Strangers, Zombies and Disoriented Identity in the Post-Apartheid City
PDF, 11 pages
This chapter reflects on research that I have been conducting in South Africa in recent years with my colleague at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Richard Ballard. It was written just days after the death of Nelson Mandela was announced on 5 December 2013, an event that has produced considerable reflection on his political mission and achievements. His death has raised questions of how South Africa will now speak of apartheid’s past and its legacy after 20 years of African National Congress (ANC) rule which has witnessed stubbornly high levels of poverty and possibly worsening levels of inequality.Yet, the television images after Mandela’s death showed numerous signs that South Africa was – in ways unimaginable 25 years ago – a multicultural society, as white people wept at the passing of Madiba and sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. The South Africa ‘celebrating’ on the streets seemed to be at peace with itself. Was this the same country that only a few months before had recoiled against Jacob Zuma, now national president, and Julius Malema, the ‘commander-in-chief’ of the Economic Freedom Fighters, singing “kill the boer” at rallies? Mandela’s death laid some metaphorical ghosts to rest but for how long?
This chapter offers some thoughts about how people act where tolerance for others is fragile. I forward my analysis from the perspective of white elites, and consider how their identities are constructed and grounded in urban space. My argument is that apartheid allowed white identity to go unmarked (invisible) as it represented the urban norm, whereas democracy brought a threat of disorientation to race identities. The resolution to this disorientation has been a careful negotiation of how far white identities can be projected in political and social space. The Mandela project of multiculturalism offered a space to preserve an identity of whiteness so long as this was kept discrete from the public sphere. But this idea of multiculturalism was, and is, up for grabs and can seem uncertain. Nevertheless, multiculturalism, and in particular the ways that it imagined the post-apartheid city, allowed whites the chance to domesticate identities within certain spaces and especially the gated estate. In so doing, whiteness has become constructed as a matter of class (status), to which Black Diamonds and others should aspire. The conceit is that the estates offer a form of multiculturalism-lite, where differences are tolerated so long as similarities of class are in place. In practice, within the estates, tensions produce what I call a landscape of difference in difference. What holds the conceit together is a mutual fear of the outside, of the mass, the horde, the stranger.
In this context, I pay particular attention to marked bodies, both real and symbolic, through the idea of the stranger and figure of the zombie which, as Jessica Murray has pointed out, is “having a moment” in South Africa and elsewhere. Some of these ideas are prompted by a reading of Ash Amin’s book Land of Strangers which reflects on the politics of intolerance towards multiculturalism. As Gilroy has explored, there is evidence of conviviality in shared spaces, which may be no more than fleeting moments of recognition but show nevertheless the “creative, intuitive capacity among ordinary people who manage tensions” to animate social space. Not everyone is convinced. Picking up on the iconic figure of the stranger, Amin traces what he considers to be a “catastrophist” biopolitics in which everyday life continues to rely on marked bodies that continue to “trigger reflexes of aversion” and that transmit and reinvent racial hierarchies across space and time. Amin’s book is interesting and provocative but it is also highly Northern-centric, not least in timing a shift of position on multiculturalism to post-9/11, and leaves open the possibility of how we might interpret the spatialisation of risk and body politics for societies in the Global South. In the context of South Africa, who are the strangers, how are they identified and what types of uncertainty does their symbolic presence reveal?
Via colonialism and apartheid, the South African city is a by-word for an aggressive urbanism; cities are divided, controlled, policed, and planned. To most people the South African city is not associated with conviviality, a common meeting ground for public behaviour among equals, relaxed, anything-can-happen spaces, spaces of possibilities with minimal consequences. Rather, cities are topologically restricted spaces where indifference to difference is not the basis of everyday life and politics, and where there is the simmering possibility of further antagonisms spilling over into violence.
