A Protest at the Johannesburg City Library

by | May 21, 2024 | Arts and Culture, Johannesburg, Johannesburg City Centre, Museums and Buildings | 11 comments

The Johannesburg City Library, a beautiful, historic, and essential building in downtown Joburg, has been mysteriously closed for the past three years.

Outside Johannesburg City Library
The entrance to the Johannesburg City Library in November 2016, the last time I went inside and blogged about it. I just reread that glowing review and it made me feel really sad.
Johannesburg City Library in May 2024
Outside the (closed) library in May 2024.

I don’t want to go into the whole story of why the library, which underwent a glorious renovation just a little over a decade ago, has been closed for such an inordinately long time — theoretically for repairs. There are lots of other stories you can read about that, and anyway if you live in Joburg you already know the answer. The city is experiencing a complete breakdown of infrastructure and public services, and our political leaders seem unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

But all details aside, the bottom line is that the City Library — which houses about 1.5 million books and provided a place to study and access the internet for thousands of students, including many underprivileged students — doesn’t need to be closed. Even with the ongoing repairs, independent inspections have shown it would not be dangerous for the public to access the building while these repairs take place.

People studying at Joburg library
Inside the library, packed with students, on that same day in 2016. Look how full the upper gallery was. Where are all these students studying now?

In response to this maddening situation, a group of activists and concerned citizens gathered in front of the library this past Saturday to demand that the building be immediately re-opened to the people of Joburg.

Ali Gule of the Organization Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) protests outside the library. I only noticed later that there is a person in the library doorway (maybe a security guard?) also holding their fist up in the background.

About the Johannesburg City Library Protest

The protest was organized by the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and the Johannesburg Crisis Alliance, which is affiliated with the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. Several writers and activists made short speeches on the steps of the “Democracy is Dialogue” statue, and then protestors from OUTA led a brief march (with the characteristic toyi-toyi that South African protestors do best) up to the street and back.

Protestors gathered outside the library
Protestors gathered in Beyers Naudé Square, in front of the library, around the iconic “Democracy is Dialogue” sculpture by Lawrence Lemaoana.
Speakers at the Re-Open the Library protest
Neeshan Balton (left) of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation listens to remarks from Achille Mbembe, a professor at Wits University.
Flo Bird at the library protest
I googled the meaning of “bula” and “vula” and found this page. Both words mean “open” in various South African languages. Flo Bird, the lady on the right, is the founder of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation. Her sign reads: “The library is a necessity for meaningful literacy.”
Library protestor
Students at the library protest
Fabian Otto at the library protest
I spotted my friends from Noordgesig, Fabian (holding signs) and Lavinia Otto, at the protest. Fabian and Lavinia are also fighting for resources for the Noordgesig Library, which I’ll say more about in a future post.
Protestors outside the librar
Lavinia holding the same signs later on.
Protestors demonstrate for the re-opening of the Johannesburg City Library
The best part of the protest: the toyi-toyi.
As a friend commented that day: “South African protests are the best dance parties.”

My favorite thing about the protest (besides the singing and dancing) was the diversity; there were South Africans there from all ages, races, and backgrounds. Whatever their differences might be outside of this protest, it felt like everyone was working together in that moment to get their voices heard on this single, important issue.

Kids at the Johannesburg City Library protest

Incidentally, the City of Joburg put out a media release yesterday (two days after the protest) announcing that budget has been allocated for the library repairs, and this allocation “is expected to pave the way for the partial reopening of the [Joburg City Library] in the next financial year.” It’s great that the City responded, but this language seems intentionally vague and also not enough: The point is to get the library re-opened NOW.

The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation created an online petition to re-open the library; view and sign the petition here. Also (if you’re a South African citizen, which I am not), please vote in South Africa’s national and provincial elections on May 29th.

Viva, Johannesburg City Library. Viva!


  1. Justin

    I heard and read that the library got flooded with water due to some bad leakage problems 🙁

    • 2summers

      I’m not sure…Maybe that had water leakage issues at some point in the past but I don’t think that’s the issue now. The JHF did a tour of the library not too long ago and apparently everything inside looks pretty good and there’s no major damage or threat to safety.

  2. Maarten

    During my last visit I was in a shock to see all books; computers; furniture in error and not being looked after. This was not a library but it was a mess. Nobody feeling responsible to do the work, look after books and just keep things proper. I tried to speak to the manager but the person that came forward was not interested at all. This Government is not interested to keep this wonderful place; all these books and computers alive.

  3. Ms. Nancy Anne McDaniel

    I signed the petition. This is a travesty. It looks like a wonderful and well attended protest (great signs too!)

    • 2summers

      I also enjoyed the signs!

  4. AutumnAshbough

    That’s so sad and maddening. Libraries are crucial equalizers and safe places. Someone on social media posted recently about how fortunate we are that the public libraries in the U.S. were created centuries ago. Can you imagine Republicans funding them now?!

    • 2summers

      Indeed. Now we just have to figure out how to prevent all the books in the libraries being banned (and the librarians being fired).


    Thank you Heather for attending the protest and for capturing the event in your unique way. As I said when we sat down to chat in Brixton, you see (often with your camera) our beautiful and complicated country with an even balance and fresh appreciation. As South African we carry so much baggage that divides us, but in this protest we came together to send a clear unified message to our government. The Heritage Foundation and all of us in the Joburg Crisis Alliance are determined to fight on until the doors reopen to the public. This blog post is exactly what I hoped for when we met. Thank You. My next vision is of you capturing the handover of donated books to the Head Librarian and the flow of people in an open Joburg City Library. Yes, the City has responded with more of what we have heard before, so we wont be appeased or sidetracked. The Struggle Continues!

    • 2summers

      Thanks for all of your amazing work, Yunus!

  6. Lani

    I’m surprised you wrote about, Heather, because you seem very careful in not getting involved with S. Af politics, which I TOTALLY understand. Is this something we can expect more of from you? I’d be keen since so many of us are facing these kinds of govt struggles around the world.

    • 2summers

      Hey Lani, I think I felt compelled to write about the library closure since I’ve blogged about the library before and feel especially connected to the issue. I do try to shy away from politics, mainly because politics here (as everywhere) are so damn complicated and I’ll never feel educated enough to comment intelligently. But to me this is more of a human issue than a political one, and perhaps a little simpler. Kids need the library and it needs to be opened!



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