I Pretoria

Pretoria was established by a gun-loving, white-supremacist Christian fundamentalist sect – the Boers – who migrated into the interior in the early 19th century to occupy the temperate and fertile highveld plateau and establish their own settler colony unencumbered by the constraining hand of the British who now ruled Cape Town. The Boers were descended from the original, mostly Dutch, 17th and 18th century protestant settlers of the Cape. They resented the new British overlords who were infringing on their traditional bible-given right to enslave the natives and to treat them howsoever they may choose. The Boer migrations of the mid 19th century, and their wars, conquests and expulsions had catastrophic consequences for many of the societies in the interior. The Boers accidentally placed the capital of their farming culture near the richest gold deposit the world has ever known – the Witwatersrand which Johannesburg formed around in the 1880s. This gradually shifted the economic and demographic heart of the territory from Cape Town to the Boer Republics, which they established in the North of the country. Pretoria, the settler capital, became the centre of South African political power in the 20th century. It was the home of a series of vast social engineering experiments which used mass regimented violence to control the lives of the natives down to the finest detail according to the principles established by the world’s finest bible-inspired pseudo-scientists.

In November 2000, when we arrived, more than 6 years after the ANC came to power and apartheid had formally ended, the winds of change had not yet reached Central Pretoria. It remained fundamentally white – Africans could be seen in the background, travelling on public transport, working in service roles and on building sites here and there, but the elegant 19th century avenues, lined with glorious blooming cheery-blossoms and fancy period coffee houses, galleries and shops seemed to retain an exclusively white clientele. Even all of the fast-food stores were pie-shops – the signature cuisine choice of white South Africa. Everything seemed strangely frozen in the past. I found a quaint old bookshop with a section on African history – it turned out to exclusively consist of apartheid era pseudo-science. In order to defend themselves against charges of stealing other people’s land, the Boers developed the theory that their homeland had been empty when they occupied it – the Bantu had not got there yet. According to their theory, the Zulu Bantu were migrating into the area from the North at the same time as the Boers were coming from the South and hence it was fair game.

In the aftermath of the second world war, the Boers doubled down on the social Darwinian racist pseudo-science that went strongly out of fashion elsewhere after the Nazi holocaust. Explaining away the increasingly rich archaeological evidence of complex Bantu civilizations required that they adopt increasingly idiosyncratic theories. They eventually had to develop an all-encompassing alternative home-brewed schools of social science. All the books available on certain topics were based on theoretical frameworks and assumptions that nobody had taken seriously in the rest of the world for half a century.

We stayed in the Hatfield neighbourhood, near the University, not far from the centre, in a charming old wooden 19th century mansion that had been transformed into a sprawling backpacker lodge – providing the now familiar suite of beer, braais, swimming, videos and assorted entertainments. The nearby Brooklyn mall provided us with access to all the wealth of first world consumer capitalism that we had been missing for the previous year, in an air conditioned, shiny plastic packaging with ample parking out front. Everything was neat, tidy and white. The racist laws had gone but the distribution of wealth remained unchanged. The same rich white people who lived and owned property in Pretoria still largely did. The natives still lived in huge impoverished townships built far outside town. They were now confined by economics and norms rather than racial laws. There were a few indicators that that things were changing: the young African men, wearing grubby bibs, guarding parking spaces offered marijuana for sale without appearing to be worried about the Police at all; white beggars, who looked unkempt, homeless and alcoholic, asking for change on the sidewalks. The white working class had seen many of their benefits cut and were struggling to adjust, but they lived out in the suburbs and, apart from the beggars, didn’t have much of a presence in the city.