Looking back to the early 1990s, the vast majority of elite, white, South Africans embraced democracy but faced a contradiction between their restrained sense of identity (as white, European) and the cultural politics of cities that might now be opened up and within which they had to live, work and relax. The Mandela project of harmony and reconciliation – captured by the metaphor devised by Bishop Desmond Tutu as the Rainbow Nation – provided a means for whites to reconcile their ‘whiteness’ within a version of multiculturalism. Taken literally, the Rainbow is made of many colours in parallel to one another, but not mixed. It was an idea accepted with much gratitude among the white population but it was recognised as fragile in everyday practice. There was the lingering fear that what apartheid had encoded as the oorstrooming (being overwhelmed) by a swart gevaar (black peril) remained a possibility. The end of apartheid changed the rhetoric of fear but the sense was widely shared that as Pierre Bourdieu put it (in a different context):
You cannot cheat with the law of the conservation of violence: all violence is paid for [...] The structural violence exerted by the financial markets, in the form of layoffs, loss of security etc, is matched sooner or later in the form of suicides, crime and delinquency, drug addiction, alcoholism, a whole host of minor and major everyday acts of violence.
A prevailing fear was that democracy and the promises of redistribution of income – but not of wealth – would not be enough to prevent the crowds becoming mobs. The security apparatus of apartheid, combined with a resort to vigilantism and deals with political actors within the black African community, had kept violence largely in check. But, people now wondered, if the occasional riots and tactics that had made the “townships ungovernable” would be more widespread. In fact, the conservation of violence would find release in crime. Although undoubtedly real, mention of crime also worked as a synonym for the unpredictability of life and yet generally providing a consistency in that the perpetrators were nearly always coded black. Every release of crime statistics or news of a murder animated a debate about the quality of public life.
Urban space became a key element of crime discourses. Particular road junctions were marked by signs identifying them as carjack hot spots, people would refuse to slow at traffic (robot) lights, back streets were no go areas. City and neighbourhood politics became a series of panics over street litter, stories of animal slaughter in parks, and battles over control of taxi ranks. The order of the city was being contested and as one person put it when talking about Durban, the city was becoming “like Africa.” The post-apartheid city reminded people of the unpredictable outside inhabited by criminalised strangers and the potential for otherness to upset established spatial norms.
Encounters with others now had the perception of being unmediated. In this context, the stranger was re-imagined and renewed attention was given to identify and to control his/her actions. It is worth noting, as Bauman has done, the hold that the stranger can possess on ideas of everyday life, space and feelings of control.
The stranger disturbs the resonance between physical and psychical distance: he is physically close while remaining spiritually remote. He brings into the inner circle of proximity the kind of difference and otherness that are anticipated and tolerated only at a distance – where they can be either dismissed as irrelevant or repelled as hostile.
In post-apartheid South Africa the threat of the stranger was not simply a threat out there, but was being felt at home. Ballard refers to newspaper commentaries on the danger posed by land invasions in Zimbabwe carried out by war veterans led by Chenjerai ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi. One is entitled a Property Owner’s Nightmare:
Hitler Hunzvi is going to eat your lunch. He is at your dining table, his hand up your daughter’s skirt. His men defile the most personal possessions in your home, which they say is theirs, then slaughter your spouse and children. That is nightmare number one right now in the white suburbs of Southern Africa […] the Zimbabwe land invasions pierce an eternal archetype: the home as the castle and safe as a house. Fear ripples out from Harare to Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town (Mail and Guardian, 15 June 2000).
The piece is charged with predation and sexualized violence, and re-territorialising the possibilities for danger from the nation-state, to the city and to the home.
In this context, gated estates become a key response. As Bauman and Vecchi describe more generally:
[…] the digging of deep, possibly impassable trenches between the ‘inside’ of a territorial or categorical locality and the ‘outside.’ Outside: tempests, hurricanes, frosty gales, ambushes along the road and dangers all around. Inside: cosiness, warmth, chez soi, security, safety… let’s carve out, fence off and fortify a plot distinctively ours and no one else’s, a plot inside which we can feel ourselves and to be the only contested masters. The state can no longer claim enough power to protect its territory and its residents. So the task that has been abandoned and dropped by the state lies on the ground, waiting for someone to pick it up.
In the aftermath of apartheid a host of agents – landowners, developers, construction companies, service contractors and security companies – ‘picked up’ the role of producing gated spaces.
