Living in District 9

Living in District 9

South Africa abolished apartheid and is hosting the World Cup. So where’s the glow?

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 Africa finally abandoned apartheid in 1990, after worldwide moral censure and economic pressure. 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.”

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. 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. Official segregation is gone, but on the sunniest days, apartheid’s ghost casts a lingering chill over parks and skyscrapers, highways and malls.

Last year’s 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 detention site in the center of the city to a more remote location. 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. Clean-up efforts involved relocating residents of unsightly shanty towns from their previous all-too-visible sites.

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 attending these events.

According to Bloomsburg’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 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,” said 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 – have been 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. 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.

One thousand South Africans a day are dying of AIDS. This horrifying and largely preventable slow-motion holocaust is a legacy of Thabo Mbekii, who followed Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa. As the nature and the scope of the epidemic were becoming clear in Africa and worldwide, Mbeki disputed the science and refused to take responsible action in the years when it could have saved millions of lives. 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.

Zuma also 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 not to address problems such as the galloping crime rate.

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 foreigners from Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa, who are perceived to be taking jobs away from locals, since they will work for less money. These desperate emigrants sometimes rob or mug South Africans, justifying even more prejudice and violence against them. 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 to escape the despotism of Robert Mugabe. For decades, Mugabe and his friends have looted the land, ruined the economy, and persecuted anyone who objected. Mugabe’s megalomania has resulted in the slow starvation of a once prosperous nation and a desperate exodus which has brought bitterness and bloodshed to South Africa.

It’s perhaps understandable that Zuma prefers to 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.

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. 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, stealthy way.

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

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 drove 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 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.