Pretoria is a stop on the main Cape to Cairo overland backpacker tourist trail. Tourists following the route would typically start in Kenya and make their way overland from Nairobi to Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, Arusha, Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar, Malawi, Victoria Falls, Pretoria and Cape Town, with some variation. Many of the people who do this route take part in a pre-organised tour with a special purpose dedicated vehicle. A determined few make their own way by public transport and stay in backpacker hostels along the way. By this stage we had been in the region for several months and started to recognise some of the familiar faces of solo overlanders from previous backpacker hostels. Matt from Australia, who had been in our camp in Pemba, Mozambique, was here again in Pretoria. So were the O’Dea brothers – the fifth time we had crossed their paths. They were a pair of London-Irish brothers in their twenties who we had met at previously in Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar, Blantyre and Harare. They came from a strongly Irish nationalist family in London and had inherited the cultural traits of liking beer and banter, but had obviously English accents – they naturally had cousins in Munster who used to torment their English ways on visits home.

II The North East

Much of South Africa’s public infrastructure is an order of magnitude more developed than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Paved highways link all the major and minor population centres and modern multi-lane motorways connect the heartland around Johannesburg and Pretoria. Even though the country is huge and the distances are vast, it is possible to travel around efficiently by car and reach more or less anywhere you want to go in a reasonable amount of time.
From Pertoria we toured the rural regions to the North and East of the city. Things had changed little from the apartheid era – black towns and settlements were distinct and notably impoverished. The major town of Potgietersberg was reminiscent of a plantation town from the antebellum US South – agricultural supply businesses with white customers and black helpers loading the goods onto trucks – although the pie-shops gave it a distinctly local touch. The apartheid regime was firmly convinced of the edifying benefits of the great outdoors and it invested significant money in making the country’s natural wealth accessible to the ordinary white citizen. The area between Pretoria and the Mozambique border was a particularly popular outdoors destination. The edge of the highveld plateau drops away to the East of the city into a great escarpement valley filled with lakes, rivers and natural pursuits. Charming folksy rural tourist attractions such as pubs build inside baobab trees and horse-riding ranches attempt to attract the passing motorist with billboard displays.

Route Taken – Full Map

Beyond the escarpment lies the Kruger National Park, within which large herds of diverse African wildlife roam freely across a vast area the same size as Wales. As in Zimbabwe, the government invested significant money in facilitating public access to the park. There are well-maintained roads which allow one to travel throughout the park in an ordinary city car. The campsites have restaurants, cafes and huge supermarkets with cold beer rooms and ubiquitous braaing facilities – they offer inexpensive rondevals, cabins, camping and a wide range of inexpensive nature-related activities. Some of them are situated in breath-taking locations, overlooking huge cliffs with wildlife-packed plain beneath, or with waterfalls and pools full of hippos fighting with one another. In contrast to the parks in Zimbabwe, Kruger was doing a lively trade – many large families were clearly taking an annual holidays together. The clientele were mainly white but not particularly well off. Black guests were more visible here than in Central Pretoria – perhaps 10% of the clientele were African families. Accessing the park required a car and although from our point of view it was exceedingly cheap – about $15 per day for a highly comfortable and enjoyable safari trip – this remained far beyond the budget of the large majority of the black population.

III Jo’burg

Johannesburg's Ponte City: 'the tallest and grandest urban slum in the  world' – a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 33 | Cities | The Guardian

Johannesburg was completely different – it had changed a lot. We found this out the hard way. Our guidebook told us that Jo’burg’s backpacker hostels were all located in an inner city suburb called Yeoville, around Rocky St, a commercial strip full of fashionable cafes and bars. The hostel that we selected didn’t seem exist at the advertised address when we got there – we later learned that it had recently closed having been held up repeatedly by armed gangs. We found another nearby, Rocky St. Backpackers, and checked in there. It was similar to the hostels that we had stayed in before with a couple of exceptions. Firstly security was a big deal – everything was double locked and we were quickly given an introduction to security culture and how we should react if intruders happened to take over the premises. Secondly, the atmosphere was even more alternative than usual – a group of guests were doing magic mushrooms in the lounge and offered us some as we went out to take a tour of the neighbourhood. We declined.

