The new society

2012-04-14 10:43

For a short while after 1990 South Africans shared a strong sense that we lived in a new country.

We attached the adjective “new” to everything: New South Africa, New Society, even New National Party. It signalled awareness that the unbanning of the African National Congress and other liberation movements represented a rupture with the past and the beginning of a new kind of future. Yet the past is proving very sticky.

Often this feels like a malaise, like a leadership lacking confidence or direction or worse. South Africa is increasingly measured by what it is “not” – not sufficiently democratic, not developmental, not growing fast enough, not transformed enough, not really a BRIC country. Yet a new society is emerging under our noses, often unrecognisable in terms of traditional concepts.

Economic growth and government policies since the mid 1990s have had dramatic effects on South African society. In Johannesburg there has been massive growth in Roodepoort, on the Western frontier with Krugersdorp. Over the last seven to eight years, literally hundreds of townhouse complexes have emerged, some accommodating well over a thousand units.

Some are wealthy, mostly white enclaves. Yet the vast majority are not. These are effectively new and often unprecedented communities, accommodating a great diversity of people.

They sometimes include members of the new black middle classes, white South Africans in various states of class mobility, both upwards and downwards, Christians, Muslims and Hindus, nationals from elsewhere in Africa, migrants from other parts of the city, including former townships and other South African cities.

Others are more racially homogenous. There are sites, that is, where white and black South Africans (terms used here as shorthand for those who had and those who did not have full South African citizenship) are entering a common world. These are not spaces of non-racialism.

Racial and ethnic solidarities have not weakened. Yet the meaning of traditional identities is changing. Among residents still committed to being White there is an openness to Black South Africans, that may well be unprecedented outside liberal and/or leftist political circles in South Africa.

The situation has long been different for Black South AfricansYet racial and ethnic heterogeneity in the Roodepoort complexes does not adequately capture the significance of this emerging common world. Apartheid was not only a system of racial identities.

It was also a system of government and regulation, one that splintered the administration of peoples and things according to hundreds of parallel and overlapping agencies and departments. Apartheid was not only a system of racial identities. It was also a system of government, one that splintered the administration of peoples and things according to hundreds of parallel agencies and departments.

By the end of the Apartheid period, over and above the arrangements of the Tri-Cameral parliament, the homelands (Lebowa, QwaQwa, Bophuthatswana, KwaZulu, KaNgwane, Transkei and Ciskei, Gazankulu, Venda and KwaNdebele), collectively, consisted of 14 legislatures and 151 departments.

White and black South Africans were never governed in and through the same organisations. Relative to this recent past, a common world represents not simply a shared geography, but a common regime of rules. In post-Apartheid South Africa these spaces are more and more those of the Body Corporate.

In post-Apartheid South Africa the townhouse complex is a major site of emerging new social relations and norms. They are places where people get to redefine their relationship with the extended family and/or seek order in society that seems to lack order.

This townhouse modernity is not always comfortable; it may not even be progressive or sustainable. Nonetheless, a country that is radically different to that of the past is emerging.

As long as we do not engage in the hard work of seeking it out and of finding a new language to discuss it, we remain victims of the past, unable to recognise what is new and what is not.

The Public Affairs Research Institute will be a hosting a symposium to discuss some of these issues on April 17 and 18 at Wits University.

Professor Phil Bonner will give a public lecture at a cocktail event the night before. Please contact Mpho Mohapi at mohapi@pari.org.za for more information, or refer to the website at http://www.pari.org.za


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