Text and photos by – GIUSEPPE ORIGO

Translated by – Federico Scarfò

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italian version here: http://revolart.it/la-mia-altra-africa-johannesburg/

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I’ve always had a personal, but nonetheless clear, vision of the human world and of society in general, which is based on generically egalitarian and anti-racist ideals, derived, as it generally is for any human thought, from the mix of experiences, education, and environment within which I grew up and shaped myself in.

The word “race” has always left me indifferent when used as a pure significant, while causing me goose bumps whenever used as a pretext to adduce some kind of human geriarchy.

I’ve had the chance to visit the “black continent” more than once in my life, while usually staying in the more touristic coastal areas or in the poorer areas more towards the middle, always amidst the good and bad, as expected: a situation of poverty, as well as economic and social underdevelopment, which is often rode upon and incentivized by economically interested exploiters.

A country I’ve always loved, infinitely. Different, yet simple, genuine and naive in a general context. Moved by the desire to add some meat to my CV and come back to a continent that has always been able to charm me, if not sometimes steal my heart, I seized the occasion that arose from a series of events that pushed me, lastly, to enroll and embark on a work internship in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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A new place for me that I superficially, up until the end, had built legitimate expectations about, even if somewhat vague, formed by both my previous African experiences as well as its famous recent history.

An alternation of European colonizations, from the passing of Cape Good Hope, signed by Dias and De Gama, to a Dutch/English intermittence leading to the painful co-domination from the early ‘900, followed by the institutionalization of both Dutch and English as official languages of the South African Union.

In 1914 the boer and radical National Party were born, and shortly seized the power in South Africa and progressively insufflated the social, economic and political importance of white Afrikaners, until the official investiture as the Govern guide and the consequent institutionalization of the Apartheid. Then came Mandela (in and out of prison) who was abused and subject of unspeakable violence to the black population, democracy and finally prosperity.

Well, it didn’t actually work this way, not when it comes to “democracy” and “prosperity”, terms I quickly realized were used too foolishly and rashly from our distant intellectual bourgeoisie to tag a post-Mandela way too far and occulted to be imagined.

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The ill-managed Mandelian legacy: a gloomy social and political Far West.

In Johannesburg, capital of the Gauteng region and most inhabited city of South Africa (with its 4.5 million citizens), is where I will live and work in these months, in the Bedford town.

Like many of the bourgeoise fractions of the metropolis, which actually intermittently punctuate the endless and miserable local shantytowns and concur in shaping the city nucleus, it exists as a small conglomerate of private mansions and offices feudally perched around a mall, the only possible way to have an Agora here in Jozi.

Marbles and golden plasters, ornaments to convey the most total sense of opulence, bandage all of these local prisons for bourgeoises and white people: no numbers on the cell doors but eye-catching writings as “Cartier”,”Louis Vuitton”,”Prada”, and a lot of forcefully “italiophone” names for restaurants, often of the highest level.

It’s true that from the first impact, it is a land of plenty, but it is a matter of time before anyone living in it becomes aware of the efficiency of the fence that constantly closes them, restricts them, separates them: isolates them. Every house, every office is surrounded by electric fences: “the insurance companies told us that if we didn’t install them, they couldn’t insure us, and they’re right! Here people have nothing to lose, and burglaries and infractions are a daily matter.  And take my word when I tell you that when you find a desperate man armed with a kalashnikov in your garden it’s the least of all evils that he could be stealing something from you…” my landlord explains. Johannesburg is an atoll of small conglomerates made from residential centers and offices dispersed among an everlasting hinterland spanning around the center of skyscrapers and of the downtown, which is the protagonist of every Google image picture when searching for “Johannesburg”.

This heart of the city, on the same level of the skyline from the principal metropolis of the world is for a great part just a hollow scenography: with the end of the Apartheid, in fact, the black people, finally free from the townships in which they were segregated have literally invaded the city centre, which was back when it was one of the urban poles with the fastest-growing economies in the world, a place of banks, big telecommunication companies and insurances and all that jazz.

