemned plots and blocks as it goes, then describes a generous curve through District Six.

3) A caption in David Goldblatt’s The Transported of KwaNdebele (1989). This photoessay from the 1980s documents workers who are forced to spend up to eight hours a day on buses driving between a now defunct “homeland” and Pretoria. “I think that I have been catching such full buses for nine years,” says one of the commuters who give their testimony at the back, a woman referred to only as “Domestic worker, 37-years-old, mother of seven.”

“It is dark when I get up, two o’clock in the morning,” she says. “Not two o’clock in the day. Two o’clock in the morning I must wake up.” Whereas most of this photographer’s work is shot outdoors and soaked with light, these pictures are very different: principally photographed in dark PUTCO bus interiors, blurry figures are thrown back or slumped forward in what looks at times like religious devotion or even ecstasy, but is actually extreme exhaustion. At a recent exhibition of his work, the octogenarian photographer remarked that apartheid is gone, but those buses are still running— “and they will be for the next hundred fucking years.”

Goldblatt is known for his punctilious captions, and the one on page 22 reads as follows:

Wolwekraal-Marabastad route: In the hope of sleep, many, after sitting down, cover their faces with cloths or rugs or caps; some try to cushion their heads against the bumping of the bus with pieces of foam plastic.

The freeway is a space where two divergent but interlocked impulses of South African literature coincide: one is a reaching for great physical space, the other a realisation of intense socio-economic confinement

Guidelines for the Safe and Responsible Handling of Bitumen. Handbook of Highway Curves (Revised Edition). Fourth Conference on Asphalt Paving for South Africa. Narrow the definition of road literature too much and you reach shelves of titles like this. I scan them for technical terms that can be made to bear larger metaphorical loads. “Concurrency” or “coincidence” is road planning speak for when two different routes occupy the same stretch of tarmac. Craning through the bathroom window, I can see how the N1 and N2 concur for their first few kilometres: the four-lane elevated expressway of the Foreshore that runs alongside a media corporation’s headquarters and the international conference centre nearby. At either end are the unfinished flyover stubs that have collected around them many urban myths. There are eight in total, ramps to nowhere facing each other across the CBD—“like star-crossed lovers,” says the TimeOut City Guide Cape Town (2005) — ready for extra lanes that were never built.

The freeway, it seems, is a space where two divergent but interlocked impulses of South African literature coincide: one is a reaching for great physical space, the other a realisation of intense socioeconomic confinement. Transport as aesthetic freedom; transport as a daily imprisonment. To watch the N2 verge from here to Cape Town International Airport is to encounter a 21.9 km demonstration of the paradox that those who live next to major highways generally enjoy the least mobility. And just as there are always and only two directions to a highway, there are also two different historical vectors embedded in the N2.

From west to east it is an undeniably colonial trajectory, the subject of many antiquarian histories that follow in the footsteps of early European travellers. SETTLER’S WAY. The concrete plaque, its white paint worn, is just visible as one funnels downhill from Hospital Bend and the highway begins in earnest. In the other direction, the N2 is the movement of Xhosa-speakers to the southern metropolis in search of economic and educational opportunity: from Mpuma Koloni (Eastern Cape) to Ntshona Koloni (Western Cape), and of long minibus taxi journeys back the other way over December holidays.

Imraan Coovadia’s novella The Institute for Taxi Poetry (2012) imagines an alternate South Africa in which “transport poetry” is a venerated form, with well-loved verses stencilled onto the exteriors of Toyotas:

He is a Hi-Ace which is the only thing
On Boxing Day
On the long road to Bisho


In many cases, the east-west trajectory is also a movement from rural to urban, and it is often in the noman’s land of the road reserve — empty tracts owned by parastatals like SANRAL — where “traditional” practices have reproduced themselves in and adapted themselves to the metropolitan area. Cattle on modernist concrete overpasses; luxury sedans hurtling past initiation huts concealed in the brush near the Athlone cooling towers—by the 1990s these roadside scenes had become signifiers of how the codes of tradition and modernity were being scrambled in the port city.

