August 3, 2006

In between pride and anxiety: the state of South Africa

Category: Politics,Tech,Travel — @ 1:34 pm

Writing blog entries in South Africa did not come so easily, mainly for technological reasons. While for the first 4 days of my trip I had steady Internet access, most of my time was spent enjoying the Law and Society Summer Institute. Once over, I headed from Joburg to Durban and my access became much spottier, not to mention that Bernard, my indefatigable host, made sure the days were filled seeing the gritty but beautiful urban beach town, hanging with the crew of University of Chicago students/graduates that descended upon the city, and having a go at sufring in the Indian Ocean. In the evenings, I did have some free time, but they were too chilly for me to do much of anything but burrow myself deep under a small mountain of covers and pass out after a day filled with plenty to do and see.

The theme of the conference I attended was the intersection of rights and regulations and given the Summer Institute was held in South Africa, it was not all that surprising that much of the conversation centered on one class of rights, those of human rights. Since the end of apartheid, SA has become a particularly-impossible-to-ignore beacon for human rights, and acts as a sort of modern guiding light that has defined the meaning and institutionalization of human rights post-WWII. So if WWII and the Holocaust represent the generative genesis of human rights, South Africa represents a new era of human rights, a place that revisited, rejuvenated the discourse and implementation in a post-Apartheid Constitution that has been touted, world-wide, as exemplary for its generous commitment to equality and other rights.

In this respect, one feels, quite everywhere, the collective pride of a nation who managed to end a brutal regime and it did so under the gaze of world who followed the drama on TV screens, college campuses, and newspaper headlines. As SA has moved to another era of picking up pieces and trying to build a more equitable society, many in the world are still eagerly watching. But pride does not stand alone, in isolation, for it mixes with other collective sentiments. The collective admiration and pride of a nation, like the sweet water of a river, visibly and freely mixes with a more salty frustration and anxiety to produce an in-between brackish state of affairs. Pride in other words sits alongside social anxiety, which palpably manifests at different registers and tones, to texture the cultural and political landscapes of SA.

The frustration follows from the fact that many are still living in dire poverty and in the last ten years, many steady jobs have vanished. Shantytowns, the symbols and material conditions of apartheid, are still omnipresent (though very well hidden from the middle class and the rich). The ruling government, while having roots in communism and socialism, has to contend with a world-wide regime of neoliberal governance and, thus, must try to balance satisfying commitments with the outside world with delivering promised goods to its population, demands that often run uncomfortably counter to the neoliberal logic of deregulation and financial austerity. Alongside this or perhaps as a manifestation of it, the talk of the town, especially in Johannesburg, is of the rampant crime. As a sign of crime and fear, most middle-class and wealthy houses are adorned with metal fences, barbed wires, electric fences, and a simple sign from private security companies (Chubb being the most common in Johannesburg) that announce they provide armed response security to break-ins. This is serious stuff. And while some of the fear of crime is a self-perpetuation exaggeration of itself (and as my friends explained, before the end of Apartheid the monitoring of crime was not as common, so crime statistic can only go one direction, up), it has in certain parts of cities spiraled out of control. And if there comes a time when the crime abates, the architecture of barbed wire and security services is now really an architecture-in-place and will be hard to dislodge from the mental and physical spaces of SA.

So more than anything else, I found that the vibe of SA seesaws between pride and anxiety. As a visitor, you are enveloped in this dyanmic duality. You can’t help share in the pride now enshrined in national monuments and museums. But at the same time, you also are not sure what path the nation is heading in and you too share in the fear of crime and move your body and belongings cautiously through the cities.

There is no doubt of the governmental commitment to provide services like health care and housing, a commitment that in places like the United States seems to exist more like an endangered species on the brink of perpetual extinction. And so it was awfully refreshing to be in a place where talk of such things is not seen with a suspicious eye that in the US is often tagged as something that runs counter to the realization of freedom and a just society. But whether these important goals can be brought into the plane of existence is another question, one that is not unique to SA but is something that many other countries, especially Latin American countries, from Venezuela to Bolivia are also asking and trying to answer.

Bernard and others reminded me that South Africa is number 4 in terms of producing new millionaires, which is quite a remarkable statistic given how many nations there are in the world. But despite the poverty of the place, this wealth is evident and there was one place in particular that symbolized this: Melorse Arch. Located in Johannesburg, this is a “lifestyle” compound/gated community that mixes posh residential condos with posh restaurants and bars. To tell you the truth, I have never seen anything like this and it was probably been the most extraordinary thing I saw in South Africa.

