During the colonial era, Africa was represented as the land that time left behind. European colonial powers justified their rule over many parts of the globe, and over Africa above all, by arguing that other parts of the planet were evolutionary backwaters. Europe was held to be the most evolved culture on the planet, the model to which all other cultures were supposed to aspire.
This temporal narrative was sutured onto space. To travel from Europe to Africa was thus not just to travel away from the center of global culture, technology, and civilization in general, it was also to travel backward in time. These racist notions were incredibly pervasive in European colonial culture, shaping the ideas even of critics of imperial brutality such as Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness retains many of the tropes of Africa as a prehistorical space.
The whole framework of development during the postcolonial era was predicated on retaining these temporal tropes. Africa and other parts of the world that succeeded in liberating themselves from colonial oppression were nevertheless expected to “develop” or catch up to the West by integrating themselves into the global economy. This meant accepting the capitalist rule book, including elements such as intensive fossil-fuel driven agriculture. As we know now, these notions of development, along with the loans that accompanied them, did not in fact help most African nations “catch up” to the West. Instead, they saddled most of these nations with forms of exorbitant debt that shattered their infrastructure and consigned them to a form of permanent indentured labor for the global economy.
Nonetheless, today Africa is no longer seen as a space that lags in temporal terms. Quite the contrary. Africa is now seen as the future the rest of the planet will one day catch up to. Its extreme inequalities, mass surplus population, tremendous pools of informal labor, immiserated millions in mega-cities like Lagos and Nairobi – all of these components make critics of both the Right and the Left, from Mike Davis to Robert Kaplan, see Africa as a bell-wether.
South Africa is perhaps the most extreme case of such extremes. It offers nearly unparalleled wealth cheek by jowl with stark poverty. Walking around the affluent neighborhoods near the university where I’ve been staying during COP17, the architectural implications of this polarized society are highly evident.
At night, the streets are totally abandoned, except for the occasional prostitute. The affluent suburbanites of this area – the vast majority of whom are white – don’t even leave their cars on the street for fear of burglary, so the streets are almost as blank as those of a traditional Arab medina.
During the day, the multifarious architecture of security is discretely apparent. Here are some images I snapped while walking the streets (the only white man on foot, of course). High walls, razor wire, ferocious dogs, private armed response units, and, above all, ubiquitous electrified wire (rather hard to see in some of these photos because it’s so thin and hence discrete). The temptation to touch some of this wire to see how much of a jolt one would get was strong, particularly since it was so delicate, but I refrained since I suppose there must be enough juice in there to kill a man.
All of this offers a powerful metaphor for the world of climate apartheid created by elites over the last two weeks here in Durban. It’s not so surprising that people see Africa as prefigurative.