Side Trip to Soweto Sprawl

While evermore appalling shenanigans within the AIG corporation preoccupied the US media last week, I made a side trip to the Republic of South Africa. I was in Johannesburg to give some talks at the invitation of an architecture firm, Osmand Lange, who had designed an outstanding New Urbanist project of some 35 acres in the otherwise Los Angeles-style illegible suburban sprawl north of the old central business district. The project, called Melrose Arch, was an ensemble of five-story buildings in a set of mixed-use, dense blocks rich with good public space — a rare thing in this otherwise ultra-fortified security state of gated estate houses, malls, business “parks,” and freeways.

In fact, in the car coming off the very long flight from North America, with what felt like a brain-pan full of screaming weevils produced by jet-lag, I kept on wondering if I had somehow landed in LA by mistake, so similar was the palm-studded terrain and most of the objects deployed on it. After a day or so of brain rehab, the differences became more apparent.

I spent virtually all my time there in and around Johannesburg (“Joburg”) a world-class-sized city of nearly four million (in a sprawling metro area of over seven million). The official race segregation called “apartheid” was dismantled starting in 1990 by then-President F.W. de Klerk after several decades of struggle and resistance. With the population of about 50 million at roughly 80 percent black African, nine percent white, and the rest mostly Indian and Malay, South Africa’s first full-suffrage national election in 1994 yielded government to the African National Congress party (ANC) led by the long-time political prisoner Nelson Mandela. The casual observer must assume that the choice for white South Africa at that time was between accommodation and suicide.

A state of rather tense provisional accommodation has reigned since then. The most conspicuous feature visible to someone from the US was the huge numbers of black Africans everywhere, but especially those traipsing or waiting along the the secondary highways in a country with very poor public transit. It looked like some kind of refugee stream from a distant war zone, but I was assured that it was just the normal flow of daily life.

Along the same lines, the numbers of black Africans employed in service jobs absolutely everywhere is also impressive. Every cafe, restaurant, and commercial venue was bursting with redundant labor. Where in the US, you might see ten employees in a given bistro, in South Africa there were thirty. Caretakers, maids, yard-men, pool-men, door-men, parking valets, waiters, cooks, attendants of every kind worked constantly in the background of the still-economically dominant white culture. Laws require the redundant hiring, and it must function as a safety valve of income. Among these black service workers were huge numbers of security guards posted everywhere, overseeing the non-human security apparatus of gates, checkpoints, and electronic entry portals that define the fortified white world.

After apartheid fell, white business fled the large central business district of Joburg for the northern suburbs, establishing an alternative universe of drive-in offices, malls, and gated housing “estates” (what we call tract housing). Meanwhile, the skyscraper district — about the size of Denver’s — was abandoned for a while. Squatters moved into forty story towers, even after the elevators stopped working. Other buildings were just stripped of valuables like copper wire and fixtures. Now the downtown has been officially reinhabited and many of the former office towers have been refitted for apartments. But the elevators are still often broken and in 2007 a series of rolling electric blackouts made life miserable there. I had to wonder what the future of that place was, given how much it costs to really maintain a skyscraper over the long haul. My guess is that the decay must necessarily outpace the attempts at upkeep when these places are owned, in essence, by slumlords.

On-the-ground downtown, the streets were so clogged with people hurrying in chaotic flows along the sidewalks that the place took on the character of an immense termite mound. I was in a car — what else? — and was told it was not a good idea to go exploring on foot there. Much of South Africa’s notorious crime — number one worldwide in rapes and assaults per capita and second in murders — takes place in the center city. There is plenty of friction, too, between South African black nationals and black refugees from places in crisis like Zimbabwe who sift down there by the millions and compete for income. But in the social hierarchy, the center-city dwellers enjoy advantages less available to the dusty township slumdwellers of distant Soweto, southwest of the city.

Soweto was established first as a kind of barracks area for workers in the gold and diamond mines that run in a straight line for several hundred kilometers east-west across a geographic rift south of the city center. The topography is visible even from a car on the freeway, where the old gold-mine tailing heaps bigger than the pyramids of Egypt glisten in the sun along the rift line. Another feature that kind of defines the ambience of Soweto is the remains of the old cyanide factory — a chemical used in processing gold ore.

Today, Soweto has grown to an aggregation of about one million people living in various low-rise conditions ranging from vast districts of cardboard shacks and tin-roof shanties to what have evolved into streets of middle-class houses and even a few mansions. Up until the fall of apartheid, the government severely limited the amount of retail amenities that could be established in Soweto, so the inhabitants had to travel ten miles at a time to buy household goods. Probably the weirdest thing about the life of Johannesburg and its companion Soweto revolves around the abysmal lack of public transit.

