Thursday, July 12, 2012

Mining the Dumps

This post is a response to Daniel le Roux’s paper in the ‘Things of Nature, the Nature of Things’ panel. Like Daniel’s, my childhood was spent in the shadow of the mines. Like him, my most exciting school trips involved being ferried out to Gold Reef City or Santarama Miniland to be told about the glories of the South African mining industry while a conga line of voiceless black men in overalls and hard hats performed a gumboot dance; a stunted ethnography, one of the most exotic things I ever saw despite its proximity to the suburbs I rarely strayed from.
I was born in Randfontein, a dry little mining town to the west of Joburg, where my father and grandfather ran a hardware store. After my parents’ divorce my mother moved us to the city, and every second weekend of my childhood involved being shuttled between our home in Parkhurst and my father’s new family, a drive that I’m assured takes less than 50 minutes but to my pre-adolescent mind felt like hours. The road between Joburg and Randfontein is banked on both sides by dumps from the then-prolific mining areas of Westonaria and Carletonville, and these looming piles of waste are a critical part of my personal topography of the city. When the mines began to die, the town died with them. The hardware shop was sold and I forgot about Johannes the driver, Petrus who always answered the phone with the cheery portmanteau ‘Alphapaint’, and the other kind men I had known there, who had treated me like a pet and my brother like a little king.
I think I have always knows the term ‘mine dumps’, but I doubt it was ever explained to me that these miniature mountains were actually not real, or that they had been dug out of the resistant earth by thousands of people over the course of decades in the process of making other people rich. No one told me that my house and my school were on some level the result of those mine dumps, or that the thoughtless privilege most white children lived with was consequent upon a racialised hierarchy that drew a large part of its power from the blood and the sweat that were mixed in with that dirt. As Keith Breckenridge pointed out last Sunday from the rarefied vantage point of the Carlton Centre, apartheid developed as a system to regulate mine labour. The suburbs I grew up in, their wide empty streets, their swimming pools and their trees, were balanced precariously on the mines.
Daniel spoke about the way whites turned the mines and the dumps into spectacle. The theme park-ification of these industrial wastelands was a constant feature of all our childhoods. We grew up on stories of Barney Barnato. Early Joburg was sold to us as South Africa’s Wild West, with all the attendant glamour. But the mine dumps, spectacularised though they might have been, were still visible. White people could pretend that they belonged to the landscape. We could reinvent them as indigenous, scatter them with scrub and underdeveloped trees, camouflage them with herbiage, but nonetheless there they were, great hulking metaphors for the city’s unnatural wealth. We could convince ourselves that the dumps meant anything we wanted them to but there was no avoiding the fact that they were there, and all the careful design of the northern suburbs’ famous ‘mad-made forest’ could not detract from their secret life as markers of apartheid’s violent avarice.
It’s been 16 years since I lived in Joburg, more than half of my life. The city has changed in startling ways. The teenage rebel hub of Rockey Street is a now no go area for white people but hipsters with sleeve tattoos and trucker caps have colonised Braamfontein. Multiracial teenage couples exercise their parents’ credit cards in a Sandton City that keeps growing like a malignant tumour, fed by middle class South Africans’ insatiable urge to shop. Streets in town are like miniature maps of the continent, with Ghanaian phone shops crammed alongside Senegalese tailors, Nigerian spaza shops and barbers from Mozambique. Suburban parks are full of nannies looking after other people’s children, although now those children are black as well as white. Callers to the Metro FM advice hotline bemoan the fact that their boyfriends don’t have enough education to give them the lifestyles they deserve. There’s a Virgin Active in Soweto. Joburg Fashion Week is populated by weirdly beautiful black girls who look like giraffes and float around the Rosebank Hotel avoiding canap├ęs. South Africans read heat and Grazia and valorise local celebrities alongside the standard Hollywood stars. The aspirant is everywhere. From the cramped, censored backwater of apartheid, we have blossomed into a proud member of the global community. We are Brand South Africa, and we’re looking fine.
But the mine dumps, as Daniel pointed out, are slowly vanishing.
I wonder what this means for the brave new Joburg I have returned to, this Egoli, this Jozi (a word that my emigrant tongue finds impossible to say without awkwardness), this new city where everyone can mix, if they can afford to. The dumps, for all that their squat, ugly nuisance selves were repeatedly overwritten with apartheid’s narrative of nationalist pride, could never quite shake their association with labour, the back-breaking, often murderous work that was performed by desperate migrants trying to survive in an impossible situation of legislated inequality. But they are vanishing and I cannot see any other coherent signs appearing of the labour that underpins the city. Physical work is invisible to those who do not do it because there are no physical signs of its occurrence. Who builds this city, this urban maze, this mini-Africa, this first world third world? Where do they live? Where are they from? What are the effects of this plague of shopping malls and Tuscan housing developments on the people who are permanently banned from them?
The Karoo landscapes threatened by fracking and the waste sites in south Durban that Patrick Bond spoke of are undeniable material manifestations of the consequences of South Africa’s enthusiastic entry into the global networks of late capitalism. In Joburg, though, it’s remarkably easy to see only signs of progress and no signs of labour. The mine dumps were our visual conscience. What will replace them?
Nicky Falkof
University of Johannesburg

