On Sunday, 18 April, a small fire on Table Mountain was whipped by high winds into an enormous blaze. It spread quickly to the nearby campus of the University of Cape Town, where embers set alight the roof of the African Studies Library and burned to ashes a significant amount of the world’s rarest and most valuable collections of African media. You could watch it all pretty much live: the family WhatsApp group beaming out the incineration of what you had foolishly believed to be enduring. While the full extent of the damage is still not known, there has been a grim inventory of losses: the Jagger Reading Room was gutted, along with 70,000 books, a collection of government records from across the continent, and the entire African Studies Film Collection.
Organised working-class activists in Cape Town, as well as less organised community protesters across the country, have continued to demand more police stations, more equipment and more police officers in poor neighbourhoods to combat crime, pointing out what amounts to a racist distribution of policing resources. The broader, less nuanced, conversation in South Africa continually returns to criminal justice metrics: why don’t the police arrest more, why don’t the state defenders prosecute more, why don’t the courts convict more? Other conversations veer towards reigning the police in: less torture, less killing of protesters, less assault of sex workers.
The last time I was in South Africa, in 2015, I met with members of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), an organisation of informally housed people, based mainly in Durban and the surrounding KwaZulu-Natal region. The group’s name means ‘Shack Dwellers’. I was added to their mailing list. In the last few months the tone of AbM’s updates has become increasingly urgent, as the violence of the state’s response to the movement seems to have intensified.
In apartheid South Africa, ‘the enemy’ was ever present, day and night, from the public toilets you couldn’t use to the neighbourhood you couldn’t live in, by way of police raids at first light to check on your bedfellows, or simply to keep you terrified. When Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – who died on 2 April at the age of 81 – spoke of ‘the enemy’, the words had an intimate ring.
Many people imagine that Afrikaners are the ‘pure’ descendants of Dutch or Huguenot settlers of the 17th and 18th century. According to the historian Hermann Giliomee, 'a sense of being Afrikaners rather than being Dutch or French or German had crystallised by the end of the 18th century'. But relationships across language (and, less frequently, ethnic) lines were not uncommon. Die groot Afrikaanse familienaamboek says that most descendants of John Higgo, a Cornishman who went to South Africa in the mid 19th century, are Afrikaans speaking. But one them is my father, Robert Higgo, an English-speaker from Cape Town.
For the last three months I’ve been in Johannesburg helping to curate an exhibition of photographs at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, part of the Mandela Foundation. On the Frontline looks back over the difficult years, from 1975 to the early 1990s, when South Africa’s neighbours gave their support to the liberation movements in South Africa – both the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress – and the South-West Africa People’s Organisation, in return for harsh treatment by the apartheid regime. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and other leaders acted on the conviction that their newly won freedom was illusory until apartheid was a thing of the past.
In December 2013, a group of people living in shack settlements in Newlands West, Durban, entered and squatted a development of 16 nearly complete apartment blocks on Castle Hill, about ten miles north-west of the city centre. They stayed for more than a year before they were evicted on 17 December 2014. The developer calls the site Hilldale; the squatters called it the Mandela Complex.
The controversy over a statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town took a serious turn in March when a student at the university slathered it with excrement. Post-clean-up, UCT is agonising about whether the statue should go now or go later. The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign is making headway and it could soon be safely out of the way. A week from now the UCT senate will recommend to the university’s council that it ‘be moved’.
Table Bay Boulevard in Cape Town is to be renamed after F.W. De Klerk, subject to city council approval at a meeting tomorrow. When Eastern Boulevard was renamed after Nelson Mandela in 2011, the council chamber burst into rapturous applause. That’s unlikely to happen tomorrow.
Nelson Mandela’s death, at the age of 95, comes as a relief. He should have been allowed the dignity of only dying once. In the past two years, in and out of hospital, he seldom recognised his wife Graça Machel, his former wife Winnie, his children or his old comrades from the ANC. What is more, since the end of his presidency in 1999, the 'rainbow nation' had been dying with him.
There were no more than twenty of us outside South Africa House the other week. Londoners are used to small demonstrations outside foreign embassies, and passers-by didn’t pay much attention. We were there in support of the Abahlali baseMjondolo (Zulu for ‘shackdwellers’) movement. AbM was founded in Durban in 2005, after land at Kennedy Road, which the municipality had long promised would be used for housing for the poor, was sold to a developer. Echoing the language of Lefebvre, AbM call for the poor's ‘right to the city’.