It turned out that our guide book recommendations were a few years out of date. The neighbourhood had undergone rapid slumification in the three years since it was published. There were still premises of hostels and tourist café’s but most of them were now boarded up, the businesses having closed or departed for the safety of the suburbs. The commercial strip had been taken over by seedy strip clubs, cheap booze shops and street drug-dealing. The area had become known for gun crime – and everybody had their own tale of a neighbourhood hostel getting held up by gangs with guns, with all the guests being subjected to horrific ordeals. Some of the hostels were apparently averaging one hold up per month. There were now only a few left and they were also heading down-market. Walking around the neighbourhood, our white skin and tourist sheen made us stand out. We attracted the attention of a shady looking young man who followed us in the distance, with his left hand cradling something inside his jacket. We ducked into a bar and got a beer to try to lose him. When we came out, it was starting to get dark and the groups of young men hanging around were becoming more animated. We turned back towards the hostel – a shadow moved across the road behind us – damn, the guy was still there. We strode as swiftly as we could until we got to the side-street that our hostel was located on and broke into a run as soon as we turned the corner. As we ducked off the road into the safety of the hostel we saw him running round the corner after us.

The morning after we arrived, we walked from our hostel into the city centre. This time we got trailed by a pair of men, who persisted in following us across town. The disquieting thing was that it was difficult to know what to do – the muggers did not seem to be put off by the presence of witnesses. We eventually managed to flag a taxi to escape. Although our hostel was located close to the city centre, which is pretty compact, we thereafter gave up trying to walk around the city. It was too nerve-wracking – a cloud of desperation and malice hung over the streets. Gunshot was a common sound in the evenings. Municipal services had collapsed locally, overflowing bins spewed garbage onto the ground. Bars blared aggressive dancehall on distorted bass speakers to compete for the custom of the gamblers, pimps, hustlers, drug-dealers and drunks who lingered in small groups on the sidewalk. The tabloids were full of leery stories about gruesome murders.

In the 1980s, when they realised that the game was up, the apartheid regime started to relax some of the more extreme racial laws – in particular those that prevented people of different races from living in the same area. This came after a long period during which the regime had taken huge efforts to keep the races physically apart: in the 1950s, entire city neighbourhoods were bulldozed if they had mixed race inhabitants. The first areas to become reintegrated were the inner-city Jo’burg suburbs of Observatory, Hillbrow and Yeoville, where we were staying. They became the centre of bohemianism in South Africa – a little mixed race community near the university, known for hipster cafes, art galleries and backpacker hostels. Once the full apartheid police-state legal apparatus started to dissolve itself in the 1990s, these neighbourhoods were the bridge into the city for black people – both those coming from the remote townships and newly arrived immigrants. The combination of a sudden relaxation of policing and security, with a rapid influx of poor people into a relatively affluent neighbourhood created a high crime environment. Those who could afford to leave did so, creating a generalised migration of wealth to remote suburbs with privatised security. After a tipping point was reached with enough departures, the neighbourhoods quickly collapsed into extreme slum conditions. This had happened within the three years since our guidebook had been published. Some of the streets in Observatory were lined with beautiful 1920s mansions on handsome plots and had until recently been the fashionable homes of Jo’burg architects or frat houses for the university. Now they were half-ruined squats and crack-houses – bought up by slum lords who were reputed to be making bigger profits this way than before.

South Africa was and remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. At the heart of this is the historical fact that imperial powers and white settlers took all the valuable land and mineral rights and kept the non-white population, the big majority, in a state not dissimilar to slavery where they were forbidden from having any wealth at all. One way that they did this was to massively control the movement of people – with regulations and police-checkpoints designed to keep the African rabble away from the wealthy white people in the cities. The apartheid regime did its best to turn the entire country into a concentration camp for the natives. Africans were allocated to a ‘tribal’ homeland, called a Bantustan, using the finest nonsense pseudo-scientific principles, then deported to that region where they formed a surplus labour pool, policed by tribal chiefs who were effectively thugs armed by the state. When African workers were needed to work in cities, they were compelled to live in purpose built townships – vast housing estates for natives – built at great distances from the centre, with only a single small access road, passing through multiple fortified security walls, between it and the city. By concentrating the native population into these great centres, the state could take advantage of its monopoly on modern weaponry to efficiently keep the natives securely contained in their townships and homelands so that the wealthy whites could sleep securely in their beds at night. They didn’t have to worry so much about security within native areas. South Africa’s post-war housing projects were all designed with the paramount goal of allowing the authorities to lock the gate securely and keep the trouble inside if the natives got out of hand.

