Report from South Africa’s wealthiest ‘homeland’
By DANNY SCHECHTER
SANDTON, South Africa – In the “old South Africa,” the country that gave the world the apartheid system of enforced racial separation. The government set up what were known as “bantustans” which later were turned into phony states under the control of an all white regime based in Pretoria.
While the world saw through the farce of setting up separate countries defined by a tribal identity within the borders of a nation. No other countries recognized them as independent nations – they were used as examples of “separate development” where black politicians compliant with white South African needs were cloaked with false legitimacy. Some issued their own passports and had internal governing structures.
With the release of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid, this “homeland” structure collapsed. (Notice it is the United States that now refers to itself as a “homeland.”) But a country that had the highest level of inequality in the world in those years did not tear down the economic divides.
The old South Africa carried out policies of forced relocation to move blacks from valuable real estate to rural areas townships and settlements. Laws regulated where people stay work and mingle. Downtown Johannesburg was only open to blacks during the day; by night — most had to leave. Maids were allowed to stay but blacks carried passes and hundreds of thousands were jailed for violating their terms. (U.S. cities now practice “stop and frisk” laws that have a similar impact.)
In the “new South Africa” forced relocation has been replaced by voluntary relocation but those doing the relocating are mostly white and affluent.
When I was allowed back into South Africa in the early 90’s, Johannesburg was a vibrant city with packed streets, bustling buildings and many corporate headquarters. It was right up there with Cairo and Lagos as one of the urban showplaces of Africa.
Today, much of Johannesburg is a ghost town with empty skyscrapers, empty hotels, and empty streets at night. The big businesses that were once based there have moved to a more suburban setting -a place called Sandton, I call it Sandton-stan because this enclave is now the protected home of corporate South Africa. The stock exchange is here.The central bank and other banks are here including one of China’ biggest.
Technically Sandton it is part of Johanneburg. This area was once home to the Tswanna people but they are long gone, except perhaps as security guards or hotel employees.
Sandton is now considered “Africa’s Richest Square Mile.” Wikipedia reports:
The Sandton area is one of the most opulent in Johannesburg and South Africa, and therefore in Africa but not far away (only about 6 km) from Alexandra, one of the poorest former black townships. Sandton covers an area of approximately 156 km while Alexandra is just over 8 km.
It is estimated that the population of Alexandra is the same as that of Sandton itself. One local magazine said Sandton “is just just what rich whites need.,” commenting, “We want to remind people that there is no problem this country can throw at you that you can’t solve with electric fencing and a pedicure.”
I remember coming here in 2002 for a World Conference on Sustainable Development that was based in Sandton’s conference center. The delegates including many environmentalists, anti-poverty and green advocates found themselves disoriented in a country they saw as revolutionary and ended up wandering in a plush high end mall, while watching all the luxury cars go by. By 2008, the conference center was no longer hosting the world’s activists. It was the venue of the Miss World competition.
Sandton officially embraces Nelson Mandela with a large statue and a square named after him but the folks who fought for his release are dismayed by the blatant contradiction of making his image a tourist attraction in this country’s epicenter of capitalism. South Africa’s Wall Street and the City in London all rolled into one.
It was not surprising when the ultra-modern airport named after Mandela’s long time law partner Oliver Tambo built a pricey express train into town that it initially bypassed Johannesburg and went directly to Sandton. Constructed by a foreign company (with lots of hanky panky in the contracting process), it is called the Gautrain (for Gauteng, the African name that officially replaced Johnannesburg, shorted to Jozie by residents).
The Gautrain is a law unto itself. A local paper, The Sandton Chronicle, reports on its front page that two train users were arrested for violating the train company’s ban on chewing gum. Each was fined 700 rand for this high crime and misdemeanor. The headline: “RULES ARE RULES.”
At the same time, the paper, packed with ads for shopping and expensive homes, carries a police report that details arrests and local crimes including a rape, an armed robbery, burglaries, smash and grabs at several traffic intersections where gangs break windows and take what they can from motorists stuck in jams and the relatively new use of jamming devices that keep cars from locking used by crooks in shopping centers.
A friend of mine who lives in Soweto recently had that happen to him. He thought he locked the car but the lock was jammed. He lost his computer and iPad, but then, miraculously; one of the gang must have known him and his property was returned.
In the last week, police reported seven shoplifting arrests, seven thefts, one fraud, one tresspassing and five for loitering.
Most South Africans believe that the police are actually part of the crime epidemic here. A researcher in Cape Town just documented heavy police involvement with drug gangs. There is no doubt that deep poverty drives a permanent crime wave that has only grown worse since my visits in the 90’s.
I am staying in Sandton in a fortress structure surrounded by a high fence like many wealthy homes here, plastered with signs warning to would be perpetrators of an “ARMED RESPONSE” to trespassers. (Security is a growth industry.) Of course most of the thiefs are illiterate and can’t read signs in English anyway. Many South Africans lock themselves in at night behind bars in just as Nelson Mandela was locked by his guards. Despite their wealth, many homes have a prison feel.
I am living in a concrete structure offering floors of Executive Suites. The building is surrounded on two noisy construction sites building more Grade A office buildings. Traffic seems always congested during the day,
It is named after the American military academy: West Point. As a security measure, residents provide their fingerprints electronically. You then use your finger on file to open the large gate at the entrance,
I kid you not.
News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs daily at newsdissector.net. His most recent films are Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street and Blogothon (Cosimo Books) He hosts a show on Progressive Radio Network (PRN.fm) Comments to email@example.com.
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