Friday, April 13, 2007

"It's not like that here anymore..."

"You're probably safer in here than we are out there."

Such is what the Street Law assistant professor said to an 8-year inmate in Joburg prison when we visited it as part of our service program. The words go a long way to summing up the views of a large majority of South Africans; crime is rampant all over the country, but especially in Joburg. Explanations are not hard to come by; opinions ranging from racist attributions of inherent criminality to more sophisticated ones that attribute the crime rates to deep poverty, vast divides in inequality, legacies of violence from the apartheid struggle, and the influx of traumatized and criminalized refugees from nearby and war-torn African nations. But the disturbing certainty about it is not the amount of crime, but rather the extremity of it; violent crimes have become so common that they often don't even make it into the news.

This goes hand in hand with high levels of death all around here; whether by HIV/AIDs, chaotic and nearly lawless roads (over easter weekend over 140 deaths occurred due to vehicle accidents; a third of which were pedestrians), or what often seems like random violent crime, there is a growing suspicion that human life just holds less value here.

"All I know is that I'm getting my degree and then fucking OFF."

The phrase '2010', referring to the date of the next World Cup for Futbol taking place in SA, gets a lot of talk time in SA; will it be a boon? will it be a bust? what will it actually do for SA? But the biggest upcoming crunch will not be the tourist influx, but rather the outflux of the country's rising "professionals." It's been common occurrence in SA since at least Apartheid (and this is not just concerning the exiles) for SAicans to travel/study/work abroad for a significant portion of their youth, so it's not surprising that so many people are or know someone who's leaving for a long time. Couple this with the fact that, due to the high cost of nice housing, most people can't afford to live on their own without some form of subsidy until well into their 20's, so moving abroad is often the best way for the youth to attain some level of independence from their parents. But the worry is that the outflux will not be met by a coincident return by those leaving, and that the rising black "middle class" (more accurately, the small elite benefiting from current ANC economic neoliberal policies) will not continue to grow in pace to replace this loss (or even that they themselves will start their own version of "white flight"). The result would be the same sort of "brain drain" that India has been agonizing about over it's highly educated professionals.

The combination of these two problems could be disastrous for SA; the poor communities imploding into bloody chaos, and the beneficiaries of the State's investment in education and human capital (those theoretically most qualified to maintain the proper functioning of the State in the future) fleeing from the mess and stagnation of the broken nation, resulting in a disastrous downward spiral whereby the hope of 1994 is forever lost.

The "Two Nations" Dilemma

Thabo Mbeki shocked the nation a few years back by talking about how SA was really "two nations"; the rich white and the poor black (also the majority). This speech was problematic for a number of reasons (not least of which for ignoring the significant Indian and Coloured communities), but it hit the nail on the head in terms of explaining what the true failure has been and what the challenge will be. The fleeing of the rising bourgeoisie overseas and the privatized revolt of the poor in the form of consumerism and crime can both be attributed at least in part to one common thread; the inequality which has increased since the end of apartheid.

The ANC, especially under Mbeki, has favored economic and social policies that have favored globalization- and export-led development, mostly within the framework which became known as "neoliberal" in the 1990s, including a nearly complete absence of redistribution in order to correct for apartheid ghettoization and impoverishment policies. The result has been the creation of a global elite, a rising black "middle class" that is largely disconnected from the larger township communities that they likely left in their upward mobility, and the stagnation of the rest of the nation in much the same state they were in through 1994. The old Marxist academic term "uneven development" is fairly accurate as a description of present-day SA.

Roger accurately summed up the dilemma; "this whole society was built on the availability of cheap and replaceable labor; no one wants to give that, and it's hard to blame them since it has made life here so easy. But they have to give that up if they want to develop."

Ironically, it was Mbeki himself, in 1996, who said that "true reconciliation can only take place if we succeed in our objective of social transformation." This social transformation, for whatever reason, has not yet come to fruition. Perhaps it is for this reason, because the shades of the past remain, that the deformity of formal apartheid's "two nations" has been replaced by a racial and class-based de facto economic apartheid, that South Africa still bleeds today.

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