April 19, 2007

South Africa 2003-04: Durban

This is the first in a series of posts about South Africa, originally written during the 13 months I lived there in 2003-04. I've left them in the present tense, even though I'm only posting them now, in spring 2007:

Since July 2003, Gabrielle Hecht and I have been living in Durban, South Africa with our baby Luka (8 months old when we arrived). We're both historians of technology, so we've spent a lot of time this year thinking about how South African technologies and infrastructures were shaped by apartheid, race, and poverty in one of the world's most multi-ethnic societies. What follows are personal and intellectual reflections on how the past affects the present through the persistence of infrastructures that are simultaneously physical and social.

2003-04 is an important year here. 2004 marks the tenth anniversary of the "South African miracle" of peaceful transition to democratic government. In April, an ANC landslide in the country's third democratic election handed the party full control of the government, with almost 70 percent of seats in the national Parliament — enough to alter the constitution. Nelson Mandela retired from public life. Despite terrifying rates of poverty, unemployment, crime, and HIV infection, in many ways things are looking up here. Consumer confidence reached the highest point since it was first measured 20 years ago. The government finally creaked into action on HIV, rolling out free anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS patients. The rand roared dramatically back from a five-year slump, gaining over 20 percent against the dollar in a single year — a mark of global confidence in the country's economic and political stability. The country won its bid to host soccer's 2010 World Cup. This is not only an honor, but a major economic benefit and another sign that South Africa has re-entered the global mainstream.

We live in Morningside, an upscale area of Durban populated mainly by white people and Indians (who constitute about one-third of the city's population). Durban is the busiest port in Africa. Located on the country's eastern coast, it's South Africa's second-largest metropolis, home to some 3.2 million people. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Zulu members of Inkatha and ANC supporters fought a low-level civil war in this region that cost more than 12,000 lives.

In many respects Durban looks and feels much like many cities in America or Europe. Huge skyscrapers dominate the downtown skyline. Broad, well-marked, brightly lit roads make driving easy. In our area, large, solidly built homes and apartment towers offer comfortable housing. Ubiquitous shopping malls filled with chain stores supply a depressingly familiar range of globally available products. American visitors always notice the profusion of new, expensive cars. Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, and Volkswagen all manufacture vehicles here; automobiles are now one of South Africa's major exports. In the cities, the fixed-line telephone system is state-of-the-art (though expensive). But cellular services dominate the telecommunication system, largely since they extend into the rural areas where the majority of the population lives. Some 15 million people — one out of three South Africans — have cellphones. Broadband and wireless Internet are extremely expensive (over $140/month for ADSL), with limited international bandwidth, but even these advanced services are available if you can pay the price.

In all these ways, Durban can feel so familiar that it's almost possible to forget you are living on the world's poorest continent, in a country where unemployment is at least 30 percent (42 percent according to some estimates), half the population scrapes by on a few dollars a day, and some 5 million people are infected with HIV.

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