The Two Sides of South Africa

In the Western news media, South Africa is often treated as an African success story, with attention focused on its wealthy businessmen, its elegant neighborhoods and its glimmering malls. But the glitz obscures another reality, one of continuing inequality, poverty and injustice, as Danny Schecther observed on a recent visit.

By Danny Schechter

July 20, 2011

It’s Friday night, and the motorways are packed with cars heading for the mall.  

Here in Durban, the Gateway Mall is the destination of choice. It’s huge, the biggest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s stuffed with stuff, much of it upscale, calling itself a “theater of shopping.”  (It is actually built over what was once a dump.)

The parking lots are packed with late-model cars, many of them high-end.

I have to confess, I was invited there to see America’s latest high culture import, the 3D version of the movie “Transformers 3,” based on a toy and cartoon, in a modern movie complex with 18 theaters and rows and rows of packed gates where you line up for endless popcorn and soft drinks.

Business was booming; the theater was full. Most of the crowd seemed to be whites and Indians, but there were also many blacks now firmly anchored in the consumer life-style.

As I found out a few years ago at this same mall, but in a smaller theater, when I showed my film “In Debt We Trust,” many South Africans are deeply in debt to their credit-card companies with inordinate amounts of money also flowing to their cell-phone suppliers.

On the way out, past the beaches, past the spanking new but underused stadiums built for the World Cup, past the Sun Coast Casino and past the convention center where the International Olympic Committee was still meeting, we drove by what’s called a settlement, a collection of tin shacks where destitute migrants from the countryside and other African states live in squalor.

It was a reminder of the deep poverty that co-exists with the affluence of the mall culture.

This is a historical irony because in the dark days of apartheid, whites ruled the cities, and used the pass system and police to make sure that “the blacks,” except, of course, for domestic servants, would be out of the city by nightfall.

The authorities destroyed stable black communities or “removed” blacks against their will to new suburban townships like Soweto. The policy was called ‘forced relocation.” 

Now, it’s the whites and affluent blacks who are leaving town for spiffy “planned communities.” When a low-income housing scheme was proposed for the area near the mall, it was actively opposed by affluent residents.

Like in Johannesburg, this city has migrated to the Northern suburbs where the new factories and gated communities are being built. The old neighborhoods like Musgrave are trying to give themselves a face-lift but many flats, houses and businesses are empty, for rent or for sale.

The redeveloped scenic hills of Durban North and beyond in KwaZulu Natal seem to offer the escape path for the good life. A new billion-dollar airport named after Zulu King Shaka was recently opened miles north of the city.

An Afrikaner lawyer tells me that years ago, there was a Jewish dentist in Durban who was so busy you could never get an appointment. His schedule was packed, mostly with fellow Jews.

Now, he’s easy to book because large parts of the Jewish community has migrated or fled to New Zealand and Australia, with a few trickling to Israel.

This “transition” happened in central Joburg a decade ago. When I first came here, the City of Gold, as it was known, was the center of commerce. Today, the 120-year-old Central Business District is, in part, a ghost town, a place for the poor and immigrants.

The action moved 20 miles north to Sandton, an area of fantastic shopping centers complete with a Mandela Square, luxury hotels, and thriving businesses.

The new multi-billion dollar Gau-Train that runs from the airport doesn’t even have a Johannesburg stop yet. It goes directly to Sandton. Stops at another mall in Rosebank and in Pretoria are coming, and at Park Station in Central Joburg where there will be no connection to working-class trains serving Soweto and other black “suburbs.”

The late Gill Scott Heron sang, “what’s the word, Johannesburg!” Today,  it’s a word that has become a synonym more for an airport hub (Africa’s largest) than a city.

The city is still there, but it seems to have disappeared in the consciousness of many who bypass it whenever they can although it still is home to the Market Theater and many attractions. Locals prefer to call it Jozi.

The social divisions in South African cities were structured and imposed. They didn’t happen naturally, although it was hard to understand that as you whiz by on first-world freeways.

In some ways, geography is destiny. The English who eased out the Dutch in the first colonial collision had a keen sense of where they wanted people to live. The whites got the coastline; the blacks were driven into the interior.

Later, when the Afrikaners took over, their system of racial division and profiling pushed Africans further back into reserves set up to better control labor and then into ethnic homelands as part of what they called “separate development.”

The architects of apartheid created a system where whites ended up with 87 percent of the best land, blacks only 13 percent, and there’s been little land reform since the outbreak of democracy.

Today, something else is going on. Landlords and real-estate interests encourage blight as a way to drive people to leave for more expensive residences. The blight then lowers real-estate values which allows a few to pick up large tracts for a song, and redevelop them.

First, the artists and yuppies move in, followed by the middle- and upper- classes. The city planners know this phenomenon well and manipulate it for commercial reasons.

Scholars Bill Freund and Vishni Padayachee recognize the way that planning from on high determines how South African cities have been organized:

“These cities have strong traditions of forceful planning from above with considerable capacity to finance change. They witness industrialization, but they are also the site of massive squatter settlements and populations that fall outside the functioning of the ‘formal’ economy.”

Chris Brenner of the University California-Davis explains this is a global phenomenon:

“Cities are fundamentally shaped by inequality and conflict, as different social groups mobilize political and economic resources in an effort to improve their socio-economic circumstances.

“Rapid globalization and the rise of an information economy, however, are resulting in rapidly changing patterns of employment, economic opportunity and political power.”

These divisions are intensified by policy decisions, and a lack of them, which. in turn, lead to conflict and even violence.

A study by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Center for Civil Society in Durban blamed the rise of xenophobic violence on structural problems many years in the making as property rights were allowed to trump human rights. 

These analysts showed that such conflict can be expected in response to blatantly unequal and structural social arrangements that are allowed, if not encouraged, to fester in a stressful environment compounded by poverty and other crises.

As urban analyst David Harvey puts it, “The response is for each and every stratum in society to use whatever powers of domination it can command (money, political influence, even violence) to try to seal itself off (or seal off others judged undesirable) in fragments of space within which processes of reproduction of social distinctions can be jealously protected.”

The result in Durban was an upsurge of violence. He said:

“May-June 2008 South Africa witnessed the country’s worst-ever outbreak of xenophobic violence: 62 people including 21 South Africans were killed, 670 wounded, dozens of women raped, at least 100,000 people displaced, and property worth of millions of rand looted, destroyed or seized by South Africans and their leaders in the affected communities.”

So here I am in one of the most beautiful corners of the world and yet under the surface, it is seething with conflicts far worse and much scarier than the ones I saw play out in Hollywood’s apocalyptic “Transformers 3.”

It’s not obvious. To “get it,” you have to scratch deep to see its roots.

Politicians will have to do much more to head off the social explosion and ugly violence the experts anticipate sooner rather than later.

News Dissector Danny Schechter has been involved with South Africa since the 1960’s and has made many films here. Comments to [email protected]