Saturday, June 30, 2012

Uitvalgrond - Surplus ground

Site of former Shareworld

If there is any notion of landscape that defines Johannesburg it is perhaps best described by the Afrikaans word ‘uitvalgrond’, which translates into English as ‘surplus ground’. Uitvalgrond was the word used to describe the original triangular-shaped farm of Randjieslagte, which fell between 3 larger farms and was selected as the site on which the city was originally planned. The Transvaal Government didn’t think the mining town would last very long and so this dusty, flat surplus ground had seemed sufficient. In the current shape of the city, the idea of the surplus ground applies to those areas that appear empty, falling between or alongside new developments, the extensions of highways, shopping malls, parking lots and major intersections, alongside railway lines between mine dumps and mine shafts no longer in operation. These seemingly ‘natural’ interstices within the urban and sub-urban fabric of the city are not necessarily unoccupied or unused, often the space is the territory of informal traders or trash collectors and taxi yards, as well as the city’s indigent and homeless, or simply a pathway cutting across it. These areas extend along the railway line, underneath highway flyovers, or between main roads and new shopping centres, often describing the edges of greater Johannesburg. One example are the areas surrounding the Chinese trading centres, China Mall, Afrifocus and Dragon City, built on the original Crown Mines, where an aerial view reveals left-over mine structures behind the new developments. Inside the city, however, different ‘edges’ become apparent – between immigrant communities staking claim on streets, such as the Ethiopian/Erritrean community in Jeppe Street; or between gentrified zones and the territories adjacent to them, such as Arts on Main. In Johannesburg ‘surplus ground’s’ define the zones between the visible edges of the man-made and what we might define as ‘landscape’. They are most legible from the highway, and through the window of the Gautrain as it leaves Marlboro station for the 15 minute ‘trip’ from Alexandra to Sandton.
Looking at the city from Google earth reveals many zones of surplus ground, stranded spaces and abandoned sites that speak of the city’s history and development not as monument or memorial but as trace, tear or scar. In a sense we can think of these surplus grounds as stranded historical sites, such as the old Village Main Mine alongside the M2 near to the Heidelberg off ramp where about two years ago the symbolic head-gear was removed (possibly to be recycled).
Mining conveyor belt, Crown Mines area behind Afrifocus Mall
“There’s no question that Soweto is something of an recreational desert,” said Shareworld’s executive director, Reuel Khosa (developer of shareworld complex). “This place came in as an oasis.”  (Los Angeles Times, 1988, David Crary)
Built in the 1980’s as an entertainment and water-world for Sowetans, Shareworld contained an ‘artificial sea, a 2000 foot sand beach and wave-making machines as well as a discotheque and cinema complex. Publicised as ‘a victory for all those South Africans who still believe there is hope in South Africa’, the irony of the building of a beach for black people during the political violence of the 1980’s cannot go unmissed. Shareworld was closed since the mid-90’s, used only intermittently as a venue for dance parties, film shoots and a meeting of the Landless People’s forum during the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002. It became a surreal ruin, resembling a Spanish fishing village located between the massive mine dumps on the edge of Orlando West and Meadowlands, just off the road to the National Exhibition show grounds, NASREC. It was demolished in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup and is now an empty site opposite the Soccer City Stadium. Its only visible use are the driving schools that use the parking lot as a practice ground.

View from a light aircraft, approaching Shareworld site from Soweto
Shareworld has become an ‘uitvalgrond’, located at the intersection of several trajectories in the history of the city’s development: apartheid planning’s separation of amenities; the mining history visible in the two tailings dams (mine dumps) that dominate the landscape and recent large-scale, event driven development around the soccer world cup, including up-grade of the approach roads and the Bus Rapid Transit system. 

What is legible at the this site is the particular relationship between a nature that is man-made, in excess of the urban, defined more by the sub-urban and perhaps even the subterranean.[i]

Bettina Malcomess lectures in theory and history at the Wits School of Arts and the School of Architecture. She works as an artist and writer, and is currently completing a book about Johannesburg with Dorothee Kreutzfeldt titled, ‘Not No Place’, to be published by Jacana Media.

[i] This text accompanies a short tour of the site with Anne Historical, along with an installation of elements of the Millennium Bar, a temporary, movable ‘bar’ built out of material from demolition sites and scrap yards.

