Time to re­flect on our new free­doms

Ferial Haf­fa­jee views change from a pave­ment per­spec­tive

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

PO­LIT­I­CAL lead­ers in our gov­ern­ment host many in­ter­est­ing events that I oc­ca­sion­ally get to ex­pe­ri­ence. One that catches my eye is the Ecomo­bil­ity World Fes­ti­val – a green ini­tia­tive to get car-lov­ing cit­i­zens of Johannesburg to use pub­lic trans­port. It launches on a per­fect Sun­day morn­ing early in Oc­to­ber 2015.

The idea is to walk, cy­cle, skate­board, Seg­way or ride from Sand­ton to neigh­bour­ing Alexandra on elec­tricpow­ered mo­tor­cy­cles, bikes and, for Trans­port Min­is­ter Dipuo Peters, a lit­tle car that looks like a pope­mo­bile. I pull on my Nikes and start walk­ing.

It’s de­light­ful. Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, such as Mayor Parks Tau and Gaut­eng Premier David Makhura, aban­don their blue-light con­voys to cy­cle. The streets, which usu­ally buzz with gleam­ing sedans, are quiet as the cy­clists and walk­ers take over.

At a slower pace, the rate of growth in Sand­ton is quite some­thing to look at. If we are on the edge of a re­ces­sion, it doesn’t show here. Man­hat­tan-style build­ings com­pete for a perch on the ever-chang­ing sky­line. Glass vies with con­crete as cap­tains of in­dus­try take their build­ings higher, greener (al­legedly) and as uberde­signed as any­thing in global cap­i­tals.

We walk. Past the JSE and a nowdis­em­bow­elled Vil­lage Walk shop­ping cen­tre. I can’t wait to see what will emerge from the crater cre­ated by its im­plo­sion. This is Joburg. We take things down to build them back – the city’s al­ways been a paean to money and it’s no dif­fer­ent to­day.

We pass Ned­bank’s sprawl­ing head­quar­ters – the green bank has just re­ported a ster­ling set of re­sults. Past Rand Merchant Bank, which com­petes at the top end of the mar­ket and owns an HQ that is like a city within a city. Past Dis­cov­ery, the med­i­cal aid ad­min­is­tra­tor that is suc­cess­fully ex­port­ing its Vi­tal­ity health re­wards sys­tem to China and the UK.

Down Kather­ine Street where new ho­tels sprout, ca­ter­ing to a grow­ing clien­tele of for­eign busi­ness peo­ple who use Sand­ton as a base to move into the rest of our con­ti­nent. Up to­wards Wyn­berg, where the econ­omy is older. The cops keep the sedans and sport util­ity ve­hi­cles at bay; their driv­ers look ex­as­per­ated but re­signed – pretty much the look of cap­i­tal in South Africa, which has made great postapartheid for­tunes but is not ter­ri­bly highly re­garded by the gov­ern­ing ANC.

And then it’s up a road and into Alex. A dif­fer­ent world. In about six kilo­me­tres. The streets are packed with honk­ing Toy­ota Avan­zas, Ses’fik­ile taxis and pri­vate cars. The city fa­thers give up the ef­fort to keep cars off the road in Alex. The pub­lic trans­port net­work is too shabby here and the taxis would have a con­nip­tion.

It’s a happy and pros­per­ous enough chaos. Chick­ens ready for slaugh­ter squawk un­hap­pily in their cages. Fresh cow heads are set up six-by-six un­der a tree, as an out­door butcher takes a knife to the heads that will later be braaied.

Ear­lier in 2015, Alex went up in vi­o­lent parox­ysms as for­eign­ers were at­tacked and one, Em­manuel Sit­hole, was mur­dered in full view of pho­tog­ra­pher James Oat­way’s cam­era and writer Beau­re­gard Tromp’s pen. Sit­hole’s slow-mo­tion mur­der, cap­tured for the world to see, ended the orgy of violence as the state sent in troops.

On this Sun­day, some six months later, the place is a peace­ful hub­bub.

Free­dom has been good to Alex, as the honk­ing cars show. There are new ad­di­tions to the town­ship with a mix of ba­sic and pret­tier houses, pub­licly owned flats and a so­lar geyser roll-out that holds the key to our en­ergy fu­ture. Each new house has a geyser on top of it.

Alex is also burst­ing out of its seams – a rapid click move­ment of peo­ple who mi­grate from ru­ral ar­eas, set­tle out­side cities and in town­ships like this one. There are large com­mu­ni­ties of Zim­bab­wean and Mozam­bi­can peo­ple who now call this melt­ing pot home. Houses are built onto the pave­ments and shacks added to rent out to peo­ple who want to be close to work in neigh­bour­ing Sand­ton and sur­rounds. Or­derly de­vel­op­ment and ser­vices such as litter con­trol and road re­pairs ap­pear to have been aban­doned to the abun­dant smarts of peo­ple who call Alex home. Other than the odd cy­cle lanes we ooh and aah at, there is no sign of any at­tempt to pro­vide old Alex with at least the ba­sics of mu­nic­i­pal pub­lic ser­vices, such as refuse col­lec­tion and by-law en­force­ment.

It seems to me that the state finds it eas­ier to reg­u­late and de­velop the money pot of Sand­ton – or that cap­i­tal does so with the ex­cel­lent im­prove­ment dis­trict con­cepts, where pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors come to­gether to cre­ate teams that keep up iden­ti­fied spa­ces so they are safe and nice.

