Living in District 9

The eyes of the stranger are large but he sees nothing in the town.

— African proverb

A stranger in Johannesburg immediately notices the serious security measures in place everywhere. High walls are topped with electrified razor wire. Dogs are visible or audible behind the walls. Signs warn of alarms that will bring “rapid armed response” from one of many thriving security companies. Locks and chains and gates and guards with guns are common accessories of homes and businesses. The presence of so much defensive and offensive hardware creates tension, lends a hard edge even to the best areas of the city, and prompts a question: what’s going on here?

South Africans have pondered that question at least since the late 1940s, when apartheid became the country’s official policy. Grappling with the moral and psychological dimensions of this enforced, segregated system of exploitation, Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, published in 1948, describes part of the price the “dominant race” would pay for that policy:

“We shall live from day to day and put more locks on the doors and get a fine fierce dog… and hold on to our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forgo.… We shall be careful and knock this off our lives and knock that off our lives and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings; and we shall live with fear, but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown.” And that fear still reigns across this land.

Much has changed since Paton’s day and much remains the same. Apartheid was finally abandoned in 1990, after moral censure and economic pressure from the rest of the world. The country’s first free elections in 1994 brought in a black majority government run by the African National Congress, which continues its monopoly on political power.

Under ANC leadership, a new black elite has emerged, blurring the traditional South African equation of race with class. But recent demographic data from the Human Sciences Research Council shows that “the proportion of people living in poverty in South Africa has not changed significantly” in the post-apartheid years, and in fact,“those households living in poverty have sunk deeper into poverty and the gap between rich and poor has widened.”

To be white in South Africa in 2010, even as a foreign visitor, is to feel retroactively complicit in the brutal racist violence which ruled here politically for decades and still tyrannizes the hearts and minds of millions. It feels like slogging knee-deep in swampy borrowed karma because of your skin color. Many whites here would prefer just to forget the past and move ahead. But many blacks say it is impossible to move on from an era that whites never truly acknowledged or understood.

Under the apartheid system’s “pass laws,” black Africans were restricted to live in certain areas and only permitted to work in other areas during specific hours. Those laws are gone but the economic imperatives remain to keep that practice in place, creating a sense of time warp.

Each morning black workers stream into commercial and residential areas in large numbers, getting down from trains and buses and the vans that serve as collective taxis here, setting off on foot, sometimes for long distances, to the places they work. They move slowly, in contrast with the occasional whites out walking or jogging for exercise. Most of those who are driving cars are white.

Every afternoon, that human tide reverses, as the blacks migrate back toward the transport they will ride home, to the poor townships and shanty towns where they must live. This strange and troubling ritual feels anachronistic and wrong. But with South Africa’s rate of unemployment above 25 percent (by some estimates, closer to 40 percent), anyone with a source of income, however meager, however long their commute, is not the least fortunate. Theft is rampant, hence the security hardware.

Millions of poor South Africans continue to endure a lack of basic services such as running water or electricity, a shameful ongoing legacy of apartheid and a powerful indictment of the post-apartheid regime, which has failed to provide jobs or provide sufficient housing for the poor, despite their many promises and their sixteen years in power.

Apartheid’s bad old days were much worse for the black majority, of course. That past is on display in many places, including the former women’s prison downtown, now a museum, where black and white political prisoners were confined separately for their activism. Black women were held in much smaller, more primitive cells. Newtown’s Africa Museum has a large exhibit detailing the six-year treason trial of prominent anti-apartheid activists, many of whom later became government leaders.

Soweto’s Hector Pieterson Museum reruns period TV footage of the 1976 protests in which police opened fire on unarmed students, killing dozens, including the 13-year-old Pieterson. The Apartheid Museum provides details of massacres (like Sharpeville) and cold-blooded state murder (like that of black leader Steve Biko). On the sunniest days, apartheid’s ghost casts a lingering chill over parks and skyscrapers, highways and malls.