The race for the African National Congress presidency will be settled at the ANC Conference in Mangaung (Bloemfontein) at the end of the year. The winner at Mangaung will be the ANC's presidential candidate in 2014 and therefore, given the ANC's continuing electoral dominance, president of the country to 2019. The incumbent, Jacob Zuma, is widely seen as corruptible, uneducated, incompetent and unable to provide leadership even on basic issues, more interested in using state funds to build a palace for himself and his wives at Nkandla, the village in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) where he was born. Long ago the chattering classes of all races, including most newspaper editors and the black middle class in the economic capital, Gauteng (which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria), pronounced another Zuma term utterly unthinkable.
The sequels to the Marikana massacre continue to develop in a number of different directions. It looks worse and worse for the police as evidence comes to light suggesting that several of the 34 miners killed by the police were cornered and shot in cold blood quite separately from those the world saw mown down in a rifle fusillade. This has now been further supported by the tales told by the 270 miners just released from the police cells.
The key point to grasp about the Marikana shootings (we're not allowed to call them a massacre because that makes them sound like the bad old days of Sharpeville) is that the National Union of Mineworkers, South Africa's biggest union, is in apparently terminal decline and has been losing control of one pit after another to its new rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which has no political affiliations. The NUM is the spinal chord of the ANC alliance. Its leaders are always Communist Party members, it has provided the last three secretaries-general of the ANC in succession, and it is the dominant presence in the labour federation, Cosatu. The decline of the NUM threatens the whole structure of ANC power.
The recent brouhaha over Naomi Campbell's blood diamonds cast a somewhat lurid light over the comings and goings at the Mandela Foundation and the Mandela Children's Fund. For many years there has been a stream of celebrities eager to shake hands with Mandela, share a photo opportunity with him and of course contribute to the fund. But looking at the famous photo of Mandela, Campbell, Charles Taylor et al., you have to wonder what such an unsavoury character as Taylor was doing there. And now there’s Thaksin Shinawatra, who got his photo op with Nelson Mandela last month, as well as a separate one with Winnie.
My sympathies were with the Dutch. Rather endearingly, the Dutch team only booked its hotel accommodation for the World Cup to last until 5 July and thus had to find themselves a new hotel once they did better than they expected. The Sunnyside Park Hotel, to which they moved, is an extremely pleasant but middle market establishment which almost certainly never expected to house any of the overpaid footballers in South Africa for the tournament. All the other teams, and the celebrities, stayed in Sandton, Johannesburg's most affluent and whitest suburb. The Dutch alone moved out of Sandton. I know their hotel well, and hotels well known to me are not usually the sort of places frequented by celebrities and could, indeed, be termed WAG-free zones.
Yesterday's game between Holland and Uruguay was the last in Cape Town – tonight's semi-final will be in Durban and the final in Jo'burg. Quite probably Cape Town's many visitors in the last month failed to notice that they could still drive on roads named after Hendrik Verwoerd or even on a main boulevard named after Oswald Pirow, a prewar cabinet minister who became an open Nazi. This is not a comfortable situation for many Cape Town residents who would like such names removed, along with such others as Settlers' Way and Jan Smuts Drive. But there the problem starts. Smuts was clearly a racist but he was also South Africa's greatest prime minister and his statue still sits outside Parliament. So, many whites who would be happy enough to ditch Verwoerd and Pirow would like to keep Smuts and, as descendants of settlers themselves, say that you can't get rid of Settlers' Way without implying that a substantial segment of the population is illegitimate. Which, of course, is exactly what the apartheid law against racially mixed marriages made the Coloured (mixed race) population feel.
On 22 September 1979 at about 1 a.m. GMT, a US Vela satellite passing over the South Atlantic detected a double flash of light in the vicinity of Prince Edward Island. The satellite had been launched in 1969 in order to detect atmospheric nuclear tests. When a nuclear weapon explodes in the atmosphere, the heat of the fireball strips the electrons off the atoms and molecules of the surrounding air. For a fraction of a second the ionised air is opaque, until the blast blows it away. The resulting double flash is the signature of a nuclear explosion. At the time the Vela had successfully detected 41 such explosions. Guy Barasch of Los Alamos, the laboratory which ran the Vela programme, concluded that ‘naturally occurring signals would not be mistaken for that of a nuclear explosion’ and that