The United States and Puerto Rico (where I am from) and undoubtedly many parts of the world are no strangers to gated communities. But Melrose Arch took the implementation of them to a whole new, somewhat disturbing, level, in part because the domestic sphere of expensive housing co-mingles so intimately with sites of accentuated consumption, reminding visitors that the point of life, (hence the name lifestyle) is to make money so as to consume, and to do so lavishly. And what brought this really home was that the South African Bond Market was also located here in Melrose Arch. In fact we could see the building clearly from our restaurant, which proudly displayed a large Elephant statute (which, I think, harkens to the large bull in Wall Street NYC). I guess if you are a bond trader, and dislike commuting, and like good places to eat, well this is the place for you as you don’t ever have to leave your complex. Work and play become seamless and thus this place is perhaps one of the most powerful signs that the point of work is to play, is to consume, so that a perfect cycle is reached in which making money is a path for self-pleasure (or at least nuclear-family self-pleasure), a form of life, that does not have to engage with the rest of society, literally. Of course, there are many layers of production that do exist and make a place like Melrose Arch possible yet are well hidden from the visitors and residents of the compound. But Melrose Arch is not fully gated. It is open to outsiders so they can enjoy the fine dining, and if you sit in one of the many outdoor tables, one can fully take in the glittering performance of this social cycle, and for some, undoubtedly it is a measure for and of the good life, the right life, that to which others will aspire.

What I find interesting about the place is that it captures, with unmistakable clarity and precision, the point of much of neoliberal economy, especially the love for finance (in which money seemingly is made out of nothing), a robust service economy (the service in the restaurant was unlike anything I have seen, with people bring you ceramic jugs of water to wash your hands, live entertainment, outdoor fires, and blankets, henna painters etc), and consumptive pleasure. To drive home the point, in Melrose Arch, there is not even a supermarket; lest there be any mistake, this place was constructed as a place of consumption, through and through.

There were many other posh areas in South Africa, and as I mentioned earlier, the impoverished areas were kept a distance from middle class neighborhoods, so much so, that in some areas, like Cape Town, you really had to go out of your way to see them (again this is very different from many parts of Latin America where, in an instant, poor neighborhoods switch to wealthy). On the other hand, quite visible were things like malls and there were a lot of them. Apparently South Africa has been a testing ground for the modern mall. To get to the malls, there are very good roads to travel (much better than most of Latin America) and other basic services like tap water, and infrastructure like airports and phones, are in excellent condition. So it was somewhat surprising and frustrating that Internet services outside of business are somewhat scant, expensive, and slow. Sure Internet services are the best in Africa and you can get Cable, ADSL etc. at home but you have to pay a pretty Rand for it and on top of it, the access is pretty slow. Now, there are many parts of the world where this is the case (though apparently in a study that compared 12 countries at a similar lever of development to SA, Internet access was 10 times more expensive in SA than the most expensive country which was Chile), but for me, it was the juxtaposition of having such solid infrastructure and wealth mixed with lackluster Internet access that made it somewhat odd.

And it also made me realize how much the Internet and access to it had not only saturated my life, but how I have come to see it as a something creeping close (though not the same) as a basic right. Of course, security and self-determination, food, shelter, and health services are for me are the basic architecture of human rights. Without these, existence in the most basic sense becomes difficult. Access to the Internet, though in no way is indispensable to the basic conditions of living, can at least greatly facilitate the type of political work and organizing needed to demand other basic human rights. In this sense, it is more like an extension of or at least serious complement to basic services like clean water, and it seems like once there has been an investment in securing fiber optic (which I am sure is pricey), the cost of maintenance compared to physical infrastructures is so much smaller that it is really worth the initial costs.

This bring up some difficult questions and vexing specters related to many of the human rights (in the Universal declaration), which are I think not so much so how to define them in a general sense (I think this has been laid out somewhat well) but how to specify them so as to realistically implement them . On the one hand, the flexibility and vagueness of human rights is what gives it tremendous currency. Folks around the world have wielded the discourse of human rights to make demands that resound strongly and profoundly. But once a proclamation of a human right has been made, like article 25:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control..”

it seems like the real hard work is about specifying and implementation. We may easily agree that an adequate standard of living may not be Melrose Arch but it still does need definition and a plan for implementation. And so there seems to be plenty of room in human rights politics to move from the state of declaration to that of strategies of implementation.

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