By Nick Matlin
To listen to the news of Mandela’s passing in the past few days is to discover many Nelson Mandelas, some more true than others. Universally admired, but for what? As the talking heads spin their way around the twenty-four hour news cycle, we get Mandela the liberator, the communist, and the terrorist. But what wins out is Mandela, the man of forgiveness and generosity of spirit: an individual who, in his own reckoning, had many flaws yet accomplished an immense amount. Mandela compels admiration from all, even from those who had long refused to recognize him as a full human being. (See, Jacques Derrida’s 1986 essay on Mandela, “Laws of Reflection: Nelson Mandela, in Admiration”) He maintained from the 1950s onward a dissensual stance. To adapt Ranciere’s tautological hypothesis here, Mandela persistently claimed rights he did not have, yet operated as if they were to be his future possession, even if they were not yet given to him. The rights he claimed for himself and for all South Africans were “the rights of those who have not the rights that they have and have the rights that they have not” (Rancière in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics). The fact that South Africans can now speak of themselves as South Africans irrespective of pigmentation, culture, language, or ethnicity—a reality that will endure into the future—and the fact that there is equality before the law for all South Africans, at least in theory, shows that the South Africa that Mandela leaves behind, the so-called ‘new’ South Africa, will always bear his fingerprint and shepherd his shadow.
Now, I want to shift registers a bit to talk about my own observations as a frequent visitor to South Africa and, more specifically, Johannesburg. Although I have been working on a dissertation about South Africa during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—the years when apartheid was first consolidated as a legislative and juridical apparatus—I was never in South Africa during apartheid. My first visit was in 2008, fourteen years after the 1994 election that brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power. Since then, I have returned almost every year, oftentimes for one to three months at a time. When I first arrived, it was during the May 2008 xenophobic attacks that afflicted many townships on the Witwatersrand. During the 2010 World Cup, I was studying in Pietermaritzburg. Most recently, I returned from South Africa at the end of the last month, less than a week before Mandela’s passing.
Johannesburg is a busy, chaotic, uncomfortable place. Its reputation precedes it and, indeed, its reputation (at least on the world stage) is not good. This is largely the result of the dramatic changes that occurred in the early 1990s, when the inner city was basically abandoned by the white capital that had sustained in during the apartheid years. Crime spiked and urban decay took off: huge buildings were selling for less than 50 Rand each. Black South Africans, banned from the so-called “white” cities until the easing of influx control restrictions in the 1980s, moved in, bringing to the surface what apartheid had been trying to repress. Johannesburg became a truly African city.
If there is anything that is consistent in Johannesburg, it is its inconsistency. Each time I return, the city has changed again. My perspective, as one who spends most of his time in middle class suburbs in Western and Northern Johannesburg is of course, quite narrow. Melville, often my home base in Johannesburg, was, on my arrival in 2008, a hopping strip of restaurants and bars. Upon my return in 2009 and 2010, the suburb seemed a bit rougher around the edges. Many of the restaurants on Melville’s famed 7th Street had gone out of business. Certain blocks had virtually nothing on them. In addition, the security walls—a fixture of the Johannesburg landscape—had begun to increase in height. The one house that I walked by every day on my first visit, the only house on the entire block without a security wall, had become hidden from view. The standard strings of electric wire were there, perched amongst what would, in another place, be decorative floral ironwork. In Johannesburg, however, it was razor wire, perversely shaped to resemble leaves and twigs. In 2013, Melville was transformed once again. It did not have the same tired, forlorn look about it: new places had opened and were packed in the evenings. There was more lighting, making the streets not seem so quiet and foreboding after dark.
But this is one spot: a relatively well-off suburb about five kilometers from Johannesburg’s formerly decaying Central Business District. What is striking is that, in 2013, the South African economy is weak. Consumer confidence is lower than it has been since 1994. Yet, it seems that Johannesburg—at least small parts of Johannesburg—are doing well. Braamfontein, the inner city suburb surrounding the University of the Witwatersrand, has recently become an urban hotspot. New art galleries have opened, as have bars and restaurants. It seems to have become a destination for Johannesburg’s middle and upper-middle classes.
If one makes one’s assessment from these isolated places, South Africa seems to be doing well; the middle classes seem to be growing, and new businesses seem to be opening up. What this testifies to, however, is not an improvement in the lives of all South Africans, but rather to the increasing economic polarization of South African society. As elsewhere, economic inequality is increasing. Classes are segregated from each other, often only interacting through transactions or through the tinted, rolled up windows of automobiles. Mandela’s emphasis on forgiveness allowed South Africans to at least try to step beyond the frontiers of race to embrace, if hesitantly, South Africans of other backgrounds. It is almost cliché to emphasize the fact that while racial frontiers have begun to break down, the frontiers of class remain stubbornly entrenched. Much of the country’s wealth still rests in the hands of the white minority. Poverty is widespread, with 47 percent of South Africans living on less than $43 a month. What this statistic does not convey, however, is the number of South Africans not only without jobs, but who lack the skills even for basic work. Bantu Education and the large scale rejection of school after the 1976 Soweto Massacre has left the country with not merely the unemployed, but the unemployable.
Adequate housing continues to be exceedingly difficult to find for those on the lower ends of the economic spectrum. A ten minute drive on the R511 in Johannesburg’s northern exurbs will take you past Diepsloot, a vast settlement of nearly 150000 people, many of whom live in shacks of cardboard and corrugated iron, and into Riverglen, a massive district of new, largely empty, security estates that are in the process of being marketed to the middle and upper-middle classes. As in most other places in the world, there is no money in affordable housing. Another ten minutes of driving past Diepsloot and Riverglen will bring you to Sandton City, Johannesburg’s most prestigious shopping mall. Situated in what is the richest (and perhaps the most unappealingly plastic) square mile in Africa, Sandton City is filled to the brim with stores selling brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci.
These types of contrasts, encountered constantly in Johannesburg and in other cities in South Africa, have become so widely discussed and so frequently mentioned, that they seem, to many, to be almost unnecessary to talk about. Yes, South Africa is an unequal place. Yes, it is an uncomfortable place. But it is only 19 years into nonracial democracy, no? Post-apartheid South Africa has laudably become a place of more equal opportunity. Nevertheless, the utopian aspirations of the struggle, particularly the emphasis of the United Democratic Front (UDF) during the 1980s on popular governance, progressive taxation, and the dramatic reconfiguration of society and politics, have essentially been forgotten. As such, the questions remain open: What would a more equal Johannesburg look like? How might such a place be achieved? These remain open questions, questions that must be answered by the post-Mandela, post-liberation generations. Can the global capitalist system that South Africa adopted after liberation be harnessed and used for good? Or what will occur in a more dramatic reconfiguration of society: a second liberation?
Only time will tell.
Nicholas Matlin is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at New York University. He is currently completing his dissertation, Crime as Punishment: South African Literature and the Experience of Violence, investigating the role of violent crime in shaping how South African writers generate political visions for the future.
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