Driving back to Cape Town, the protagonist of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), a novel that strings itself out along a west-east-west axis, watches a child with a stick herding a stray cow off the road. “Inexorably, he thinks, the country is coming to the city. Soon there will be cattle again on Rondebosch Common: soon history will have come full circle.” In a short story by Zoë Wicomb titled “N2” (1999), an unlikeable couple who have been lunching in the winelands break down on the roadside with a flat tyre. They are watched and then helped by Themba, who has been secluding himself in the bush at the side of the highway as part of his initiation into manhood. But not before the woman panics, draws a gun and then apologizes: “Yes, sorry, you know what it’s like on the N2…”

The east-west vector is also registered in South Africa’s substantial canon of prison writing. Historically, this was the route to which Xhosa leaders resisting British imperialism were consigned, en route to imprisonment on Robben Island. Mtutuzeli Matshoba’s 1979 short story, “Pilgrimage to the Isle of Makana,” registers its other name, commemorating the man who died in 1819 while trying to escape over the waves. “The journey linking the prison with the expanse of the land (and vice versa) is, I would venture, the most compelling national pilgrimage of apartheid South Africa,” writes the literary scholar Rita Barnard, tracking the complex dialectic of spaciousness and entrapment threaded through the work of poets like Ingrid Jonker, Mongane Wally Serote and Jeremy Cronin.

Matshoba describes a train journey south from Johannesburg, but in The Island, the 1973 play devised by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the remembered journey is west from Port Elizabeth along the N2 in a crowded prison van:

JOHN: Drank a gallon of water thinking of those 500 miles ahead. Jesus! There was the bucket in the corner! But we were packed in so tight, remember, we couldn’t move … So I held on—Humansdorp, Storms River, Blaaukrantz … held on. But at Knysna, to hell with it, I let go!

[Gesture to indicate the release of his bladder. Winston finds this enormously funny. John joins in.]


JOHN: Okay, let’s say that by George nobody was dry. Remember the stop there?

WINSTON: Ja. I thought they were going to let us walk around a bit.

JOHN: Not a damn! Fill up with petrol and then on.

To parse. With a sodium glare rising from the floodlit docklands below, this outdated phrase keeps occurring to me. To parse a sentence is to resolve it into different components, describing the syntactic function of each: tense, mood, case. So how would one parse a highway? The obvious answer is to slice it up using towns on the route, something done by roadmaps when they print distances between each dot, or sometimes between little splinters or arrows stuck into the highway. Service stations practise a wildly optimistic version of this, calculated according to their next franchise. Next Shell Ultra: Mpumalanga, 745 km.

But this is a highway parsed anthropocentrically (or autocentrically): by fuel tank, farm stall, capacity of bladder. There are other ways, more determined by the landmass. According to river crossing: Eerste to Kuils, Palmiet to Bot, Breede to Kompanjes. Or according to mountain pass: Sir Lowry’s to Houwhoek, Kaaimans to Groot Brak. Passes might be imagined as the asphalt equivalent of what translators call lexical “rich points”: complex and vulnerable sites where much attention and labour has been concentrated. There is a whole sub-literature, I soon realised, devoted to the subject. The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes (2002), Colossus of Roads (1984), So High the Road (1963). The last text even has a foreword by Dr The Rt Hon HF Verwoerd. “The mountain passes!” intones Verwoerd. “They helped to unfold the beauties of nature, the grandeur of some scenery formerly known only to few. They overcame the natural barriers to progress.” In these celebratory, photo-rich texts, civil engineers loosen their ties and hardhats, take the time to reminisce and tell anecdotes; amateur historians wander away from blasted cut-throughs to trace the scored tracks of old wagon routes.

But again, the literature of passes “opening up” the interior summons a counter-history of enclosure. Following a decree from Colonial Secretary John Montagu in the 1840s, it was largely convict labour that built the first mountain passes. Looking for textual traces of this enormous 19th century project of road making, you can turn to the |Xam narratives that make up the Bleek and Lloyd Collection, one of the richest archives of indigenous orature in the world. Intruding suddenly into the “traditionary” and mythological narratives there are personal testimonies of being caught up in colonial modernity: via a complex chain of transliteration and translation, the master narrator ||Kabbo speaks of being forced into a road gang when taken into captivity in the northern Cape:

We came to roll stones at Victoria, while we worked at the road. We lifted stones with our chests; we rolled great stones. We again worked with earth. We carried earth, while the earth was upon the handbarrow. We carried earth; we loaded the wagon with earth; we pushed it. Other people walked along. We were pushing the wagon’s wheels; we were pushing; we poured down the earth; we pushed it back. We again loaded it, we and the Korannas. Other Korannas were carrying the handbarrow. Other people (i.e. Bushmen) were with the Korannas; they were also carrying earth; while the earth was upon the handbarrow. They again came to load the handbarrow with earth.

