Monday, May 10, 2010

Sawyer seminar - On Fences

The Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was awarded a Sawyer Seminar by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to host a series of events during 2010 and 2011. The Seminar is to be used to develop fresh perspectives on the quandaries and puzzles of the present democratic moment in South Africa from the vantage point of the relationship between race, property and poverty and justice. More information on the series is available on http://www.sawyerseminar-wits.co.za/

The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC) is hosting the series, and the first reading group on Old and New Racial Formations began last week. Over the next months, participant will reflect on the readings and the discussions on race. Today’s blogging is by Ruth McFarlane.

Please feel free to participate in the developing conversation by posting comments.

On Fences

Often it is the visually rich metaphors in the texts we prepare for our Sawyer Seminar study group sessions that stay with me the longest. This week the metaphor of “fences” was a thread throughout the readings.

Driving around, a visitor in this construction-riddled city girdled in yellow barricades, chain-link and orange plastic tarp strung between rods rammed into the earth – this city, this country, on the verge of welcoming the rest of the globe – I see fences of all kinds, both old and new. I think about people feverishly constructing a version of themselves to present to the world in a few short weeks. I think about modern cities built on layers of ancient ruins, relics of the conquered, and I wonder about all that is hidden under this new pavement.

For the April 28th meeting, the Sawyer Seminar study group prepared texts dealing, generally, with segregation; its political and social history as well as patterns of poverty and disease and emerging labour and class hierarchies directly related to the design and implementation of pass laws and other controls of the apartheid system. It is often tempting, in our discussion of these troubling texts about the ‘old South Africa’ to spring forward and speculate about more hopeful possibilities for the future. But one participant wisely warned against moving into the future too quickly. Our first task, he reminded us, is to understand where we have been, what happened and why it happened.

An interesting theme that developed in the discussion was the relationship between notions of excess and the fences created by influx control policies. The comparison was made between the difference in the way U.S. slaves were treated before and after the British began the process of abolishing slavery, and the shifting policies regarding urban black labor in South Africa as borders beyond the city became more rigid and a labor surplus developed in rural and former “reserve” areas. Prior to abolition, the life of a slave working in the harsh conditions on plantations in the American South was understood to be seven years – slaves were literally worked to death. A steady supply of new bodies took the place of the dead. With British abolition new bodies became less readily available and the value and health of the enslaved became more relevant to the labor needs of the plantation masters. Not only did relationships change between master and slave but political tensions and legal battles arose between slave-holding states and non slave-holding states as issues of manumission, runaways, ownership of offspring, and illegal trafficking became more important.

A similar interplay of access and excess in the South African contest emerges in Giliomee and Schlemmer’s discussion of the independence of former “reserve” areas. Describing a shift in political opinion among South African leaders towards supporting the independence of Lesotho and Mozambique, the authors ask, “what nation state can be held responsible for the educational expenditure or the unemployment, old-age and other welfare benefits needed in another sovereign land?” The new sovereignty of these regions created borders at which the employment obligations of government and industry were conveniently detained. Political control remained virtually unchanged, however, as the new nations were still reliant on old, established patterns of migratory labor and highly vulnerable to economic coercion. Meanwhile, this side of the labor fence, new categories developed in urban black communities around access to jobs and in terms of permission to reside in the city permanently, quasi-permanently or only temporarily. As in the example from American slavery, new restrictions on access to employment created hierarchies within the black population and necessitated more intricate calibration of class and control. Fences created sovereignty but also denied it. Fences created new relationships not only between masters and servants but among the servants themselves.

Borders operate on our imagination and our morality. We imagine each other across the barrier and, in the process, we imagine ourselves. Slum removals, pass laws, and segregation all allowed white people to distance themselves, to imagine in various ways that the black population on the other side of the fence was irrelevant. This is, perhaps, best illustrated by Packard who highlights the drop in municipal tuberculosis statistics following the passage of the Slum Clearance Act in 1934 when black communities with high death rates were moved outside the city limit and outside the statistical population. And yet the fence is there, bearing witness, insisting silently that the people on the other side must have a terrible relevance. In his biography of the Afrikaans people, Giliomee writes about three Afrikaner leaders’ views on segregation at the beginning of the 20th century. Although Sauer, Hertzog and Smuts differed on policy and possibility of equality, they agreed on something critical: all three men feared that equality among white and black people would spell annihilation of the white race in South Africa. The terrible relevance of blackness, otherness, pressing in at the fences served to convince the people inside that the perimeter must be protected at all costs and ratcheted to full-throttle the amorality of self-preservation.

The most dynamic moment in the discussion came close to the end of our time together when one participant admitted that she wondered how anyone could read these texts and not feel them viscerally. “These readings fucked me up. They really fucked me up.” The rawness of this comment got directly at the messiness of our project. We are a group of South Africans and foreigners from various professional and academic backgrounds, multiracial and diverse in many other respects as well. Sitting down to discuss the historical, economic, and sociopolitical context of South African policies of racial segregation, we encounter not just the fences of our collective pasts but the fences of our present and, among these, boundaries that are freighted with personal significance. In the course of our project of excavating the past, it seems impossible that we will not also dredge up deep, specific feelings about what has happened, what was done and left undone, or as one participant put it who was allowed to live and who was allowed to die.

Framing her comment, my colleague spoke about the distribution of milk to black urban locations in the 1930s as described by Packard. Her illustration asked us to focus on the horror of this one particular effect of urban segregation. The borders around black locations within the cities created economic and social conditions that severely limited access to food and literally starved black urban dwellers. Packard relates numerous studies from the 1920s and 1930s showing that black workers did not earn enough to buy food that would support basic nutritional requirements. Milk, among other staples, such as bread, was not readily available. Often only surplus milk not purchased by white consumers was delivered to black communities and even the surplus milk was too expensive for many. Instead many black city dwellers purchased condensed milk, which was more affordable because it could be diluted. Often the condensed milk was diluted until very little nutritional value remained. Not even milk, one of the most basic (and symbolic) sources of nutrition, made it through the fence unregulated. This illustration was important because it invited us, as a group, to cross the barrier between our work as scholars and our emotional response as human beings. We were reminded that a visceral reading of the text allows access to ways of understanding that are specifically located in the body. To understand who was allowed to live and who was allowed to die, to understand what happened and why it happened, it may sometimes be necessary for the texts to fuck us up.

Gilliomee and Schlemmer’s image of laborers trampling the fence around the rural labor commission office at the announcement of recruitment opportunities is, for me, both a bleak and hopeful one. Fences, laws, never keep everyone out. They can be trampled and broken as simply as they are erected if, generally, at much greater personal sacrifice and tragedy. Human beings will trample fences not just to make money but to find food, to chase the dream of a better life, to live with their families, and to have enough milk for their children. Fences can only withstand so much pressure and human beings always push very hard to survive.

Ruth McFarlane