Every day the denizens of Soweto fan out northward to work by means of taxi-cab. A gigantic system of metered cabs and mini-vans, many in desperate disrepair, driven with infamous recklessness, serves the metro area’s poorest citizens. A colossal taxi “park” (parking lot in our lingo) near the freeway entrance to Soweto’s closest-in township dispatches all these vehicles to another massive taxi park in downtown Joburg, with van or taxi connections at each end to take commuters further. This exercise consumes around four hours of misery every day, in traffic that almost always turns Joburg’s freeways into yet another a taxi park twice a day. Returning to Soweto after a day’s work, some people have to make two or three additional taxi connections to get home through the sprawling townships. Many cannot afford this and the shoulders of the connector highways off the freeway in Soweto were filled in late afternoon with streams of people heading home on foot, some burdened with bundles, some carrying things on their heads.

The sheer monetary expense of doing all this must be out of this world for people with not much to begin with. Somehow, the insanity of it has been established as “normal,” and there were few signs that the government — now black-majority, after all — was planning to rectify the situation. There are plans to run a new subway line across town, but at this point it is conceived mainly as a connector to the main airport. The South African rail system — like America’s — is completely inadequate, and the mandatory motoring program so deeply ingrained — and associated with the extremes of security and fortification — that no workable consensus for getting beyond the current situation can be formed. Otherwise, the government was getting ready to host the World Cup of Soccer this summer and was preoccupied with directing its planning resources to that.

The casual visitor can see a pretty clear gradient of social and economic hierarchy in the two parallel worlds of white and black South Africa. There is a cohort of educated urban blacks now established in business and the bureaucracy that obviously stand above those working in service jobs and those who are essentially bumpkins coming in from the countryside or the “bush” or from the failing nations to the north. Like any upper crust, the educated blacks in good jobs seal themselves off from the lower ranks — though politically, there is a pretense to identify with them. This black upper crust has only been in charge of things for a decade and a half. Obviously they have not yet been able to address problems like public transit yet, but it was unclear to me whether all the other categories of things there, from electric power to health services, were being managed capably.

There are as many political factions among the black majority as there might be in any sizable nation. Friction between them sometimes leads to violence. Corruption is not on the level of the infamous “kleptocracies” straddling the equator, but it is far from unknown. Right now, the nation awaits a national election coming up in April and the near-certainty that Jacob Zuma will be elected the new president. His ascent is widely dreaded by the white minority, who broadly regard him as a thug.

This white minority appears to carry on with the “normal” tasks of daily life not unlike what you would see in Europe and North America. But close to the surface you detect a resigned fatalism. Their old center has not held and things for them could fall apart at any time. The evacuations of whites that occurred with the shift to black-majority government in the 1990s have tailed down. I’m not even sure how conscious the whites are of their own base-line nervousness, though the multi-layered apparatus of security, with all the locks, gates, and video cameras speaks for itself.

The combination of the fortification mentality with compulsory motoring has left Johannesburg with a conspicuous scarcity of shared civic space. It’s hard to beat the USA for this, but South Africa has managed to. The architects and developers who designed the Melrose Arch project tried to supply something that was otherwise non-existent in the country and they did a very good job. All the classes of the various races were present there — whites, blacks, and Asians — sitting in the outdoor cafes, often at mixed tables, while the virtually all-black service class puttered and watched in the background. The nicely-scaled main square felt like the only tranquil, open, safe public gathering place in the entire metroplex. The health club down the street where I dropped in three times in a week reflected the mix of races, too, as did the offices and business establishments.

Melrose Arch was a brave experiment. Its development coincided time-wise with the more-or-less peaceful revolution out of minority rule starting in the 1990s. There have been some copycat wannabe spin-offs of it in other parts of the city, but nothing nearly as successful either as an economic venture or a civic amenity.

On the whole, you got the feeling that all the multicolored upper crusts of South Africa were largely tuned-out to some larger forces gathering to shake up their world — in particular the energy crisis that has moved off center-stage temporarily while banks and national economies flounder everywhere. The energy crisis will return. South Africa has coal and nuclear power, but not enough generating capacity to stay very far ahead of an ongoing shortage of electric power. They have a pretty robust coal-to-liquids program for helping to fuel all the cars — but they also import a lot of regular oil and are at the mercy of oil states elsewhere in Africa who resent them. The white minority seems to ignore the fact that their future hangs by the rather flimsy threads that hold together the combined motoring-and-security systems that protect them. The story there is hardly over.

On the way out, I had one of those experiences that bizarrely defines a place. I checked into the business-class lounge at the airport only to find that no toilet was available there. They just didn’t have any. I was sent outside down the concourse to find one. “It’s Africa,” the old expression goes.

James Howard Kunstler

March 17, 2009