What draws people to Johannesburg is the people that you find there

Historian Keith Breckenridge from the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research will curate the 2012 JWTC Tour of Afropolitan Johannesburg on Sunday 1 July. The theme for the 2012 Tour is The Natural Life of a City.  He has agreed to speak to The Blog.

Conventional accounts of Johannesburg usually privilege the histories of mining in interpreting the trajectory of this city. Is a pre-mining history of Johannesburg at all possible and what would it look like?

Johannesburg is a very strange city (quite unlike other cities that were built by mining, like San Francisco and Melbourne) because it has no geographical resources aside from its peculiar geology. Unlike many African cities it has no access to water ways, nor does it act as a central point on an older transport network. Having said that  I don't doubt that the generations ahead of us will do a better job of producing a history of the 18th century highveld, starting with the archeology --  but I don't think that will be a history of the city.  

Is there, in your mind, a difference between a “geological” history of the city and a “natural” history of the city?

Not really. I grew up here, and as a child the wild landscapes of the city -- which came with exciting natural dangers like rinkhalses and scorpions (but very few people) -- were defined by the quartzite mountains in Northcliff and Melville. The rocks of Johannesburg are primordial but they've also served as very modern agents of a modern natural history. This is nicely captured in van Onselen's social history of the Regiment of the Hills. And mining has remade the geology in such bizarre ways raising and flattening dumps around the city over the course of our lives that it is hard to think of a natural history that isn't dominated by geology.

Presumably, mines will be depleted at some point in the future. This in no way means that Johannesburg will become a ghost city. If we were to project ourselves in the future, what would a post-mining city and economy look like?

I'm sceptical that the mines will ever entirely run out. The economics of depletion is very paradoxical (as Mitchell shows in his book on the political economy of oil), and I suspect that a century from now gold mining will be quite prosperous in this area. (The Witwatersrand basin is still mostly unexploited, but the reserves are now at such depths that the rock temperatures alone -- approaching 80 degrees celcius -- make mining impossibly expensive. That will change.) Much, of course, depends on the place of gold in the world economy, but, even there, one of the lessons of our history is that gold thrives on crisis. Only someone who imagines that we can be free of a crisis free capitalism would have grounds to imagine a mining-free Johannesburg. Having said that, the city is already substantially beyond mining as a social and economic space -- what draws people to Joburg is the people that you find here. It's certainly not the weather or the institutions. That seems pretty cool to me. 
Did you see the movie ‘District 9’? In your view, what kind of future histories of the city does this film suggest?
I did, and I absolutely loved it. It's epiphanous, if that word is allowed. The movie does warn of a segregationist future carved out by the special kinds of biopolitical corporate power that thrive here. We have only to look at the private security and biometric welfare systems to see where that might go. But it also valorizes miscegenation and transgression (and cross-cultural sympathy and complexity) and that's really where we (and here I mean the Joburgers) are going.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Spear that divided the nation

