April 19, 2007

South Africa 2003-04: Apartheid as Infrastructure

Third in a series of posts about South Africa, originally written during the 13 months I lived there in 2003-04.

During the apartheid era, South Africa's central government grew huge, bureaucratic, and powerful. Government departments and government-owned "parastatal" corporations constructed highways, railroads, water supplies, electric power grids, a telephone system, television networks (starting in 1976), and all the other apparatus of "developed" societies. The white minority government constructed an image of South Africa as part of the developed world, holding the line against African communist insurgencies as a key Cold War partner of the US and the UK. "First Economy" infrastructures were, of course, built chiefly to benefit the white population. Black townships and rural areas, especially the so-called "homelands," fell far behind — not only because government invested far less money in those areas, but also because it adopted much lower quality standards and focused on different things: housing, schools, and health services rather than transportation, electrification, and communication.

"Separate development" meant different, yet intricately interconnected and overlapping infrastructures for blacks and whites. As in the segregated American South, laws required separate public facilities for blacks and whites, such as bathrooms, waiting areas, railway cars, buses, and so on. In other words, the architectural principles of virtually all South African infrastructure were technopolitical. Infrastructures were designed to enforce, perpetuate, and strengthen the separation of racial groups. Yet at the same time these infrastructures had to facilitate the movement of black labor into (and out of) white spaces on an as-needed basis.

The inherent contradiction between these two aims sometimes had to be resolved by secondary elaborations of infrastructure. In the 1960s, blacks living close to Johannesburg were forcibly resettled in the South Western Townships, aka Soweto, about 15 km from the city center. Public buses and a railway line provided commuter transport to inner-city workplaces. In the late 1960s, with the advent of "bullet trains" in Japan, apartheid planners fantasized about moving black workers into homelands hundreds of kilometers from the city, linked to white urban areas by high-speed commuter rail. Planning went quite far before the South African railway services nixed the idea on the basis of cost and practicality. The inadequate speed and volume of "their" transport system forced Soweto-based workers to spend up to five or six hours a day commuting; walking to work was often faster. Meanwhile, whites-only buses and train cars often rode empty. Boycotts of the hated Putco bus system, and physical attacks on the buses, became a significant form of protest after the Soweto riots.

The physical architecture of apartheid extended into private spaces as well. Separate, usually outdoor bathrooms for (black) domestic workers are a typical feature of housing built for well-to-do whites throughout the period. Our house in Durban has one of these, in a filthy spot behind the garage, next to the garbage cans. There's a flush toilet without a seat, with a shower directly in front of it, so that you'd be looking into the toilet bowl while showering. When we first discovered this we thought it must be abandoned. We were astonished to learn that Henrietta had been using them throughout the 16 years she's worked there. Henrietta was equally shocked when we asked her please to use the bathroom inside our flat. We soon learned that this expectation is entirely typical. At an expensive B&B in Melville, Johannesburg, black staff had to use the old servants' toilets outside. Meanwhile the white owner — who constantly dropped her "struggle credentials," such as a prominently placed picture of herself with Nelson Mandela — used one of the indoor toilets. Separate facilities like these can't enforce racial segregation by themselves, but combined with deeply ingrained habits they do allow it to persist almost unnoticed.

Demolishing apartheid's politico-legal context was easy and fast compared with eliminating these infrastructural forms of segregation. City neighborhoods and townships remain strongly identified with particular racial groups. Though a few white people have moved into neighborhoods like Soweto, for the most part whites regard black areas as too dangerous to enter. Driving Nolizwi to Sunday church services in Guguletu, near Cape Town, we did not see a single other white face walking the crowded streets. The irony, of course, is that millions of poor blacks enter wealthy white areas on a daily basis, just as they did under apartheid, to service their (our) homes, care for their (our) children, and staff their businesses.

South Africa has an outstanding road network, built to world-class standards of highway engineering and signage. Even rural dirt roads are maintained to a much higher standard than elsewhere in Africa, though by all reports this is a post-1994 development. But this road network is used very differently by inhabitants of the first economy and the second.

In general, first-economy people trravel in private cars, or in radio taxis designed to accommodate two or three passengers. Second-economy people can't afford cars. Instead, they travel in the old public buses and trains or — far more importantly — in minibus taxis. Crammed minibuses go basically everywhere, not only within cities but even on long-haul intercity routes such as Johannesburg to Cape Town (about 1400 km). In rural areas, there's a secondary system of bakkies (pickup trucks) for travel on dirt roads too rough for the suspensions of heavily loaded minibuses. These taxis account for some 65 percent of all passenger travel in South Africa. It's rare to see a white face inside one.

When influx control laws were abolished in 1985, black people poured into informal settlements near the major cities. Existing public transport could not handle the load. Bowing to pressure, the government deregulated taxi services in 1987, and hundreds of black operators began acquiring 15-seat minibuses. The "kombitaxi" or minibus taxi industry rapidly mushroomed into the country's single largest black-owned business sector, currently worth over R10 billion. Most taxis are Toyota Hiace vans with three or four bench seats. They're designed for a maximum of seventeen passengers, but it's not uncommon to see thirty people crammed into a single vehicle. Territorial "taxi wars" (over where drivers can load passengers) extend to gunfights and murders; since we've been here taxi drivers have fought half a dozen pitched battles in various parts of Durban, sometimes in the midst of crowded commute-hour taxi ranks. To stem the violence, the government is currently engaged in a desperate effort to regain regulatory control, as well as to "recapitalize" the aging and increasingly dangerous taxi fleet.

One morning, with my radio tuned to a popular talk show, I listed in disbelief as an outraged white caller railed against South Africa's supposed lack of good public transport. The well-meaning caller expressed, unknowingly, the racial division surrounding transportation here. It's true that taxis are privately owned, and they do have limits; few taxis, for example, operate after about 7 PM. Still, they operate more cheaply and efficiently than any US or European public transit sytem. The minibuses nearly always travel filled to capacity (or beyond). The system could almost be seen as a realization of Latour's Aramis. The city of Johannesburg, its roadways now choked by Los Angeles-like commute-hour traffic, is presently debating new subway and rail lines. But if all those white commuters in their private cars would hop into minibus taxis instead, Joburg wouldn't need them. If current patterns persist, most white commuters won't use them even if they're built.

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