The Code of Life

Bregtje van der Haak, a Board member of the Prince Claus Fund and a renowned cultural analyst and film-maker speaks to The Blog about her forthcoming documentary The Code of Life.
Why the title "The Code of Life"?
The Code of Life refers to the fact that biology and information technology are merging into one huge, new field of analysis. With the latest generation of DNA scanners and super computers, any organic material (blood, skin, saliva, flowers, flies, bacteria etc) can now be cheaply 'sequenced', transformed into code and processed as digital information. Once life is viewed as a code, it can be analyzed and improved using the language of mathematics and algorithms. The young scientists working on genomics in China believe that the secret of life itself is embedded in the genetic information contained in each living cell. They are inspired and fascinated by the fact that they are uncovering previously inaccessible layers of information about the essence of life. At the same time, their own lives are also clearly affected by things that can not be so easily understood in mathematical terms, such as falling in love, loneliness and family expectations. This widening gap between life as information and life as a messy and unruly bag of feelings, family ties and cultural influences, interests me. It is clearly reductive to see life in mathematical terms only, but it is also unwise to ignore the major shifts in techno-science, because they will unavoidably have a major impact on culture, society and politics and eventually affect all of us. My hope is that the advances in techno science will be accompanied by informed public debate, new theory and empirical research by social scientists.
Can you give us the reasons that led you to explore the topic for this documentary film?
When I was working at the School of Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong last year, I was struck by the strong future orientation and optimism of my Chinese students. They embrace new technology in playful ways and seem to believe that they can improve everything, including themselves, just by trying, working hard, and then trying again. They are very supportive of each other and do not give up easily on anything. This is very different from my recent experience in Europe. When I read about a genomics institute in Shenzhen, which had become the leading DNA sequencing facility in the world in only two years time, I was fascinated. When I read that an 18-year old boy was leading the research team to uncover the genes for human intelligence, I wanted to make a film about it. My interest as a filmmaker is in showing how the world is changing. Technology itself does not interest me, but I am drawn to it intuitively when it starts to intersect with society and lived experience. There is also a strong visual drive. When I first visited BGI, the pale colors struck me as very beautiful and I felt dwarfed by the scale of the building, an old shoe factory at the outskirts of Shenzhen. Cinematically, it resonated, because it felt like Blade Runner, science fiction. But ultimately, I think the reason to make this documentary is that my personal experience in Hong Kong raised many questions for me and made me want to understand this new world more deeply. BGI seemed a place where a lot of 'newness' was concentrated, not only the super computers, DNA sequencers and cloning labs, but also Chinese family ties, the framework of a market economy ruled by an authoritarian state, and the focus on very young talent. BGI employs 3000 very young bio-informaticians, a profession that did not exist ten years ago. Altogether, it provides a new model that forced me to rethink a lot of things and I hope it will have that effect on viewers as well.
Why is China so hooked up on these types of almost post-human experiments?
The advance in genomics is by no means an exclusively Chinese phenomenon. Genetic researchers from all major research institutions in the West are collaborating with BGI in Shenzhen and paying for sequencing services. Shenzhen is one of the Special Economic Zones in China where the market economy is thriving. Because China has a planned economy, it can shift resources to new fields quite easily. Biotechnology and information technology have been identified by the Shenzhen government as growth industries and BGI has received a rent free building and a 1.5 billion USD interest free loan to buy up the best technology in the world. When I started working on the film, I thought that ethical guidelines would be less strict for cloning and DNA research in China, but in fact they are quite similar. Cloning human beings is strictly forbidden in China, as it is in the rest of the world. 
However, there are cultural differences. When you have been raised in a Christian culture, you would probably not say in front of a camera that the cloned micro pigs are ‘life that I have created under my microscope'. In Europe and America, the idea that we can 'create life', bypassing God as the exclusive creator is still very controversial, also among non-believers. That's why stem cell research and animal cloning are difficult. The cloning department at BGI in Shenzhen has been founded by a Danish professor, who could not get sufficient funding to bring his research to the next level in Denmark. His best Phd. students were Chinese and he was happy to go to China with them to establish the largest cloning facility in the world under his leadership.
What do cases such as those you examine in this film tell us about the future of nature?
The future of nature is artificial and man-made. The convenient separation of the world in 'nature' on the one hand and 'culture' on the other hand can no longer be maintained. Technology is human and therefore 'natural'. It is not outside us, but part of us. It is also inseparable from our landscapes now. Once we accept that technology is part of us, we can we start to talk about how we want to use it. If the scientists in Shenzhen will find the genes for IQ, pharmaceutical companies will get involved. They will try to make drugs that improve cognition and design tools to select embryos with genes for high IQ. In the future, babies might be born smarter because of these technologies. Of course, new technologies are expensive and most people will not have access to them. New inequalities and discrimination will arise and new battles will result from them. The political philosopher Michael Sandel has tried to draw a line between technology that is meant to cure nature's mistakes and technology that aims to improve on nature's work. He proposes to allow the first category and to limit the second. Although I tend to agree with his ambition, I think reality will be different. Once technology is available, people will find ways to buy it whenever they can afford it and feel they need it. Animal cloning is already thriving in China, Australia, Brazil and India, because it allows farmers to breed better meat at lower prices. We are living in a global market place and regulation for new technologies is always behind and usually too late to be effective. The global financial crisis has demonstrated this once again. We are heading into an increasingly chaotic global capitalist mining field, where everything of value will be extracted and the rest will be left behind. There are currently no powers or institutions capable of changing or regulating this. We can only do it ourselves.

