Living in District 9
A stranger in Johannesburg immediately notices serious security measures 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. The presence of so much defensive and offensive hardware prompts a question: what’s going on here? South Africans have pondered that question since the late 1940s when apartheid became the country’s official policy. Much has changed since the 1940s and much remains the same. Apartheid was abandoned in 1990, after moral censure and economic pressure from the rest of the world. The country’s first free elections in 1994 brought a black majority government run by the African National Congress, which continues its monopoly on political power. Under ANC leadership, a new black elite emerged, blurring the traditional South African equation of race with class. 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. In fact, “those households living in poverty have sunk deeper into poverty and the gap between rich and poor has widened.”
Each morning black workers stream into commercial and residential areas in large numbers, getting down from trains and buses and vans that serve as collective taxis, setting off on foot, sometimes for long distances, to work. Every afternoon, this process reverses as blacks migrate back 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, is not the least fortunate.
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. 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. The Apartheid Museum provides details of massacres like Sharpeville and the cold-blooded state murder of black leader Steve Biko.
Diepsloot north of Johannesburg houses about 150,000 people in an informal settlement—photo by Arndt Husar
Last year’s off-beat science fiction movie, District 9, identified the shadow over Johannesburg. The movie’s plot involves the forcible relocation of aliens—who resemble giant prawns—from their long-time 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 high-tech make-up and special effects, the film is really a documentary metaphor about South Africa. Forced relocations of “undesirables,” a hallmark of the apartheid years, were also part of South Africa’s preparations for the World Cup soccer tournament in June. Clean-up efforts involved relocating residents of unsightly shanty towns from their previously visible sites. Under the euphemistic “breaking new ground” policy, Cape Town officials shifted township residents from their homes along a route between the airport and 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 hoped that by staging one of the planet’s premiere sporting events, the country would 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, the recent economic downturn, and inflated ticket prices have caused a revision downward in the number of visitors.
According to Bloomsburg’s Mike Cohen, “South Africa has spent 34 billion rand ($4.6 billion) to host the soccer World Cup.” 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 four star hotels and restaurants will no doubt reap benefits. Also profiting are the government officials who got kickbacks from the contractors awarded the construction contracts. Ordinary people, some of whom have been football fans for years, were excluded. As journalist Claire Byrne notes: “The stadium…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 in order to train a new generation of skilled workers to run the economy has not materialized. The largest crisis is one of confidence in the government and in the future.
Many outsiders think of South Africa in terms of Nelson Mandela’s triumphs. Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” is surely one of the 20th century’s most inspiring stories. But contemporary reality is not Invictus or happily ever after. R.W. Johnson’s South Africa’s Brave New World provides a disheartening account of how 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 person who succeeded him in office, dismissed all criticism of ANC’s ineptitude or malfeasance as “racist.” Conditioned by his decades of exile, dodging assassination attempts as his father sat in prison, Mbeki centralized control and purged his rivals from within the party, sometimes brutally. A few grim statistics from the daily media show how Mbeki’s policies are coming home to roost as 1,000 South Africans a day are dying of AIDS—part of Mbeki’s legacy. As the nature and the scope of the epidemic was 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 when it could have saved millions of lives.
South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, has pledged a renewed commitment to AIDS education and testing, but he 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 crime rate. There are 50 murders a day in a country of about 50 million people, the same number of murders as in the United States, which has 6 times the population. Much of this violence is directed toward foreigners from Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa who are perceived to be taking jobs away from locals, since they will work for less money.
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 continues unabated. Five-hundred people a day cross the border from Zimbabwe into South Africa. More than 25 percent of the economically active adult population of that country has fled to escape the despotism of Robert Mugabe. For decades Mugabe and his friends have looted the land, ruining the economy and persecuting anyone who objected. As the ruler of Zimbabwe’s most powerful neighbor, Mbeki was uniquely placed and morally obliged during his presidency (1999-2008) to intercede against Mugabe’s policies and 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 that has caused bitterness and bloodshed in South Africa.
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 that 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, in 2008 Terre Blanche 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 2,500 white farmers have died as the result of more than 9,000 violent attacks since the end of apartheid. (White farmers’ organizations claim the number of fatalities is closer to 3,000.) The Commission found that the rate of attacks on white farmers has increased 25 percent 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 way.
The once-impoverished, poorly educated Malema now lives in splendor in Sandton, one of the most upscale sections of Johannesburg. A few weeks before the World Cup matches began, Malema was publicly reprimanded by the ANC and ordered to attend an anger management class— though most of his outbursts appeared calculated, if not scripted. 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, meanwhile, 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 scape- goating. 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. 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 300 years in South Africa, leading to the madness of apartheid, and continuing even today.
James McEnteer lives in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, where his World Cup runneth over.