The rusted corrugated metal finish of the settlements was a far cry from the luxury of the gated compound I was residing in. This was the first thing that struck me, as I commenced my “authentic” tour of the historic township of Soweto- an area synonymous with the 1976 anti apartheid movement. I was standing where, over forty years ago, ten thousand schoolchildren rallied against the apartheid imposition of the coloniser language, Afrikaans. The struggle claimed over 200 lives, many of whom were similar ages to me. There were many striking historical features of the township, from Nelson Mandela’s house to the site twelve year old activist, Hector Pieterson’s death. However, despite the profound nature of all these landmarks, the most resonating aspect of my tour was my conversation with a man I now remember as “the activist”.
My first encounter with him was near a tower erected by colonisers, a striking symbol of dominance in what is now the Crede Mutwa Cultural Village. He stood casually, the makeshift cigarette in his mouth coming to its end as he introduced himself to me with a hospitable welcome, Although noticeably shorter than me, he held a piercing gaze that commanded a paternal respect, the kind that would naturally come to someone who I found out to be a principal leader of the Soweto community. The conversation began formally, as we discussed the history of colonialist exploitation, poverty and thorough racism. Before us, from our vantage point next to the tower, was a view of the entirety of Soweto township with the gentrification and economic disparities clearly illustrated. Despite the horror of Soweto history, the details were unfortunately not foreign.
However, as an Indian Australian separated from colonial rule by two generations, and someone removed from the ongoing oppression directed towards Aboriginal communities in Australia, I always felt distanced from the harms of colonialism.
For me, the palpable sense of angst didn’t kick in until the activist detailed his experiences in the late 70s uprisings, hearing the quivers in his voice as the trauma from racialized colonial oppression manifested itself in his detailed retelling. Unified by class and race, hardened by struggle, he had marched as a teenager surrounding the rallies to disincentivise the colonial police force from firing, the backlash from killing a black teenager marginally higher than killing a black citizen. Yet, we had learned that South Africa, Australia and all the settler colonies in the world had advanced from this stage, gentrification a thing of the past.
As a community leader, I had asked him if he had seen a noticeable change in the quality of life, the attitudes and the psychology of the Soweto community. Frantz Fanon wrote in his seminal analysis Black Skin, “the feeling of inferiority of the colonized is the correlative to the European’s feeling of superiority. Let us have the courage to say it outright: It is the racist who creates his inferior”. I asked if that has changed. Visibly distressed, I saw the activist question whether to give me the optimistic and encouraging answer he presumed I would want to hear. In the end, he responded by telling me that the great, Alfred Beit, Ernest Oppenheimer, Cecil Rhodes, still held the majority of their stolen wealth Unfortunately, this is true – The De Beers Corporation (Cecil Rhodes and Oppenheimer’s family) had a revenue of $6.1 billion USD last year alone. Indeed, despite government intervention, the class distinctions that had separated Soweto, Himath Siriniwasa reflects on a tour that opened his eyes. ANALYSIS by the minority of privileged Africans were rigidified, and a culture that repressed social mobility arisen.
This was for him, the very failure of liberal democracy in South Africa. This is the hypocrisy of freedom. For those born in Soweto, they were condemned to a life of class segregation and limited social mobilitythere is limited freedom for those who struggle to feed and educate their families. This was at the heart of the rampant neoliberalism in South Africa now, he lamented. The false consciousness that the worst was over, and that things now were set as it is. From conception, apartheid regimented society by marginalising African workers into low paid labour, and the economic legacy lives on. Despite a noticeable growth in the middle class, inequality remains at the level of 1994, the end of the apartheid era, with 92.4% of South Africans living in poverty being African, and an increasing unemployment of 46.35% of Africans, compared 10.3% of whites.
I moved up the stairwell of the crudely named ‘Oppenheimer Tower’, after the coloniser who was responsible for the expropriation of all the material wealth near the Soweto area, whose family maintains their profits. At the top I saw the sprawl in its full glory, the product of a rich and painful history, with a culture that thrives off its survival.
Despite the growth in popularity of Soweto as a tourist area due to its colonial history, the stratification remained in place, with the most vulnerable stuck in a cycle of poverty.
Additionally, he argued that the surge of drug use in youth in urban Soweto(~15%), which he saw as the greatest threat to future generations, was a result of the psychological remnants of colonial oppression, the destruction of a black conscious movement, and an aura of futility and dependence of the increasing corrupt African National Congress (ANC).
The establishment of a neoliberal decolonial South Africa was more akin to what John S Saul calls the recolonization of capital, whereby the Whites who benefited from apartheid had little to lose.
When we enjoy the purported ethical and green standards today, we often forget the colonial history that is attached to these relative luxuries. In the end, despite all modern pretensions, there is an intimate relationship between racism, colonialism and capitalism. The creation of a new multiracial upper class can never negate the sheer trauma that colonialism brought.
This article appeared in the autonomous ACAR edition, ACAR Honi 2018.