The deal to end apartheid removed the state’s ability to use racist pass laws and other legal means to arbitrarily control people’s movements. It did nothing to change the extremely unequal distribution of wealth. It also greatly reduced the amount of policing resources effectively available to protect the wealthy from crime – since it was no longer acceptable to devote 90% of the policing budget to protecting the 15% of white people. Pay and conditions for security service personnel also effectively declined significantly since the myriad perks and benefits for white workers were eliminated. Poorer, working class white communities were particularly hard hit – their social security and protected jobs rapidly disappeared and they emigrated in significant numbers to Canada and Australia.

The deal to end apartheid set in motion a generalised change in the physical organisation of South African society. Accessible, public, central, civic spaces that had been dominated by wealthy white people came to gradually have more black inhabitants by weight of numbers overcoming social norms. Great disparities of wealth in close proximity led to increased crime which led to white flight. The society reconfigured towards a high-crime, high-inequality, low public-service norm, with the wealthy living in suburban enclaves protected by private security forces. As a settler society, born amongst frontier rifle men, South Africa is also the country in Africa where weapons have most proliferated and are easiest to acquire – it developed a sizable defence and arms manufacturing industry during the apartheid boycotts. In virtually all other African countries, firearms are very tightly controlled by the state and are very difficult to acquire – that’s why the rebels often have machetes. It has always been an unwritten rule, however, that white people in Africa cannot be prevented from having guns and since South Africa has by far the largest white population – about 5,000,000 – it has by far the most guns. Put all this together in the 1990s and we had a recipe for a very unstable and violent period while the society physically reconfigured itself for the new reality – made all the more difficult by the fact that the old police state logic was cast into the concrete of the nation’s built environment.

In 2000, Jo’burg was rapidly going through this ugly transformation. Grisly murders filled the news. While we were in the city a revered professor at the Witwatersrand university was kidnapped at gunpoint from the downtown Witstwaterrand campus, tortured, robbed, murdered and had his mutilated body dumped on the street. Most of the violence was, of course, confined to the townships and shanty-towns and that received little attention, but the true life ordeals of respectable victims was a genre with mass appeal. Many of the South Africans blamed the influx of refugees from the war in the DRC for much of the violence – and there was certainly something to this, lots of war-traumatised immigrants congregated in poverty stricken inner cities can’t help matters. However, the violence and the guns was all home-grown – a consequence of the extreme inequality and violence of South African society. Eventually, by 2010, all the central public civic spaces in the cities became Africanized, through weight of population, but it had only happened in the biggest cities by 2000. It is surprising how long the change took – economics, culture and norms maintained the barriers after the legal and security regime had been removed.

IV Zabalaza Books

Zabalaza Books

The South African Workers Solidarity Federation had been close ideological ally of our group, the Workers Solidarity Movement, in the international anarchist movement. The previous year, however, they had dissolved the WSF. They were now using two cultural brands as fronts for their activities – one called Zabalaza Books and the other called the Bikisha Media Collective. Lucien, one of their members who I had known on email for a number of years lived in Jo’burg and when we called him, he offered to pick us up and show us around. He lived and socialised in an area called Melville which was a fashionable well-to-do multi-cultural suburb with streets lined with cafes and restaurants, far enough out of the city to be still insulated from crime. For its residents, Jo’burg was a very car-oriented city – similar in layout to many North American cities – the city sprawled out to the North with many suburbs being accessible only by car. The culture of the middle class white urban dwelling Jo’burgers has always been quite disconnected from that of the African masses – it differs little than that of middle class urbanites anywhere.

