Tag Archives: apartheid

Architecture of Fear

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.

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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.

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The Banality of Evil: The Photography of David Goldblatt

I just went to see a fantastic career retrospective exhibition of the South African photographer David Goldblatt at the Jewish Museum here in NYC.

Goldblatt came to maturity during the darkest days of the apartheid era, and his photographs document the oppression meted out to the non-white majority in South Africa in the most visceral way.  Here, for example, is a shot of his of a young man recently out of police detention.  The severity of the interrogation methods routinely employed by the South African police are glaringly apparent in the two casts which encase the young man’s arms.

We see all of the homicidal violence of the apartheid regime in Goldblatt’s photographs.  In this photo, for example, victims of a government death squad lie splayed alongside their car.  Such documentary images were crucially important to record during the apartheid era given the government’s attempt to suppress all records of its campaign of secret violence against internal critics and activists.  In Deborah Hoffmann and Frances Reid’s brilliant documentary record of the Truth and Reconciliation Commision, a film called Long Night’s Journey into Day, we see the pain inflicted on a group of mothers whose sons have disappeared, leaving no trace to mourn.

Another image of Goldblatt’s from the exhibition documents the appalling policy of forced removals.  In this image, a woman lies in a bed wrapped protectively around her newborn child.  We are privy to this intimate scene because the house (or shack) within which the mother and daughter had been living has been demolished, leaving them asleep under the brutal empty skies of the land.

As these photographs make clear, Goldblatt acted as a witness to the atrocities of apartheid.  What they also underline is his powerful technique of focusing on the quotidian.  Instead, in other words, of training his lens on protests and rallies – the stuff of standard photojournalism – Goldblatt delved into the everyday humiliations, oppressions, hypocrisies and contradictions of life under apartheid.

For me, some of Goldblatt’s most powerful work focuses on whiteness.  The complexity and painfulness of this position is not always apparent.  I recently sat across from a new friend in a small restaurant in Bolivia, for example, discussing what it was like to be white in South Africa.  He was surprised by my talk of the ambivalences and contradictions of white consciousness during the apartheid era in South Africa.  Of course, average white people in South Africa benefited massively from the apartheid regime’s oppression and exploitation of the non-white majority in the country. This needs to be stated up front and with no hesitation.

But while the material advantages conferred on even the poorest whites by the apartheid system are undeniable, that system nonetheless generated a traumatized sensibility among even the most privileged and cocooned of whites.  In the above image, for instance, a white farm kid is caught in an eerily intimate moment with his black nanny.  He stands with his arms on her shoulders.  Even more powerfully, her left hand is wrapped around his foot.  The intimacy in this nonchalant embrace is overwhelming, exacerbated by the fact that both of the subjects are quite beautiful and that the young black woman’s breast is showing through her flimsy jersey.  The boy is on the cusp of adolescence.  Soon, his childish intimacy with his nanny will shift totally.  She will go from being a mother surrogate (perhaps even closer than his real mother) to become part of an alien and threatening race.  The sexuality latent in Goldblatt’s photograph will become something threatening or exploitative in the extreme.

Goldblatt’s photographs of everyday life among Afrikaners are filled with this sense of latent, ominous contradiction.  How, he asks his viewers and South Africans in general, could people go about everyday life in the midst of such an unspeakably evil system?  This is the same question asked by Pumla Godobo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night, a memoir of this member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission encounter with Eugene de Kock, a government assassin known popularly as “Prime Evil.”  Godobo-Madikizela travels to a maximum security prison to interview de Kock after the collapse of apartheid.  What she finds is a man rather than a monster, someone who is gradually coming to repent his crimes.  The upshot is very similar to Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann after World War II: evil for the most part takes on a totally banal face; average people keep their heads down and focus on the minutiae of everyday life while acting in a manner that is complicit with great evil in many instances in history.

Goldblatt’s images record just such banal evil.  If they were set in the United Kingdom instead of South Africa, they might seem nothing more than dull snapshot-like records of provincial life in the 1960s and ’70s.  But we as viewers know that these photographs are set in South Africa, that the golden-locked boy walking past the supermarket is likely to graduate soon and be conscripted to fight and possibly die in border wars or in suppressing township uprisings.  The teenage beauty pageant contestants are living lives of artificial luxury on the backs of the majority of the South African populace.  The man mowing his lawn on a tranquil Saturday morning lives in a town forcibly purged of black residents.  No doubt on some level these people knew that they were cogs in a truly evil system, but they found stories to tell themselves – stories founded in race and religion – that legitimated their relatively privileged social positions.

Goldblatt also had a quick eye for forms of class stratification within the dominant white class.  Thus, he captures images both of the herrenvolk leaders of the National Party, the architects of apartheid, as well as of the dirt-poor Afrikaner farming families who barely make ends meet, despite the boon of white skin.

Photographs of tragedies such as famine and warfare have largely ceased to shock us.  Since the days of Robert Capa, muckraking photojournalism has lost much of its impact as people have grown accustomed to the society of the spectacle.  Goldblatt’s photographs are different and perhaps remain effective inasmuch as they focus on intimate moments in everyday life that show the vulnerability as well as the bigotry of the South African white tribe.