Last year’s off-beat science fiction movie, District 9, identified the shadow over Johannesburg as coming, not from the past, but from an alien flying saucer that has hovered above the city for decades. The movie’s plot involves the forcible relocation of the aliens – who resemble giant prawns – from their longtime ramshackle detention site in the center of the city to a more remote location. The prawn people are portrayed as detestable and incomprehensible but highly intelligent and dangerous. Beneath the superficial distancing devices – the high-tech make-up and zap-zap special effects – the film is really a metaphoric documentary about South Africa.

Forced relocations of undesirables, a hallmark of the apartheid years, have also been part of South Africa’s preparations for the World Cup soccer tournament in June. Clean-up efforts have involved relocating residents of unsightly shanty towns from their previous all-too-visible sites. Under the euphemistic “Breaking New Ground” policy, Cape Town officials shifted township residents from their homes along a route between the airport to the city to a remote location invisible to soccer tourists, “with minimal infrastructure and far removed from people’s places or potential places of work,” in the words of reporter Robert Wilcox. “Looking much like a concentration camp, this settlement was named ‘Blikkiesdorp’ – Tin Town, by those herded there.”

South Africa hopes that by staging one of the planet’s premiere sporting events the country will receive a financial windfall and lots of favorable international publicity. Germany made a tidy profit hosting the 2006 World Cup, but South Africa will find it harder to duplicate that feat. The long, expensive flights here from almost everywhere else in the world, exacerbated by the recent economic downturn and the inflated internet ticket prices on offer have caused a revision downward in the number of visitors expected to attend these events.

According to Bloomberg‘s Mike Cohen, “South Africa has spent 34 billion rand ($4.6 billion) to host the soccer World Cup…” Most of the 130,000 jobs the tournament created were for low-paid unskilled laborers. With the ten new stadiums and supporting infrastructure now completed, most of those temporary jobs are finished. So who stands to benefit?

“The big secret about the World Cup is that only the rich will get richer from it,” in the words of South African playwright Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom. The lion’s share of World Cup income will benefit sponsors and international media. Some owners of top-end hotels and restaurants here will no doubt reap benefits. Also profiting are the government officials who got kickbacks from the contractors awarded the construction contracts.

Many more ordinary people, some of whom have served football fans for years here, will be excluded. As journalist Claire Byrne notes: “The stadium ‘cooking mamas’ — women from townships who serve up cheap local fast-food at games — are being moved out to make way for FIFA sponsors, such as McDonald’s.”

Most South Africans tell pollsters they are “no better off” now than in 1994 when apartheid was abolished. In fact, there has been a net job loss since then. Afraid of racial retribution, nudged out of jobs or limited in their career trajectories by the ANC policy of black affirmative action, many whites have fled the country, taking needed skills and knowledge with them. The ANC’s promised commitment to education has not materialized in order to train a new generation of skilled workers to run the economy. The largest crisis here is one of confidence: in the government and in the future.

Many outsiders think of South Africa in terms of Nelson Mandela’s triumphs: over his enemies, his own bitterness and his impulse for revenge. Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” is surely one of the twentieth century’s most inspiring stories. But contemporary reality is not Invictus or happily ever after. As R.W. Johnson describes the post-apartheid era in South Africa’s Brave New World: “Mandela’s warm personality and inclusive spirit were stamped indelibly on the nation’s heart in these years but… his well-loved face was merely the mask of a very different regime.”

Johnson’s book provides a disheartening account of how the African National Congress sold out their ideals when they came into office in 1994, after the country’s first free election. The ANC dumped their socialist agenda in order to appease the IMF and attract international investment. Once in power they succumbed to corruption and cronyism, playing to the aspirations of middle class blacks and their own political elite, ignoring the hopes and desperation of the poor majority who voted for them.

