DANGER: ELECTRIC FENCE. No, this is not a prison. Welcome to my new (temporary) home, Johannesburg!
The electric fence may be to South Africa what the white picket fence is to America. It’s a symbol of having ‘made it’ (you have something worth stealing) – but also a sign that something is deeply wrong.
The barriers are the phyiscal manifestation of a disturbing trend of the wealthy – or even middle class – to try to live as though the 80% of people beyond their house walls, outside their car doors, and working behind the mall counters didn’t exist. The extreme white flight of the early years (read here, here, and here) may have abated some, but it’s clear even to a visitor that integration is still far from realized. South Africa can proudly claim to have the worst economic inequality in the world – much of it still along racial lines.
I arrived in Johannesburg just a couple days ago. It was a depressing sight simply riding from the airport to the walled compound where the hostel was located. Everywhere you looked was either a walled compound with barbed wire, spikes, and electric wires on top or a run-down house or apartment building that looks like the worst parts of Rainier Beach, South Park, etc. in Seattle.
Going “downtown” was even more mind-boggling than the ride into town. As I got off the minibus (“taxi”) in downtown I was struck by the strangely parallel and contradictory cities inhabiting the same space.
The first is the cold, glass and concrete “modern” (that is to say, Western) city built by whites, which exists today only in the decaying skyscrapers and regal government buildings.
On the street level is a city that could not be more different – a distinctly African city bustling with immigrant hawkers from across Southern Africa and makeshift outdoor markets that overflow onto the neatly gridded streets.
The residents of this parallel city seem indifferent to the incongruous shadow of skyscrapers above them.Yet there is no question which city is dominant – today it appears that it is the skyscrapers that are the ones feeling out of place.
In two hours walking downtown at three in the afternoon, I spotted two white people. Mentioning my astonishment to black South Africans was met with roaring laughter – of course no white people walk around downtown! If they even go, they drive into the garage and leave from the garage.
The incongruity of the parallel cities and the overall state of urban decay left me feeling strangely ill at ease. The city center shuts down completely very early due to safety concerns – the hostel told me to return before dark, or about six o’clock. Yet by 4:30 I began to feel a – certainly partially irrational – sense of urgency to leave.
I have still not fully figured out what it was that made the downtown so eerie. Perhaps it was the fact that it seemed like everyone else was hurrying to leave too. And given the new developments in Sandton and the other suburbs, those who can afford it are not coming back tomorrow morning.
(The United States experienced a similar phenomenon of white flight in the 1970s, but I find it hard to believe it ever reached this state. One can only wonder when the whites and economically privileged of any color will return. Despite efforts at “urban renewal,” many of the Sandton elites I happened to speak to seemed doubtful.)