Telling his stories in suburban Cape Town of the late 19th century, ||Kabbo speaks of wanting to take that road back north, asking for the boots and the gun which were promised to him for his services as a “giver of native literature.”

“For I have sat waiting for the boots, that I must put on to walk in; which are strong for the road … For a little road it is not. For, it is a great road; it is long.”

In the decades post-1994, ‘||Kabbo’s Intended Return Home’ has come to be seen as a central moment of South African literary history, one that has been reworked and reimagined by many artists, most recently by one of Coovadia’s taxi poets:

I did wish for some boots, strong like Dunlop rubber,
To walk the road back north, to where there is a parking lot 
Beside my heart which I buried there,
To where there is an empty spot, Audi-shaped


|Xam is no longer spoken by any living person and neither are the indigenous Khoi languages of the Western Cape, but their words linger on the mountain passes: Gantouw, Tradouw, Kareedouw — respectively, the way of the eland, the women, the karee trees. The narrow range of geological options through the Cape fold belt funnel together the deep past and the ultra-modern again: the concrete stilts and crash barriers touch on ancient ways of moving through the landmass, routes taken by game herds and the hunter gatherers who followed them for thousands of years. That is why if you stop on a mountain pass in southern Africa, then not far from those thick- set picnic tables under the bluegums, there are likely to be secret, fecund places: river pools and overhangs with a view of the mountain flanks, rock shelters with stick figures or antelope etched across them.

The human figures on the national crest are traced from one of these painted surfaces: a section of rock now on display as the Linton Panel in the South African Museum. Speculating on the metaphors of trance and shamanic potency that the pigments on this rock surface seem to hold, the explanatory notes also tell us that it was removed because of road blasting in the Eastern Cape in 1917 and then transported to Cape Town (east to west) by ox wagon. National symbolism and pilgrimage, transport, technology and the indigenous trace combine and recombine in unexpected places.

Apart from the odd Doppler drone of a boy racer, the highway below was now dark and subdued, with a yellow moon overtaking from Devil’s Peak. After all the rational engineering prose, the lumbering national allegories and the Verwoerd, I needed to do the mental equivalent of washing my mouth out before going to bed. There was also that larger anxiety that haunts any research project: that after all the reading you have still not come any closer to isolating precisely what it is that interests you.

On the bedside table of my standard surcharge suite were some examples of a larger, transnational literature that probes the simultaneous banality and strangeness of highways: Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital (2002), an account of hiking round London’s much-hated ring road, the M25, always within the “acoustic footsteps” of the route. From One Second to the Next, Werner Herzog’s short 2013 documentary on texting while driving, where the camera lingers on everyday bends and verges where life-changing accidents happened, but which are soon returned to their daily-ness.

“The car crash is the most dramatic event in people’s lives apart from their own deaths,” wrote JG Ballard in a 1971 piece titled “Autopia”. For many, he added, the two “will coincide”. Two years later, his novel Crash unleashed a relentless marrying of road injury, sex and technology that is still difficult to read without wincing. Its near sequel Concrete Island (1974) imagines a driver who breaks down on London’s Westway and is marooned in a triangular fenced-off area between three motorway intersections, with nobody willing or able to stop for him. This modern take on Robinson Crusoe has been rewritten again just a kilometre away from here, on the lip of the funnel down to Settler’s Way.

At the top of a concrete stanchion, wedged in between the pillar and the underbelly of an onramp, someone has arranged their bedding and possessions, deliberately isolating himself or herself from the city below. Within this literature that stays with the road as a physical and cultural artefact—that remains devoted to it, so to speak—there is a balancing of the outlandish and the pedestrian: a dual carriageway system where the extraordinary (all those skids and scrapes on the road surface testifying to loss of control, trauma, concussion) coexists with what Georges Perec called the “infra-ordinary.” In Roads: A Hidden History (2009), Moran acknowledges this avant-garde French strain within his work — one that seeks to anatomise minutely what seem to be the most untoward and quotidian dimensions of daily life—while also drawing inspiration from the mock-serious proposals of the British social research organisation Mass-Observation. Its opening 1937 manifesto announced that, along with such topics as “Behaviour of people at war memorials,” “The private lives of midwives,” “Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke,” it planned to study “Shouts and gestures of motorists.”