Thabo Mbeki, the powerful government organizer behind Mandela and the man who succeeded him in office, dismissed all criticism of ANC ineptitude or malfeasance as “racist.” Conditioned by his decades of exile, dodging assassination attempts as his father sat in prison, Mbeki centralized control unto himself and purged his rivals from within the party, sometimes brutally. A few grim statistics from the daily media here show how Mbeki’s chickens are coming home to roost right now.

One thousand South Africans a day are dying of AIDS. This horrifying and largely preventable slow-motion holocaust is part of Thabo Mbeki’s legacy. As the nature and the scope of the epidemic were becoming clear in Africa and worldwide, Mbeki construed calls to fight the disease as a political attempt to blame Africans for this plague and stigmatize them anew. He disputed the science and refused to take responsible action in the years when it could have saved millions of lives. Men, women and children continue to suffer and die for Mbeki’s misbegotten paranoia.

It is eerie to stand in a busy place like Johannesburg’s Park Station, the city’s main bus and railway terminal, knowing that at least one of three people in the large crowds there are HIV positive. South Africa now has 5.8 million AIDS sufferers, more than any other country in the world. South African President Jacob Zuma has pledged a renewed commitment to AIDS education and testing. He recently announced that his own HIV test came out negative.

For most politicians, such a result would be unremarkable. But Zuma’s personal habits are more flamboyant than those of most public officeholders. Married five times, he has three current wives and approximately twenty offspring, some from extra-marital liaisons. During Zuma’s recent visit to London the British press slimed the 68-year-old ruler as an oversexed buffoon.

When does he find time to govern? South African media chastised Zuma for setting a bad example by having unprotected sex with a friend’s daughter, who was known to be HIV-positive. Zuma earned further scorn by protesting that he had showered afterward to reduce his risk. The young woman accused him of rape, but he was judged not guilty in court. Then he became president.

Zuma recently opined that the country only has about four more years to blame their former white supremacist rulers – who left office in 1994 – before they must assume full responsibility for their own problems. That’s almost exactly how much time Zuma has left in his presidential term. Four years seems a long time to justify political drift and not to address pressing social problems such as the galloping crime rate here, mentioned by anyone who hears you are going to South Africa.

There are fifty murders a day in this country of about 50 million people, the same murder rate as in the United States, which has six times the population. Much of this violence is directed toward the foreigners from Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa who are perceived to be taking jobs away from locals, since they will work for less money, and committing violence against them, because they are desperate. Crisis is a relative term. Many South Africans would agree that their country is in crisis right now. But conditions in Zimbabwe and the Congo, among other nations, are so much worse, that the flood of immigrants here continues unabated.

Five hundred people a day cross the border from Zimbabwe into South Africa. More than twenty-five percent of the economically active adult population of that country has fled from it, to escape the despotism of Robert Mugabe. For decades Mugabe and his friends have looted the land, ruining the economy, and persecuted anyone who objected.

As the ruler of Zimbabwe’s most powerful neighbor, Thabo Mbeki was uniquely placed and morally obliged during his presidency to intercede against Mugabe’s destructive, inhumane policies. Many here and around the world pleaded with Mbeki to do so. But he refused. The result of Mugabe’s megalomania has been the slow starvation of a once prosperous nation and a desperate exodus which has caused bitterness and bloodshed in South Africa.

Faced with such unpleasantness , it’s no wonder Zuma prefers to accumulate wives and children and pin the country’s intractable problems on the old apartheid system for another four years. ANC youth league leader Julius Malema has built his own career by calling for vengeance against the hardcore resistance of Afrikaner farmers, the Boers. In his public appearances, Malema likes to sing an anti-apartheid song which includes the lyrics, “Kill the Boer,” which often receives large applause.

In early April, not long after Malema had regaled another audience with this violent anthem, a white separatist farmer named Eugene Terre Blanche was murdered at his farm. A divisive extremist, Terre Blanche founded an Afrikaner Resistance Movement and famously threatened civil war to maintain white rule in Africa. After three years in jail for assault and attempted murder, Terre Blanche in 2008 began calling for a “free Afrikaner republic” to be created inside South Africa’s borders.