The Drama of Oil Production in the Niger Delta: An Obsession with the Spectacular

Philip Aghoghovwia responds to the The catalogue Last Rites Niger Delta. The Drama of Oil Production in Contemporary Photographs from the exhibition on which Delta Remix was based. The catalogue was edited by Christine Stelzig, Eva Ursprung and Stefan Eisenhofer; English ISBN 9 783927 270657

As one leafs through the pages of the catalogue, it is curious to note that the first sixteen pictures do not capture the major concerns of environmental pollution which provoke those instances of violence and scavenging that these pictures depict. It seems to me that the catalogue, while artistically telling the story of the oil encounter in a reverse manner, subtly sets out to mislead, if not misinform, the reader. I thought the catalogue should be able to tell the reader, in a chronological order, possibly, how the Delta has come to find itself in that atmosphere of commoditised violence and brazen criminality. 

What hits the eyes in the first page is a captured white man in the midst of gun-toting young black men. This picture no doubt, prejudices the reader’s judgement, for it invokes the now familiar (image) critique of Africa by the West: a crises-redden outback of filth, violence, sickness, hunger, insurgents, war and death. The Niger Delta embodies all these! From which perspective might we tell the story of the Oil Encounter in the Niger Delta? What happened to the polluted landscape, the farmlands, and the spilled-oil floating on the rivers, sea and the water bodies? Are these not compelling enough to be captured in the first pages of this catalogue? Why the obsession with the spectacle of survivalist fervour — which verges on the ridiculous — with which the poor people, the very wretched scramble to help themselves to the crumbs from burst petro-pipes? What’s with this obsession with the dramatic images of youth violence, which Michael Watts has described as “the masked militant armed with the ubiquitous Kalashnikov, the typewriter of the illiterate”? The catalogue confirms this romance with the spectacular by its laconic caption: “The Drama of Oil Production”.   
The picture which depicts the signpost that describes the first oil well in the region is captured without the weight of its significance. One notices the sorry state of the signpost: the fast-fading inscriptions, the rusty white board, which describes a supposedly significant beginning of oil exploration in Nigeria, and the bush growing around this signpost, that makes the board increasingly invincible. Isn’t this symptomatic of the invincibility of Oloibri — and perhaps the entire Niger Delta — in the context of social development, even when it [this village] bore the first fruits of the oil wealth for the Nigerian state?
It is hard not to notice the visible absence of the over 12, 000 gas flares that light up the Delta landscape; flares that burn off more than 70 million cubic meters of gas per day in this region that is so richly blessed, yet cursed, with fossil-fuel.
The picture I find most fascinating in this catalogue is that which juxtaposes a dilapidated, decrepit major ‘expressway’ that connects Lagos with the Niger Delta, and the well paved route of the pipelines in the heart of the delta. Ironically, that well-demarcated pipeline route now serves as a footpath for the villagers.
Philip Aghoghovwia is from the Niger Delta, and is a PhD student at the English Department, University of Stellenbosch