Lucien gave us a political tour of the city along with his girlfriend Nicky and the other members of the local anarchist group, Aubrey and Mandy. They took us to the Workers Bookshop that they were involved in running. Zabalaza books was publishing anarchist political material and distributing it through the bookshop. It was situated right in the heart of the city near the apartheid museum. It was housed in a beautiful old stone building left over from the mineworks and contained a full house of leftist and anarchist literature with a focus on the trade union movement – it was funded by COSATU as part of their education efforts. The anarchists were also involved in an initiative called the Anti-Privatisation Forum, a coalition that brought together the major trade unions and left wing political groups. In the epoch when the ANC government came to power, neo-liberal economics was in the ascendant – the standard package of the IMF and World Bank involved cuts in public spending and privatisation of services. The ANC was under pressure to deliver some concrete benefits to their support base in the townships but they had very limited funds available. The left and the trade unions feared that the government would turn to privatization as a means of funding their social programs. The left felt that this would exacerbate inequality and make matters worse and were strongly in favour of taxation and Keynesian state spending to improve the economic conditions of Africans. The APF was a political block that came together to agitate against the privatization agenda the ANC was suspected of having agreed with the international institutions. The meeting took place in a classroom in Witwatersrand with a fine view over the city. It was much the type of political committee meeting that one might find anywhere – discussions of strategy, events and publications. Maybe 7 or 8 trade unions and two Trotskyist parties, armed as ever with party newspapers for sale, were represented along with the anarchists. The communist party were excluded – they were beyond the pale, considered too close to the ruling ANC and too economically neo-liberal! Notably, only 2 or 3 of the attendees were white.

The following day the unions held a protest rally downtown – tens of thousands of municipal workers turned out to listen to angry speeches from a stage that had been specially erected for the event. Afterwards boisterous groups of union members and large groups of police taunted and chased one another through town. Nicky and Mandy brought us on a revolutionary tour to visit Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto and showed us the locations of the key events in the Soweto uprising. The house was tidy and pleasant – a four room bungalow with a porch at the front and a small garden at the back – similar to a house in a housing estate in Ireland, with everything miniaturised a little and packed in like sardines in endless rows – 2 million residents are reputed to live within the confines of Soweto alone.

South African anarchism had been born during a turbulent time. The first few anarchists in the modern era emerged in the 1990s when apartheid was coming to an end. They were white, educated, middle class and were either based in the university or came to anarchism from punk culture. After establishing the Workers Solidarity Federation, they made significant efforts to organise in the black community. This was a time of large popular movements in the townships expressing increasing frustration at the slow pace of reforms. The anarchists recruited a large membership in a couple of townships as part of the squatters rights movement that was agitating throughout the country. These new members generally joined on the basis of activism rather than deep ideological commitment and it proved difficult for the anarchist founders to mould their members into the political organisation that they sought to build. The group that they had built during the squatters campaign then became politically fragmented with the rise of anti-immigrant movements in the townships. The anarchists eventually came to the conclusion that it was better for them to try to influence politics indirectly through culture and by acting behind the scenes through broad fronts rather than attempting mass recruitment directly.

V The Gold Mines

A great slag heap from the original Witwatersrand gold-mine towers over the warehouses that surround the Workers Bookshop in downtown Jo’burg. The city is built around the physical frame of the Witwatersrand, white water ridge, which housed the world’s greatest ever gold deposit. The South West of the modern city centre is a mining landscape of great slag heaps and basins that have been scooped out of the ridge. The gold mines played a central role in the formation of the city, the country and the scramble for Africa.

Radioactive city: how Johannesburg's townships are paying for its mining  past | Cities | The Guardian

The great global imperial conflicts of the 18th and early 19th century had already amply demonstrated that conflicts between the great powers would be primarily decided by resources and supply chains – the amount of gold, coal, oil, iron, copper, timber and so on that each side could mobilise to feed armies which were now numbering in the millions. All the European powers had access to more or less the same ideas, technologies, techniques and they copied each other intensely. The European great powers didn’t care about Africa or its resources for their own sake, they cared about them because they could help them to beat one another in the great game. The scramble for Africa was driven by the great powers seeking to monopolise Africa’s resources so that they could use them to feed their wars against one another. Whenever war started between the great powers, the natural resources of each empire were directed exclusively to imperial victory, while enemies were cut off from all imperial supplies for the duration of the conflict. This proved decisive in both world wars of the twentieth century – the Germans were always doomed to lose by balance of raw materials.

