Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Crime, capital and economic apartheid

In the book Blank: Architecture, Apartheid and After (edited by H Judin and I Vladislavic; David Philip Publishers, Cape Town 1998), Lindsay Bremner’s contribution, “Crime and the emerging landscape of post-apartheid Johannesburg” (pp. 48-63) uncovered the roots of racial segregation in the origins of Johannesburg as a gold mining camp in 1886. During the apartheid era these originary strategies were supplemented with modern planning technology in the form of “scientific” surveys of housing needs (and, one may add, “sociological” vindications of what was called “justifiable racial segregation”). On the other hand Bremner’s contribution concentrated largely on the effect that political liberation has had since 1994 on the work and living spaces of Johannesburg.

What has emerged from her research at the time was no less than frightening: instead of the spatial contours of reconciliation, she mapped a process where the excluding mechanisms of apartheid assumed new shapes, such as the privatisation of neighbourhoods, fortification, militarisation and withdrawal into the security (but also the isolation) of town house complexes, mushrooming everywhere in and around the city like latter-day “laagers”. In an older idiom (and as I have argued before on Thought Leader one may see here the contemporary counterpart of the medieval castle with its high battlements, moat and portcullis, designed to protect those inside from potential enemies roaming spaces of exposure and vulnerability.

What I would like to argue here, is that the characterisation of specific South African urban spaces presented by Bremner and others in the book concerned is applicable to urban space in general in this simultaneously beautiful and sordid, inspiring and terrifying country, even if its applicability varies in degree from one region to another. Furthermore, that it amounts to the structuring of space along the lines of a new kind of apartheid — “economic apartheid”. In a situation where we have witnessed the thoroughgoing “criminalisation of space”, a new kind of apartheid has emerged — one that is no longer articulated along the lines of racial exclusion, but instead of an equally brutal economic exclusion.

In her contribution Bremner argued that apartheid ideology-inspired political and social exclusion of black people in Johannesburg “resulted in a fragmented, spatially discontinuous city” (p. 50) — something that probably applies to most South African cities and even towns, in all of which racial separation meant different residential areas for different races. The notorious forced removals of “people of colour” from suburbs that had been proclaimed “white” in terms of the so-called “Group Areas Act” promoted this process of fragmentation.

The question that Bremner set out to answer is whether this process has been reversed since 1994. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case (even less so than when she first published her research in 1998), although the forces driving its continuation are not the race-oriented ones of the apartheid era. What has occurred is the perpetuation of urban segregation, but now along economic lines of exclusion, instead of those of obsolete apartheid legislation. In the light of the continuing economic empowerment of (some) black people this has meant their increasing occupation of houses and apartments in previously white suburbs.

In this regard Bremner’s observation is interesting, that (p. 56): “Residents of traditionally white middle-class suburbs and property owners in the inner city regard crime as the prime threat to confidence in the new South Africa. It is seen as a breakdown of policing standards and a sign of weakness of the new state. The black poor are automatically identified as the perpetrators (black people whose socio-economic status has improved tend to share this view). Middle-class people respond to crime either by leaving the country or by doing everything possible to insulate themselves from it.”

Security has therefore become a principle for structuring social space, firstly as far as the protection of private property is concerned. Not surprisingly, the security business has flourished in South Africa, with increasing numbers of home-owners doing whatever they can do make their properties inaccessible and installing the most sophisticated security systems that they can afford. These measures range from high perimeter walls to razor wire, electric fencing, remote-controlled driveway gates, intercom systems, burglar proofing and security gates — which even divide the different living areas of houses into “secure zones”. Needless to say, this has the effect of imprisoning the inhabitants of the houses as much as of keeping others out. The space appropriate to the young “democracy” has been vitiated almost beyond repair, if democracy presupposes a space where citizens can feel free to move and interact under conditions of peaceful coexistence.

Bremner also pointed out that private security firm operatives (often trained in para-military fashion) “ … have contributed significantly to the militarisation of space and society in recent years” by performing the functions which correspond to the fortification of private properties, mainly proactive patrolling and armed response. How does this connect with new lines of segregation? The fact is that private security firms hardly operate in the black townships, nor are the vast majority of township residents financially capable of availing themselves of the latest security equipment and communications systems. For protection they have nowhere else to turn but to the comparatively under-resourced police. One could therefore speak of “security/insecurity segregation”.

A similar chasm yawns between the largely white property owners in the inner cities and the people who occupy street space. At street level one is confronted by a bustle of functionally and qualitatively differentiated activities on the part of street vendors, unemployed people, mainly black consumers and, of course, minibus taxis — the mainstay of South African transportation for blacks. “Between these two groups lies a gulf”, says Bremner, “filled to a large extent by ignorance, fear, paranoia, entitlement, resentment and socio-economic inequality” (p. 58).

Many shops have therefore relocated to secure, walled shopping malls in the suburbs or outside cities, despite ongoing attempts on the part of city authorities, business, police and traffic authorities to combat crime in the inner city, all “in an attempt to protect and preserve the image of middle-class prosperity in the face of increasing socio-economic diversity, a certain amount of decay and the absence of law and order” (p. 58). Bremner spelled out the far-reaching consequences of this situation (p. 58):

“These dynamics are producing an increasingly disparate, separated city. The gaps between the worlds of the township, the inner city and the suburb are widening. The chances that the people of this city will develop a sense of shared space, of shared destiny grows slimmer by the day.”

It is significant that Bremner discerned a causal link between the inroads made into public space by privatisation and what she termed “the economy of crime” — through legislation modes of exclusion, which ultimately rest on property rights are in the process of structuring public social space. What her description highlights is that private capital, rather than any authentic social need, is behind the process of developing so-called “business improvement districts” in inner (and outside) cities. Simultaneously this brings to light the “uneven distribution of wealth and the collision of different values … ”. Just how singularly heterogeneous (and heteronomous, even dystopic) urban spaces have become in South Africa is graphically captured in the following description (p. 58):

“Pockets of privilege and ghettos of shame, businessmen clutching briefcases and taxi-industry men bearing AK-47s exist side by side in this extraordinary conflation of space, time, powers and cultures.”

One could take Bremner’s analysis further, of course, in the direction of the deleterious effect of the interests of private capital on other areas of existence, such as healthcare. At private hospitals anyone who is not covered by (expensive) medical insurance has to deposit a hefty amount to receive treatment (in the case of St George’s Hospital in Port Elizabeth the unconscionable sum of R25 000, according to someone I know who was admitted to the casualty department there recently). Needless to say, this flies in the face of the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath that obliges medical doctors to treat anyone who needs their medical knowledge. But this, too, has been eroded by the interests of capital, and contributes to the growth of “economic apartheid”.

For an extended treatment of this issue, see my paper, “Urban Space in 21st-Century South Africa”. Leading Architecture and Design, May/June 2004, pp.63-66.

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