There were banks, elegant boutiques, restaurants and grand hotels like the Sun or the Carlton, in the Carlton Centre, which with its fifty floors has been, for a while now, the tallest African skyscraper: from the upper floors, sight spaces to the artificial hills out of the city, “grown” with the discards of the golden mines.

In 1986, however, the Inner-city, an orthogonal reticule of streets and skyscrapers, much like New York, was declared a “gray zone”, that is, legally inhabitable both by white and black people. The fear induced by the blacks’ arrival made prices crumble, and people started to escape to the suburbs, outside city limits.

Offices, boutiques, and banks closed.

Some buildings were abandoned and started manifesting a haunted appearance. The inner city literally emptied itself due to the exodus towards the suburbs, leaving behind what today looks like an apocalyptic scenery: palaces that once were the pulsing hearts of the economic city are now overpopulated skeletons, hosting gargantuan public houses, with clothes hanging out from 50th floor windows, and a never-ending crawling in the streets below, of the enormous hive of black population in total disarray, and in the most devastating economic, organizational, and social poverty.

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On the sidewalks, there are random fires started in order to warm people standing by the streets, or to try to illuminate them, otherwise leaving them in the darkest gloom, lit here and there among the piles of garbage.

“If you are passing from the center, don’t ever get out of the car, not even if they block the street in front of you, and absolutely never do it during the nighttime, because the most common strategy is that to throw a big rock under the vehicle in order to break the motor, and then break through your window…” just one of the many suggestions that was given to me by friends and colleagues when I first came here.

There are areas of the city which I was told not to go near, not even by car, like the infamous Alexandra: huge township, not far from the center, and sadly infamous for its skyrocketing crime rate, both organized and occasional.

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“While in Johannesburg you must keep an eye on the people you meet on the streets, the most relevant danger for you will be the police, just think that the boys that were here last year were stopped by a patrol that made them get out of the car, blocked them with hands against the bonnet, and slipped their wallet from their pockets”: both because of the high judiciary and governmental corruption rate and because the non-autochthonous are the easiest targets, those who are supposed to be the “long hand of the law” are nowadays the greatest danger for white people in Jozi, and it is an accustomed habit to always bring 200 rands in small fits to have ready as a bribe when passing checkpoints, as to avoid unpleasant nights in jail.

It is a form of corruption and power abuse that is established and comes out during the day: “Some time ago a German tourist filmed a policeman, with a micro-camera he had brought along, that stopped him and asked him for a bribe while threatening to throw him into jail, later giving the video to newspapers marking the start of a big scandal. However the thing resolved in little time with increased violence of the police force, which, fearing filming, started directly locking up tourists, stopping them in the streets with makeshift motivations, excusing their actions by saying they were taking cautionary measures. After all, the government, the media, the justice, and the forces of law have been eating from the hand of the ANP from 20 years now, what else would you expect to happen?” an Italian, employed at the local Vodacom office, explained to me.

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The derivation of the ethnical protection: the BEE

One of the starting causes of the generic economic and social vice was the slippery slope along which the BEE fell, from its introduction up to now.

The “Black Economic Empowerment” (or BEE) is a program that was launched in 2003 by the South African government in order to undo the apartheid injustices, by giving those groups (Africans, colored, and Indians) that were discriminated under the regime a series of economic privileges, among which, preference given to candidates belonging to these categories when workplace, academic formation and experience are equal.

After the many critiques to the legality of all this, it was modified in 2007 and became the “Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment” (BBBEE)(that was actually limited to a regulation of the participation of the capital in the context of companies and attenuating the “inverse economic apartheid” that resulted from the 2003 law), the BEE mechanisms are still more or less evidently present, and have a significant importance in the economic and business system of the country.