Finally, the Jewish Museum show is particularly powerful as a result of the curatorial decision to present Goldblatt’s work organized along lines similar to the initial publication of much of the material.  We thus see sections devoted to Goldblatt’s early work in the disappearing gold mines of Johannesburg, a project he undertook in collaboration with Nadine Gordimer.  We see his focus on individuals living in small, exclusively white towns.  And we see his photographic dissection of the distorted landscapes and city-scapes of apartheid South Africa.  These unpeopled urban spaces perhaps speak even more than the portraits, poignant as those are.  This is a landscape blighted by the reduction of one portion of the population to the status of non-entities.  Here on the right, for instance, is an image of a butcher shop that has literally been butchered, its right half removed along with the family that lived there as part of the infamous “Group Areas Act” that permitted forced removals.

Yet, in the midst of this desolation, Goldblatt also shows us how oppressed people managed to find solace and strength in the quotidian, in rituals such as a wedding, for example.  For if evil is banal and, in a place such as South Africa, ubiquitous, resistance and hope are equally evident and omnipresent in everyday life.

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Avatars of Apartheid

At first blush, James Cameron’s Avatar appears to be a Dances with Wolves for the digital age.  True, the digital effects are breathtaking, taking the encounter with otherness to a new level.  Avatar conjures up an incredibly lush imaginary world, rendered particularly engrossing by the film’s use of unobtrusive new 3D technology.  This use of powerful digital technology is rather ironic given the film’s dystopian take on the human use of technology.  The whole point of this immersive technology, however, is to transport viewers into an alternative reality in which the present can be imagined otherwise.

What is this alternative reality?  As in Dances with Wolves, the film’s critique of U.S. imperialism is stinging.  In Dances With Wolves, the Union cause during the Civil War is dealt with in an offhanded fashion, and the film quickly shifts its interest to the reborn nation’s frontier politics.  Here madness, in the form of the delusional alcoholic Major Fambrough, and grasping dishonesty reign.  In Avatar, this critique is updated for the era of the War on Terror: the unscrupulous corporation that is mining the world of Pandora employs an army of mercenaries who deploy “shock and awe” in order to subdue the native Na’Vi.  Tellingly, the pitbull-like leader of this corps, Colonel Miles Quaritch, eventually pushes the civilians out of the way as “preemptive strikes” are launched in order to dislodge the Na’Vi from their territory.  This nicely captures the U.S.’s slide towards a privatized neo-fascist militarism during the War on Terror.

In order for this critique to stick, of course, the protagonist (and, by extension, the audience) must become disillusioned with Empire.  How does Avatar engineer such disillusionment?  Again resembling Kevin Costner’s film of 1990, Avatar plays out the seduction of going native.  In Dances With Wolves, the protagonist John Dunbar is first physically isolated from imperial culture and then immersed in the indigenous culture of the Lakota.  Dunbar finds his way into the culture with the help of a responsive woman, played by an assimilated white woman named Stands With a Fist.  Once he goes native, Dunbar becomes a leader of the tribe and attempts to save them from the depredations of Empire.  This scenario is replayed in Avatar, with the crippled ex-Marine Jake Sully initiated into the culture of the Na’Vi in his avatar form, won over to their cause through his awe at their symbiotic relationship with Pandora’s natural world and through his attraction to the Pocahantas-like Neytiri.

The problem is that this myth of going native is itself an imperial fantasy.  Although Neytiri initially tells Sully that he’s like a child and subjects him to a long period of apprenticeship, he not only ultimately learns the ropes and becomes a member of her Na’Vi tribe, but, after the nefarious Colonel Quaritch destroys the tribe’s home, goes on to lead resistance efforts to the Empire.  So the white male self ultimately remains in control.  Where is the anti-imperialism in this?

Although Avatar appears to engage most directly with the U.S.’s particular genocidal history, the racialized imperial fantasy enacted in the film also shares DNA with anti-apartheid films set in South Africa during the late 1980s such as Dry White Season.  In these films, a clueless white protagonist suddenly has the scales drop from his eyes after a chance encounter leads him to see the venality of the apartheid system.  Typically, a gardener’s son is “disappeared” during protests in the townships; the protagonist, moved by his personal ties to his servants, becomes involved, believing that justice will quickly be done and things set aright.  Of course his efforts not only fail to produce justice, but in addition show him the venality of the apartheid system’s treatment of non-whites.  In the course of his odyssey, the protagonist is increasingly alienated from the complacent white people with whom he has heretofore lived; these people in turn ostracize him, closing ranks against a perceived race traitor.  The protagonist’s abjection is redeemed, however, by his newfound status as hero of the anti-apartheid movement.

Such anti-apartheid films go beyond a guilt syndrome in which fiction enacts a white desire to be absolved of racial injustice.  In these films, the black-led anti-apartheid movement becomes a vehicle for white aspirations, upending the dynamic on the ground and imposing white needs and subjectivity onto an otherwise alien landscape.  This apartheid-era narrative was slyly remade recently in District 9, which stages the mutation of an Afrikaner into an alien who, like Avatar‘s Jake Sully, goes native and resists Empire.  Given the history of South Africa after apartheid, with the ANC cleaving faithfully to the neo-liberal precepts of the international financial community, this colonization of the anti-apartheid struggle his ominous historical implications.

The remarkable resemblance between District 9 and Avatar suggests more than simply the striking trans-continental continuity of the white imperial imaginary; this similarity also underlines the enduring need to decolonize the anti-imperial imaginary.  Apartheid, it seems, has many avatars.

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