Terre Blanche is only the most recent and most famous white farmer to die from violence. The South African Human Rights Commission estimates that about 2500 white farmers have died as the result of more than 9000 violent attacks since the end of apartheid. White farmers’ organizations claim the number of fatalities is closer to 3000. The Commission found that the rate of attacks on white farmers has increased 25% since 2005. The vengeful racist massacre that many feared when apartheid ended, but which Mandela seemed to have averted, is taking place in its own protracted, stealthy way.

Until Julius Malema called a BBC reporter a “bastard” last month, his anti-Boer rants had not been censured by Jacob Zuma or the ANC. Indeed, the once-impoverished, poorly educated Malema now lives in splendor in Sandton, one of the most upscale sections of Johannesburg. His shrill, extremist rhetoric clearly serves some influential vested interest.

Now, only weeks before the World Cup matches will begin here, Malema has been publicly reprimanded by the ANC and ordered to attend an anger management class, though most of his outbursts appeared calculated, if not scripted. Race baiting is not likely to play well in the international spotlight the FIFA soccer matches will bring.

For Malema, the Boers are convenient prawn-like foils to deflect blame from the enfranchised ANC back to the ghosts of apartheid. Zuma too seems content to pin his nation’s problems on the past. Many unemployed South Africans consider the immigrant population, legal and illegal, as the biggest threat to their well-being and perhaps to their survival. The fear and revulsion humans feel for the alien prawns in District 9 holds up a sci-fi mirror to this sort of scapegoating.

Infected by the prawns, the protagonist of the movie begins to mutate, slowly becoming a prawn person himself, which horrifies him and everyone he knows. There can be no worse fate, though the change does endow him with some special powers. More hideous even than having to co-exist with the Other is becoming the Other. This fear has driven the policies of the Afrikaners and British for three hundred years in South Africa, leading to the madness of apartheid and continuing today. Of course, the fear of Otherness is primal and widespread. It’s a prominent feature of U.S. History – up to and including our ongoing religious conflicts – and the recent immigration legislation in Arizona.

And speaking of wacky movies as fun house barometers, in Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic 2012, John Cusack and others battle catastrophic computer generated imagery to escape Certain Doom. In the final, throwaway scene, an officer of the CGI craft tells survivors that one of the only places on the planet that didn’t sink into the sea was KwaZulu Natal, on the eastern coast of South Africa, so that’s where they will head. It may not be the Promised Land, but it’s as lovely a place as any to watch the world end. And begin again.

James is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Documentaries (Praeger 2006), and Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, (2015). He lives in Quito, Ecuador. Read other articles by James.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. catauro said on May 21st, 2010 at 12:11pm #

    Mr MacEnter you make a mistake when you said :”Apartheid was finally abandoned in 1990, after moral censure and economic pressure from the rest of the world.” Death wrong Mr MacEnteer, who put the end to the South Africa disgusting apartheid regime wasn’t a moral censure or economic pressure . No . Was the blood, sweet and sacrifice of the Cuban people in the Cuito Cuanavale’s Battle ….we can not forget about that!!!!

  2. dan e said on May 21st, 2010 at 6:31pm #

    There is an important lesson to be learned from the history of opposition to Apartheid juxtaposed with the reality of the present situation in South Africa & the conditions faced every day by the majority of the population there.

    I remember when I was an enthusiastic ANC supporter, busily helping organize Free Mandela events, promoting Danny Glover’s movie etc. I was nonplussed when I encountered US Black activists who refused to support the ANC, who offered criticisms of Mandela: were these people nuts?
    Much later, after Steve Biko had been MLK’d, after the ANC had turned on Winnie M, I began to understand.

    My guess is that many of those who right now are moved to defend Superstar Chomsky against what they see as “unfair attacks” will likewise begin to understand.