As many interviewees commented, however, the estates were also a response to more than the threat of crime and violence. They were a response to a perceived need to reconstruct social relations between individuals, groups and space, the assurance that control was possible, of ensuring certainty in one’s neighbours compared to the uncertainties of what was happening on the other side of the walls. Safety in this sense, as Bauman argues, is both material and existential:
Safety, like all other aspects of human life in a relentlessly individualized and privatized world, must be a ‘do-it-yourself’ job. ‘Defence of the place,’ seen as the necessary condition of all safety, must be a neighbourhood matter, a ‘communal affair.’ Where the state has failed, perhaps the community, the local community, the physically tangible, ‘material’ community, a community embodied in a territory inhabited by its members and no one else (no one who ‘does not belong’), will purvey the ‘being safe’ feeling which the wider world evidently conspires to destroy?
Spaces such as gated estates allow occupants to feel at home together. They operate as social spaces marked by the absence of strangers, neighbours are known, and possibly vetted, service contractors are known, visitors are known and monitored. There is, as Bauman has put it, a “secure fullness of normative regulation” creating a social space within the walls while on the other side is the “alien world inhabited by faceless bodies.”
As Bauman suggests, our sense of safety depends on the sense of community embodied in a territory and in opposition to the faceless bodies outside. This dialectic reveals the tension of multiculturalism and the work of the cultural sphere, especially in South Africa (perhaps), to represent the stranger, alien or outcast as a powerful icon of recent times. From even a brief survey of bookshelves, cinema screens, newspaper headlines, internet sites and public speeches one can detect the pervasive and polyvalent profile of the stranger. A stand-out example is Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9 which can be read as a commentary on the wider limits of multiculturalism and debates about South African cities as spaces under threat from outsiders, necessitating the reproduction of spatial restrictions.
Two features specifically underscore this point. First, the ambiguous position of the film in relation to apartheid. Many viewers understood District 9 as a post-apartheid film or, taking its sci-fi special effects and the idea of alien invasion into account, as a futuristic portrayal of South Africa. Yet, District 9 is set in the early 1980s and constantly refers to an apartheid political and social structure. The plot focuses on white characters in positions of power, as professionals residing in well-to-do neighbourhoods of potential domestic bliss, and black people as ancillary figures, traders and criminals. The film, moreover, opens with an attempted eviction – this time of the aliens –, a common apartheid-era policy and a point reinforced by on-location filming in Chiawelo, a part of Soweto slated for removal in the 1980s (as well as since). We see this event and many other scenes from the viewpoint of a helicopter thereby giving the viewer the same gaze as those in power.
As Walder notes, District 9 plays on a sense of nostalgia, about control, power and state projects, although in the film itself the state is decentred by a private corporation, Multinational United (MNU). The importance of setting District 9 in a neoliberal version of apartheid, however, provides a quality of timelessness to tensions between race and power. Indeed, a short prequel to District 9 called Alive in Joburg, released in 2006, set the plot in 1990, on the cusp of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the formal transition to democracy. Alive used footage from the mid-2000s of demonstrations against migrants and interviews with black South Africans about the alien problem which tied them to murder, rape and stealing amenities. Xenophobia and racism are thereby depicted as shared dispositions of white and black South Africans regardless of political conditions, but the targets of discrimination are always black.
The second point is the representational work done by bodies in the film. In line with Amin’s idea of risk being translated onto a biopolitics, District 9 is premised on the notion of healthy and sick bodies, and how bodies become valuable as sites of recognised power. At one extreme, the aliens are depicted as sick, the suggestion is that a virus forced the spaceship to land on earth, thereby developing the classic trope that conflates otherness with contagion and setting up a clear allusion to the HIV/AIDS pandemic which disproportionately infected and affected the black African population. Weak and powerless, the aliens become ‘prawns’ although with the Afrikaans inflection it is easy to hear pawns (victims). Human-alien relations are about control at a distance and not intimate bodily contact. Hence, when the central character, Wikus van der Merwe, comes in to contact with a liquid brewed in the township by the aliens that affects his DNA and gradually transforms him into an alien the power (and threat) of miscegenation is revealed. His immune system irrevocably compromised, the hybrid alien-human van der Merwe becomes physically stronger (unlike the AIDs victim) but also more conscious of economic and political structures that have condemned the aliens to scratch out a bare life in District 9. No longer the acquiescent bureaucrat, van der Merwe acquires a cyborg body-suit and takes on MNU in order to allow the aliens to escape. Injustice begets resistance, violence and freedom.