This is our story. Pris­tine next to chaotic. Op­u­lent homes cheek by jowl with shack life. Peo­ple with too much in a pique of con­spic­u­ous consumption who live next door to, but a life apart from, peo­ple who can do with more.

I stopped do­ing the Alex and Sand­ton com­par­i­son be­cause it felt trite and un­chang­ing. And be­cause there are so many sim­i­lar sto­ries to tell around the coun­try. It’s every­where, this story of in­equal­ity in South Africa that un­der­pins the fury of our race de­bate. And re­sults in xeno­pho­bic at­tacks, where an ‘other’ is blamed for the im­pacts of in­equal­ity. Where ‘white’ de­scribes a good life and hav­ing nice things, race is am­pli­fied in any un­der­stand­ing of South Africa.

Sand­ton is no longer only white, but it is largely so. Alex is all-black with few ex­cep­tions. Econ­o­mist Thomas Piketty, who wrote the book Cap­i­tal in the Twen­tyFirst Cen­tury that has put in­equal­ity back, front and cen­tre in de­vel­op­ment eco­nomics, noted that race is still a key de­ter­mi­nant of wealth.

It is. But it also is not. Here’s a dif­fer­ent story. For mil­lions of South Africans, free­dom has of­fered sig­nif­i­cant so­cial mo­bil­ity at a pace faster than the US, which prides it­self on its abil­ity to move peo­ple up the so­cial lad­der. The con­sul­tancy Fu­turefact un­der­took re­search to ask peo­ple where they were on the class lad­der com­pared with their par­ents.

When I first saw the re­search, it was my life in a set of bar graphs. In his mem­oir, Coolie Come Out and Fight, my un­cle, Mac Carim, tracks the life of our pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion. It was a dif­fi­cult life and clearly one lived too close to the poverty line. In the book, he uses the term ‘roses in a dung heap’ to de­scribe the life of his wife Ha­joo and her sis­ters Aye­sha (my mum), Fa­tima and Farida, who turned their mod­est homes into lit­tle havens in what we only to­day recog­nise as slums.

Un­cle Mac is fond of look­ing around at his next gen­er­a­tion, which in­cludes sons, nieces and neph­ews, and mar­vel­ling at what free­dom has given us – com­fort, in­de­pen­dence, am­bi­tions and pur­pose; all of which are the as­sets of so­cial mo­bil­ity.

The re­sults of the Fu­turefact re­search were fas­ci­nat­ing. The num­ber of peo­ple who iden­ti­fied as work­ing class (com­pared with their par­ents) was much lower. The num­ber of peo­ple who iden­ti­fied as mid­dle class was much higher.

Fu­turefact’s Jos Ku­per claims: “In the US, it takes an av­er­age four gen­er­a­tions for a poor Amer­i­can fam­ily to reach the in­come of an av­er­age fam­ily, yet pro­found change is oc­cur­ring in the space of one gen­er­a­tion in South Africa.”

In ad­di­tion, she found that op­ti­mism is high among an older gen­er­a­tion. “(About) 56 per­cent of par­ents be­lieve their chil­dren’s stan­dard of liv­ing when they reach their age will be bet­ter than their own.”

This is the op­po­site to Ger­many where 73 per­cent of par­ents feel their chil­dren would be worse off; one in two Amer­i­cans con­cur; while 44 per­cent of the French are pes­simistic about the decade to come.

If you drill down into what we loosely call the mid­dle class in South Africa, it yields fur­ther light.

The ac­tual mid­dle class (that is, those peo­ple who fall into the mid­dle of the in­come spread) is rel­a­tively low-in­come. In 2008, th­ese house­holds earned be­tween R1 520 and R4 500 a month. The rel­a­tively af­flu­ent mid­dle class earns be­tween R5 600 to R40 000 a month. The elite, de­fined as those who earn over R40 000 a month, is a mere 4 per­cent of the work­ing pop­u­la­tion.

The ac­tual mid­dle class is over­whelm­ingly black, while the af­flu­ent mid­dle class is more or less di­vided in half be­tween black and white. The elite is 60 per­cent white and 20 per­cent black African. The mid­dle class as a whole is book­ended by a tiny num­ber of wealthy in­di­vid­u­als and a large un­der-class.

But to as­sume th­ese are neat and dis­tinct groups is wrong. There is a deep and um­bil­i­cal con­nec­tion be­tween all parts of the black mid­dle class and the poor – funds and de­pen­den­cies flow from the one to the other.

The pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive about whites re­minds me of Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tions of the size of Africa on most maps. In 2010, soft­ware and graphic user in­ter­face de­signer Kai Krause showed how much big­ger Africa is in re­al­ity. While maps make Green­land and Africa look largely equal, our con­ti­nent is 14 times big­ger.

In South Africa, you would swear that whites make up a much larger pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion.

In fact, the num­bers of whites are in steady de­cline as many em­i­grate. The pace of pop­u­la­tion growth is smaller too.

In 1996, there were 31 mil­lion black African peo­ple here – the 2014 pro­jec­tion was at 43 mil­lion. There were 4.4 mil­lion whites in 1996 and there are 4.5 mil­lion to­day.

PIC­TURE: MOELETSI MABE

STRAIGHT TALK: Ferial Haf­fa­jee brings a con­sid­ered opin­ion to the is­sue of racial stereo­typ­ing.

This is an ex­tract from What if there were no whites in South Africa? by Ferial Haf­fa­jee, pub­lished by Pi­cador Africa, at a rec­om­mended re­tail price of R220.

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