The succession of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Prussia in 1888 represented the seizure of power by an elite faction based on the Prussian landowning warrior nobility – the Junkers. They also wanted to play the great game and have world empires like their English cousins. In the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war, the unification of Germany and the German industrial revolution, the nationalistic militaristic Junkers had the cultural wind at their backs. They used the succession of Wilhelm to side-line Bismark and the traditional policy of maintaining a European balance of power in favour of competing with the British navy and colonial empire overseas. German activity in Southern Africa introduced an independent supply chain of modern military technology into the region, disrupting Britain’s monopoly. This contributed to two unprecedented defeats for the British, first against the Zulu at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 and then defeat in the first Boer war in 1880-81. It turned out that the various mystical and cultural advantages of British civilization evaporated when the other side also had guns.

Shares of gold mine waste retreatment firm surges 28% - MINING.COM

When gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand in 1884, the Boers started using the taxation revenue to buy more arms from the Germans. This set both nations on a path that led inexorably to war with the British empire. Gold had always been the number one goal of European exploration and in the era of the gold standard, control of the supply of gold was of particular strategic importance to a commercially oriented world empire like Britain. With the compounding importance of the industrial revolution, a number of other minerals were taking on increasing strategic significance to the great powers: oil, steel, copper and a variety of other raw materials became critical components of wartime production pipelines.

The gold mines of Johannesburg quickly attracted large numbers of immigrant labourers from all over the world, especially from elsewhere in Southern Africa. The gold rush of the 1880s rapidly increased the population to a point where it outweighed the farming Boer population to the north. The miners were a mongrel bunch of migrant labourers who were much more culturally and linguistically aligned with the multi-cultural British empire than the pious, white supremacist, fundamentalists who held political power in the Boer Republics. The British generated a persistent media narrative alleging that the miners were being culturally oppressed by the Boers. They used this to foment an uprising by the miners in 1895 which would trigger an intervention by the British. The plot – known as the Jameson raid – went disastrously wrong when the revolt failed to materialise and the Boers rounded up the invading British force. This setback merely delayed the inevitable. Kaiser Wilhelm sent a telegram to the Boer leader Kruger, congratulating him for having survived the invasion, and within a week the focus of the narrative had changed to outrage at ‘German interference’ in Britain’s sphere of influence in Africa. The diplomatic embarrassment of the illegal failed invasion had been forgotten. When the British eventually forced war with the Boers in 1899, they did not enjoy their customary advantage in military technology. The British could not match the Boers guerrilla tactics with their well-armed sniping light cavalry units. They suffered many gruesome defeats attempting to dislodge Boer armies – such as at the Spion Kop – a hill which gave its name to the main terrace of Liverpool Football club after so many Liverpudlian troops were killed there, mowed down by Boer sharp-shooters.

Boer War | National Army Museum

None of this made any difference to the outcome – it was an Empire against a small republic. The British mobilised more than 500,000 troops from across the empire to suppress a revolt by a settler population that numbered only 250,000. They stopped trying to defeat the Boers in battle and contented themselves with starving them into submission. The great imperial bureaucratic machine rounded up the population into concentration camps in which 27,000 died. in three years the Boers were broken and their Republics were dissolved into the Union of South Africa, part of the British Empire.

The conquest of the Boers in 1902 brought the British to the verge of victory in the scramble for Africa – their dominance of the transportation infrastructure through their Cape to Cairo axis gave them control of the majority of the continent’s natural resources. Germany was the only power that could disrupt this monopoly, but Germany had the vulnerability that all Britain’s European rivals had – land borders. From at least the 1880s onwards, Britain’s imperialist leading lights were single-minded in their efforts to diplomatically isolate Germany. They constructed a series of European alliances that inexorably precipitated a general conflagration. Germany’s Empire was smashed to pieces in a two-front war and Britain emerged triumphant in Africa, with no rivals remaining to dispute the empire’s control of the bulk of the continent’s natural resources – a situation which would remain stable for a century at least.