If aliens are a classic personification of the stranger as outsider, then the zombie offers a further articulation of society’s anxieties and fears. In the horror and sci-fi genre, zombies have represented concerns with biomedical science, environmental degradation, disease, sexual predation, financial meltdown, radical Islam and race. The power of the zombie in this guise is that they are not outsiders in the conventional sense but are threatening precisely because they are known, often as neighbours or family, but now in an uncanny less-than-human or undead state. Yet, unlike the alien pawns of District 9, the zombie is not capable of empathy and negotiated ‘reconciliation.’ The zombie operates as a horde and can only be annihilated or, as a second best, kept at a distance. The gated estate is often the key space of safety. But, the protection afforded by walls, wire and security guards (including vigilante residents) is permanently under threat and eventually compromised. The classic rendering of this plot is George Romero’s Land of the Dead in which the elite reside in the secure enclave of Fiddler’s Green surrounded by slums inhabited by zombies. The denouement is reached when the settlement leader, played by Dennis Potter, refuses to let a member of the enclave’s security personnel live within the walls. The guards retaliate by stealing Dead Reckoning the tank used to get food from outside the enclave. Realising their opportunity, the zombies, lead by an African American called Big Daddy attack Fiddler’s Green and kill the residents.The enclave residents realise too late that their security from the zombies depended on relations with those who protect them from the outside.
Zombies have long held a potent position in South African society and have been analysed at length by anthropologists – who have associated them with labour practices during colonialism (ghost labour) and apartheid (forced mine labour), with witchcraft and wealth envy, child death, and with incidence of HIV/AIDS and the rise of the occult economies. Zombies have also become thoroughly urbanised and modernised in recent years. In the novels of Lily Herne (aka Sarah and Savannah Lotz), Deadlands (2011) and Death of a Saint (2012), Cape Town is the site of a resistance movement to a zombie apocalypse. A character notes: “South Africa must be one of the best countries in the world for surviving a zombie apocalypse [because] it’s full of security estates and high fences.”
South Africa also features prominently in Max Brooks’s book World War Z that depicts a zombie take-over of the world caused by an epidemic known as “African rabies.” South Africa is one of the few countries prepared for a zombie outbreak thanks to a plan devised by Paul Redeker and originally intended for the apartheid government in case of black African insurgency. Then called Plan Orange ’84 it envisaged a deliberate mass sacrifice of people in order to buy time for the elite to get to a series of gated “safe zones.” The Plan is adapted to deal with the zombie horde but the remnant post-apartheid government opposes its use until a “faint voice” insists that it be put into operation. The voice belongs to an old man named Rolihlahla (Mandela’s birth name) who steps forward and speaking in Xhosa embraces Redeker, endorsing through physical contact both the Plan and the man. The zombie danger obliges reconciliation across former ideological and racial divides, with Mandela the key enabler, but the Plan’s adoption condemns millions of people to death.
And this brings me back, controversially, to Nelson Mandela’s death. Mandela has been a popular image in what one might think of as a zombie culture for a while. For some years it has been possible to get T-shirts with Mandela made to look like a zombie. He was also a popular figure to mimic or cross-reference on the zombie walks that have taken place in Johannesburg and other cities (on which most participants seem to be white). However playful these links might be, and they are, Mandela’s association with zombiism took on a different significance some months before his death. In April 2013, a South African TV station announced that Nelson Mandela had died and even ran an obituary documentary. In June, rumours circulated that Mandela had suffered cardiac arrest and when his ambulance broke down en route to hospital it was suggested that he had died before resuscitation could take place. During June, July and September, newspapers, the internet and social media reported sources confirming that Mandela had died, some that he had already been buried in Qunu and many forwarding theories on why the government was keen to suppress the story. The most cited claim was that a weakened and divided ANC was fearful that it might be unable to control mobs angry that the Mandela legacy of the struggle had been wasted, sparking riots and panic. Mandela’s final months became a spectacle of conspiracy and rumour as he moved between life and death, and his power as a symbol of black struggle and/or reconciliation was tested.
The brief detour to discuss strangers and zombies does not imply that the residents of gated estates are in any real sense about to be taken over by flesh-eating hordes for which the only solution is either a return to an apartheid security state or the total annihilation of people beyond the walls. Residents might feel vulnerable, but not quite to that extent! Rather, the discussion should have alerted us to the fragility of people’s sense of existential security in an atmosphere in which conviviality is rare and anxieties of political meltdown, class and race war prevail.
