Time to reflect on our new freedoms
Ferial Haffajee views change from a pavement perspective
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.
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.