Might such an “anthropology of the near,” wonders Moran, permit “a direct line to the nation’s collective unconscious?” Could observing the mass movements of highways and the intense behaviours they call forth provide insights into our hidden collective life? To crack through the normality of tarmac and asphalt, he recalls the eerily empty highways that accompanied the funeral of Princess Diana, and also those archaic postcards celebrating newly constructed and impossibly empty roads: “The M1 near Newport Pagnell”, “The Underpass, Croydon”, “A40 Traffic.” These weirdly haunting images with their deadpan captions are a reminder, he suggests, that motorways are beginning to acquire a cultural history, “but of a rather unsettling kind that evades the secure meanings of the heritage industry or the easy consolations of nostalgia.”

He is a Hi-Ace which is the only thing gleaming On Boxing day On the long road to Bisho

In South Africa, any such cultural history of the road remains considerably more unsettled and evasive: the N at the front of N2 insisting on the idea of nation even as the carless highway is more and more the sign of protest, closure and crisis. Beyond the newspaper headlines, though, it is a short story by Henrietta Rose-Innes that touches most powerfully on the hauntedness of the empty highway, its uncanniness up close and its post-human scale. In “Poison” (2007), most inhabitants of Cape Town have fled the city due to some unspecified environmental disaster, but the protagonist lingers in a deserted service station on the N2, looking back at the city as toxic clouds boil above Table Mountain:

Standing alone on the highway was unnerving. This was for cars. The road surface was not meant to be touched with hands or feet, to be examined too closely or in stillness. The four lanes were so wide. Even the white lines and the gaps between them were much longer than they appeared from the car: the length of her whole body, were she to lie down in the road.


Lying down not between the white lines of the N2 but at least within its acoustic footsteps, I set my subconscious to work on future methodologies, mentally noting a list of research tasks for the coming weeks:

1) Get stuck deliberately in rush hour traffic on Nelson Mandela Boulevard outbound; time this exactly so as to photograph the abstract expressionist panels formed by impacts with concrete crash barriers;

2) Using archival footage, identify the exact spot where a speeding police reservist struck Denise Darvall on 3 December 1967, prior to her being the donor in the world’s first heart transplant performed at Groote Schuur hospital;

3)  Employ related circulatory and transplant metaphors to compile a comprehensive psychosocial profile of the notorious Hospital Bend interchange, both prior to and after 2008 upgrade. Factor in data about how much of the traffic flow is composed of nervous and/ or reckless first-time drivers, curving around the mountain to the university residences;

4) Comparative analysis of Road Atlas and Touring Guide of Southern Africa (Automobile Association, 1960) and Southern and East Africa: Road Atlas. (Map Studio, 2007), suggesting that the genre is on the way to obsolescence. Note hardcover, encyclopaedic reach and high production values of the former. Contrast with softcover and desultory introductory text of latter: “SOUTH AFRICA. What to buy: Decorated ostrich eggs. Famous citizens: Human rights icon and former president Nelson Mandela; author Wilbur Smith;”

5) Count the number of sharp stones set in concrete below the unfinished flyover on Buitengracht to deter the homeless. Commission photographic essay comparing this large-scale municipal installation to a) spikes placed on window ledges to repel pigeons; b) the work of sculptors Joseph Beuys, Anthony Gormley and Andy Goldsworthy; and c) the photo essay Van Riebeeck’s Hedge – A Voyage Around an Object (1992) by Roger Meintjes;

6) Investigate precise psychological dynamics of looks exchanged between men sitting in open-backed trucks (facing opposite to the direction of travel) and the drivers of luxury sedans; show how this is an archetypal South African exchange;

7) To interview: sellers of mobile phone chargers at N2 traffic lights in Somerset West; writer of the prayers recited prior to Intercape Mainliner journeys; men who paint white lines and straighten buckled crash barriers; women manning the STOP/GO signs at a Boland roadworks, a lone figure pinned to the highway under a big sky; women manning Storms River toll plaza over Easter, still point in the holiday season rush; woman manning the Toyota Hi-Ace which is:

… the only thing gleaming
On Boxing Day
On the long road to Bisho. 


  1. N2: A Bibliography | sea | point | contact - November 26, 2014

    […] Cityscapes | Issue 05 | April 2014. […]

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