During the following years, what happened was a forceful ante-posing of the ethnicity to the effective competences when selecting candidates for whatever position within companies of any dimension and type, and which, if found to not act according to the dictate of the BEE, would substantially have their way blocked in order to obtain any contract or public grants.

From there all the big companies of the land have been obliged to employ colored workers for strategic positions, even if their instruction (and also literacy) rate tends to be very low, here. Another consequence, which is easily imaginable, was the increase of migratory fluxes of instructed black population from the states near South Africa: a lot of diplomats and graduates in nearby countries strive to find a stable insertion into the working world, while here the companies are in a constant search for colored employees who are able to, at least, read and write… Adding to the mix the different political and social perspectives (which are a lot better than in neighboring countries) of which naturally stem from immigration.

From this, another phenomenon sprouted: the intense and violent social neo-apartheid that exploded among the autochthonous black people toward the immigrant and “encroaching” black people (a sort of exasperated nativism). To the BEE factor there is to be included, because it would be foolish to derivate from only one side of the BEE the big part of the social and economic problems of the modern South Africa, the great tribal feud that, still today, sometimes discretely, sometimes evidently, remains between the various black ethnicities: the feeling of belonging to one or the other group is very heartfelt, and often the hostility towards those who are strangers is likewise felt.

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Recently, starting from last March, there were a lot of violent episodes of xenophobia perpetrated by the black South African proletariat and sub-proletariat against African immigrants from Congo, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. There were tens of deaths, hundreds of wounded, significant losses of private and commercial properties…

Sitinga Kachpande, South African blogger and African sociology studies researcher, explains that: “The aggression against African immigrants is a classic war among the poor sprouted by the estranged black majority and encouraged by stronger powers. The South African proletariat and sub-proletariat are victims of the incapacity of recognizing the real responsibilities of their miserable lives. By pinpointing African immigrants as guilty, their attention gets misplaced from the governing of the African National Congress, from the black bourgeoisie linked to it, and mostly from the white boer multinationals, the groups truly responsible for the huge social inequalities and conflicts in the country. Time-bombs that threaten to implode South Africa. The wave of xenophobia and violence is the direct consequence of the ANC decision of applying neo-liberal theories to govern the country and reinforce the economic development. The origin of the problem resides in the new world order created by the neo-liberalistic agenda that privileges individualism. profit and the multinationals compared with collective and social development. Twenty years after the Apartheid, the new South African political class keeps reproducing the same mechanisms and oppression structures that were the main reasons of its fight for freedom.”

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Something is nonetheless moving

If there’s a thing that, even considering everything else, I learned here in these weeks, and that I hope will be the motto of my life here in these future months, is that it is fundamental not to let speeches and phobias, that are nonetheless justifiable, induce cautionary clausure.

Risks and potential dangers both exist, undeniably, but with some simple tricks it is easy to avoid them and enjoy a city that, especially within its young and cosmopolitan component, decided not to bow before corruption, moral misery, mafia and violence.

Thanks to the presence of important international academical institutions in the metropolitan area (like the Wits University, third most ancient south african university, with 28,000 students and 3,200 members of faculty), Johannesburg is a city with a discrete juvenile presence, and it is this that, how it often goes, is employing its forces in an endorsed effort of urban rebirth.

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There are a lot of new cultural aggregation centers, clubs, concert rooms, periodical art appointments, and markets, which can be visited around the Gauteng capital without taking more risks than in any other metropolis of the world: the South African metropolis, which has been for years one of the world capitals of crime, is trying today to change its face, to be reborn for its own will, and to become an effective cosmopolitan capital of the third millennium world.

Johannesburg is, I think, a charming city that is worth having the courage to discover, at the expense of fear, capable of giving very strong, and at the same time, unique emotions, such that I would have been able to feel only in this context.

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In the time I will spend here I will try to explore the Gauteng capital searching for places unique to the world, and to recount them here between the pages of Revolart.

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