Mbete reliquary figurine
An old West African proverb compares the artist to a dog. Positioned at the interface of the human and the natural worlds, the dog in most ancient African societies enjoyed a slippery and highly ambiguous cultural status.
Neither a human being, nor a wild animal, it was nevertheless admitted in the domestic sphere where it was recognised as man’s best friend. Loyal to a fault, it was committed to its master to the point of helping him hunt wild animals. This is why it enjoyed special rights. Because a dog was never happier than when its nose was up another’s rear end – the anus, that sensory button of the world – it also symbolised debasement and degradation.
Just like the dog, the artist also enjoyed special rights, including the right to conduct forbidden experiments. His task was to translate society to itself. The “griot” (troubadour), for instance, could insult the king in public. He was allowed to bring outside what was supposed to remain inside or to be covered from sight. Society granted him the right to scandalise while affording him the kind of protection and immunity denied to other individuals. He could experiment with that through which shame and secrecy entered the world – the genitals.
West African sculpture, for instance, is an encyclopedia of anatomy and aesthetics. The buttocks, their beauty, eminence, gourd-like shapes and curves were gladly sung by poets and musicians. Signifiers of plenty, they were identified with capability and constituted an essential part of an individual’s physical attractiveness. The anus was the real object of aversion. An instrument of curse, it typified all that was base and degrading. A fiery sign of the nocturnal, it was the abode of witches.
Erect phalluses were usually depicted as a force of disruption. In the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, the phallus was associated with Legba, a deity of trickery and deception. The meanings attached to an erect penis were always polysemic. Paradoxically, an enlarged penis might well allude to fears concerning infertility, sexual inadequacy, and even impotence. In ancient Africa, the penis was always a public secret. Covered or not, it hardly harboured any mystery. West African sculpture had stripped the penis of its totemic mask. It had learnt to see the penis in its banality, its sheer misery.
The controversy surrounding the exhibition of President Jacob Zuma’s private parts has not only unleashed a torrent of emotions and passions. It has also released high levels of negative and, at times, toxic energy. This is because it has become the point of fixation, the outlet of deep-seated, repressed or denied racial anger which itself is, paradoxically, the expression of a deep longing for a community worthy of that name.
The question we need to ask is why this deep-seated anger had to reveal itself at the intersection of arts, sexuality and power? Why has the phallus become the privileged language of our collective anxieties?
A barely noticed trend of public life in South Africa during the last decade has been the re-emergence of official culture. “Official culture” is the name for the process by which a ruling elite seeks to tame and domesticate its population by establishing official distinctions between the accepted and the unacceptable, the permitted and the forbidden, the normal and the abnormal. It is the process by which it coerces its subjects into internalising and reproducing truths not of their own making.
In the aftermath of apartheid, the ANC has attempted to depoliticise the arts. From the citizens, it is requesting subordination to authority in the name of culturalism. All of this is happening in the midst of a generational crisis that is rendered all the more brutal because it is doubled by a crisis of reproduction.
Many young men, especially among the poor, can no longer enjoy the privileges of patriarchy. There is more than ever before an unequal redistribution of the dividends of manhood. Struggles over access to women are dramatised by high levels of rape and various forms of sexual violation. In this context, President Jacob Zuma represents, in the eyes of many young men, the symbol of a “big man” involved in an unfair capitalisation and monopolisation of those resources necessary for patriarchy to keep reproducing itself.
The re-emergence of official culture has coincided with the intellectual decay of the ruling party. It is the other side of the ongoing carnivalisation of politics, the increasing tendency to settle political matters through the courts, the proliferation of forms of lumpen radicalism that privilege a politics of expediency in lieu of a disciplined politics of principle. A surplus of toxic energy has been aroused as a consequence of the increasing polarisation of the social structure, the re-balkanisation of South African society and deep-seated, repressed or denied racial anger.
In order to account for this new cultural moment, most artists have turned more and more to blasphemy. Defacement, desecration and profanation have become the dominant modes of expression in cartoons, humour, satire, parody or visual arts. Brett Murray’s Hail to the Thief II is part of this new expressive turn. What he has done is like sticking a needle in the heart of a figurine.
What has irked many is not the desecration of President Zuma’s genitals as such. After all, that the president’s senses have run riot is a public secret. What has irked many is the fact that once again, the black body (of which Zuma’s has become in this instance the cipher) is the repository of all the anxieties, neuroses, phobias and sense of estrangement of white South Africa. What has irked many is the realisation that, after almost 20 years of freedom, the black body is still a profane body. It still does not enjoy the kind of immunity accorded to properly human bodies.
Where does all of this leave South African arts and our public culture? Unfortunately, signs of entropy are everywhere to be seen. At present, South African artists compile and collect almost everything. But they are unable to document anything, to give distinct meanings to distinct things and events. There is no nexus, no grid to locate or organise anything. We are stuck in repetition. History has been replaced by an endless procession, a permanent compilation of weak images and objects devoid of any concept – thus the feeling of a radical fragmentation and dispersion of the real.
What contemporary South African arts need are concepts with which to hunt the real. We also need to disrupt and disorganise the archive. To pretend to critique contemporary forms of patriarchy with the categories used in the past to dehumanise the black man is, at best, stupid – a cruel lack of imagination. Meanwhile, the current danger is a gradual closing of the line between the nation and its multiple fragments. Blacks and whites are becoming strangers to each other in ways not witnessed even during apartheid. A renewed bifurcation of culture and a re-balkanisation of the society are under way. Neither the liberal invocation of the freedom of expression, nor the appeal to the constitutional right to dignity will suffice to untie this knot. For the arts to help in averting this danger, they will have to become once again a witness to life.
Achille Mbembe is a Research Professor in History and Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the author of On the Postcolony.
First published in The Cape Times, 5 June 2012, page 11.