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 canapés. 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?
University of Johannesburg