The question is how does one live within the walls in such a way that positive personal identities can be constructed against an outside that is cast as a space of fear populated by strangers. How can people be vigilant and yet feel at home? Although estates are always populated by outsiders, by easily marked strangers such as maids, nannies, security guards, gardeners and repairmen, I want to focus on the attention given to other residents, especially as a black African elite overturns an historical politics of restriction through conspicuous consumption. My suggestion is that people attend very closely to small differences between neighbours. The difference in difference watches out for cultural equivalence where the prevailing norm is an expected conformity to signs of whiteness. These signs are to a large degree ‘built into’ the marketing, architectural aesthetics and homeowner association regulations which work as a benchmark, if one were needed, on appropriate ways of living in the estates. Hence, for example, the marketing of Cotswold Downs estate notes, innocuously at first blush, that this is a place to “rediscover the qualities that have become lost in suburbia,” including the “value of community” and the possibility to let children roam free on a village green, splash in streams and for people to stroll down a leafy village lane at sunset, talk with neighbours, and “gather for a family meal in your rustic home.” Exclusivity is represented as a norm and behaviour as a known set of shared values.
The implication of this marketing is that some people may not fit in, even when they can afford to do so. Money does not ensure cultural equivalence. Very few residents actually seem to ride horses in equestrian estates, play golf in golfing estates, understand flora and fauna in eco-estates, play bowls, join bridge clubs or choral societies, or even walk down leafy lanes where these are available. But, the issue is whether one feels confident that one’s neighbours hold the right standards, etiquettes and attitudes to these amenities. Some people expressed the view that black people would be uncomfortable in such settings and would not ‘match up,’ but for most, as Amin suggests, race is latent. In these conversations, black bodies hold a burden of doubt informed by “precognitive categorisations” that they will not naturally fit. Eyes are alert to the style and quality of furnishings, the number of children, size of television sets, the garden chairs (not plastic!) and even the plumbing systems are scrutinised. Ears listen for loud or religious music, children’s voices that intrude on the calm. For brevity, I will draw on just one of many quotes to illustrate the point.
Bruce: “You see, we don’t see it as a racial issue. You know if you can afford to live in a gated community you should be allowed to.”
Judy: “We’ve got a black family living here and we’ve never had any trouble with them, they don’t make a noise … they are exactly the same as everybody else.”
Gated living is considered desirable for all, and therefore not racially exclusive, but there is a natural way to live in these spaces, a disposition that insists that residents are expected to don’t make a noise. In this version of multiculturalism-lite co-habitation is not commonality.
The naivety of the ‘rainbow’ metaphor was that it assumed social harmony would begin with the good intentions of citizens capable of overcoming the racist teachings of apartheid through realising common purpose. But, as Amin proposes, the moral force of ethical humanism must face the “precognitive categorisations” that encode some people as strangers resulting in sorting and spatial distributions. Thus, while the end of apartheid undid the formal segregation of people and space, and certain kinds of encounter have become more common and conducted differently, ideas of cultural incompatibility across race and class prevail. Indeed, the real estate market and media have thrived on this latent performance of race. Gated estates permit a degree of multiculturalism, a tacit space for whites – now joined by Black Africans – in which to construct a refashioned elite status while simultaneously expressing a fear of the strangers outside the walls. The sharp sensory antennae of elites that drives their careful engagement with public space – as an entanglement of bodies – are turned down within the gated estates but they are rarely switched off. White identity (whiteness) continues to flourish on the inside so long as strangeness is observed and strangers are kept out.
Kerstin Stakemeier (éd.), Susanne Witzgall (éd.)
PDF, 242 pages
What is the current state of the subject and what about the status of its self-image? In contemporary discourses we encounter more and more “fragile identities,” in artistic works as well as in scientific theories, and those are today much less referring to a critique of the concept of identity, but much rather to the relationship those concepts of identity entertain with the overall precarious state of the subject in current social conditions that are characterized by political upheaval and change.
The book Fragile Identities investigates among other things the chances and also the possible endangerments of such a fragile self and asks for the resurging urgency of a contemporary concept of subjectivity. The publication combines international artistic and scholarly contributions, discussions and project documentations in relation to the second annual theme of the cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.