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Introduction: What’s wrong with South Africa’s primary city?

The pages below are from the introductory and concluding chapters to Unsustainable South Africa, which makes a long, detailed case that the host city for the August 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development needs revolutionary change. The case includes critiques of Johannesburg’s water and energy supplies–megadams in Lesotho and coal-fired power plants in the eastern provinces of South Africa, respectively–and shows how the costs are passed on to low-income consumers, workers, women and the environment. The main arguments can be found in the introductory section. The second section summarises the fightback: struggles to decommodify water and electricity (as well as antiretroviral medicines, land, housing, education and more). We can also, in the process, consider some of the more profound questions about urban-rural eco-social relationships, when we ask, What kind of eco-socialist politics will be required to transform a landscape like Johannesburg, after the revolution?

Welcome to Johannesburg

The retained, post-apartheid name of Johannesburg commemorates Johannes Rissik, the nineteenth century surveyor of the stolen land. When a genuine people’s government comes to power, the name will surely be changed, just as will the inherited landscape of apartheid-era and post-apartheid urban, suburban and peri-urban capitalism.
In the struggle to remake the world in a humane and ecologically-sensitive image, names are trivial symbols, but ‘Johannesburg’ is also notable because it adorns yet another failed UN heads-of-state summit, known as the World Summit on Sustainable Development, or ‘Rio+10’. When social progress advances more rapidly later in the century, then that conference’s awful legacy–the commodification of nature and amplified underdevelopment of the Third World through heightened globalisation–will probably also be forgotten.

Before we address the trajectory such work might entail, consider first the problems that socio-economic liberation will have to face.

The contradictions in contemporary Johannesburg are unmistakable, as many visitors first comprehend with a bird’s eye view. Anyone flying in to Africa’s main commercial complex, particularly during the winter and spring months, descends to the highveld by breaking through a thick brown cloud of particulates. Temperature inversions and the lack of rain for the past four months are the natural reasons Johannesburg’s 1500 metre elevation and brisk winds still don’t provide clean air in winter.

In this region, the settlers’ conquest of nature, particularly since gold was discovered in 1886, is especially grotesque. Viewed from the air, filthy smudges of human fingerprints are everywhere to partake: concentrated industrial pollution over the east-west factory strip and the six-chimneyed power plant astride the airport; gold-mine dumps to the south of the city which ceaselessly blow sand and dust into black neighbourhoods; periodic bush fires; and the ongoing use of coal and fuelwood for cooking and heating in impoverished townships like Soweto and Alexandra.

 

Township and suburban life

It would be wrong to blame the victims: low-income black people. Across the country, the drive towards electricity commercialisation and privatisation these past few years has meant supply cutoffs for more than a million households who cannot afford price increases. From the air, be thankful that we do not experience the most dangerous results, such as the return to dirtier forms of energy and the re-emergence of tuberculosis and other rampant respiratory infections that threaten the lives of South Africa’s five million HIV-positive people.

Just before landing, we are, however, close enough to notice the silvery glinting of thousands of tiny metal-roofed shacks in the bright sun, like cauterised wounds on the yellowish skin of Africa during the dry season. The township slums stretch to the horizon, and house the majority of Gauteng Province’s ten million inhabitants. Because of a stingy government policy based on World Bank advice in mid-1994, shortly after Nelson Mandela was elected president, Johannesburg’s post-apartheid squatter camps and meagre new formal residential areas for low-income black residents are actually further away from job opportunities and are worse served with community amenities, schools and clinics, than even apartheid-era ghettoes.

Looking down, our eyes are soon drawn away to the bright green of well-watered English-style gardens and thick alien trees that shade traditionally white–now slightly desegregated–suburbs, permeated by ubiquitous sky-blue swimming pools. To achieve the striking effect, the most hedonistic louts of Johannesburg abuse water. Waste occurs not only in the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois residential zones sprawling north and east of the city centre, but in the southern mining belt and the corporate-dominated farms on the city’s outskirts.

Further scarce water is used for cooling coal-burning electricity generators. Jejune South African bureaucrats brag about supplying the world’s cheapest energy for industrial use, because they fail to price in the damage to the environment, including one of the world’s worst global greenhouse gas emissions, corrected for population size and income. The root cause is a phenomenon economists call ‘Dutch Disease’, to commemorate the rise of North Sea oil prices and hence the Dutch currency, which decapacitated Holland’s manufacturing capacity. Likewise, South Africa’s mineral wealth distorts and distends the local economy and annuls efforts at industrial balance. The implications for water supply are becoming critical.

 

Sucking the ground dry

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