Throughout their African empire, the British used the same public private partnership model to exert control of the flow of minerals from their territories. The British South African Company was a chartered private company that served as a front for the crown. It was a vehicle that allowed the crown to finance imperialist adventures overseas with public money by raising funds on the stock exchange rather than asking parliament. In practice, it was used for raising mercenary armies and building infrastructure on behalf of the state with some plausible deniability and limitation of liability. Personnel flowed freely between the chartered company and the various offices of the crown and imperial administration. Financially it was built to fail – it took on infrastructural projects that would never be commercially viable – it would always, however, always be bailed out by the state and taken over by the empire if it failed – it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

De Beers Group rough diamond sales for Cycle 1, 2021 – De Beers Group

The second type of commercial fronts that the empire used were the mineral conglomerate cartels. These were informal public private partnerships which focused on acquiring overall control of the vertically integrated supply chain for particular resource extraction industries. They leveraged the financial strength of the major London based international financiers – Rotschild, Baring, Lazard, JP Morgan – and the inside track of the imperial administration and were actively supported by imperial infrastructural investment. They followed the mineral prospectors, buying up the best licenses, railway operators, wholesalers, suppliers and even the housing industries and tool manufacturers involved. They bundled these vertically integrated suites of businesses into corporate form – pre-wrapped cartels. They were agents of imperial policy rather than simply vehicles for generating profits for shareholders. Cecil Rhodes first rose to prominence when he was talent-spotted by London financiers during the diamond rush in Kimberley. They provided him with the finance and political backing to build the DeBeers diamond company in the 1870s into a cartel which controlled the world’s market for diamonds – as it still does today. Similar conglomerates were constructed for other minerals – AngloAmerican for gold, RioTinto for copper. Those conglomerates and their control of resources and the infrastructure of extraction proved to be by far the most resilient tool of imperial control – unaffected by independence and untouchable by national politics.

In the first half of the 20th century Johannesburg grew into the capital of Britain’s African mineral empire – providing financial services and logistical support to the industry across the continent. It also increasingly became the regional manufacturing centre – supplying cars, machinery and other basic manufactured goods to the Southern and Eastern parts of the continent. South Africa’s economy was heavily integrated with the minerals and markets of the rest of the continent, via the transportation infrastructure along the Cape to Cairo axis. The Boers were, however, not content with growing wealthy as Britain’s tame agents and were deeply embittered by the brutality of their conquest. Within the colony, they fought an unrelenting demographic and cultural war for the soul of the settler population against the English, who continued to send new settlers until the 1960s. Every morsel of self-rule that was granted was immediately used to enact white supremacist laws which served to effectively reimpose slavery on the native population in one way or another. By the 1930s, they had won over the bulk of the settler population to a staunchly white-supremacist position – based on the shared fear of a native uprising. In the aftermath of the second world war, with the rise of the UN and human rights, South Africa’s settlers took an extreme turn in the opposite direction and started bulldozing their racial hierarchy into the infrastructure of the modern nation state. However, no matter how fast they reproduced, the Boers could not match Johannesburg’s thirst for native labour. The white population peaked at 20% in 1920 and reduced progressively to 10% over the next century as the mines and factories of Jo’burg drew African labour from across the region.

Book review: Selling Apartheid – South Africa's Global Propaganda War

As they became increasingly isolated, militarised and paranoid about the long term demographic trends in favour of the natives, the South African settler state increasingly tried to assert its independence from British control. The coming to power of the National Party in 1948 established apartheid as the governing principle. However, their economy remained heavily dependent on providing services to the whole region – alone they were just a few million settlers with a mining and farming colony. When the winds of change blew in the 1960s and Britain started granting independence to its other African colonies, insisting on non-racist constitutions, this was perceived as a huge threat in Pretoria. They knew that newly independent African nations would quickly move to close their markets to a white supremacist neighbour. They provided financial, military and political support to white-supremacist settler regimes throughout the continent fighting against independence movements. They responded to the success of independence movements by launching terrorist wars against the native population across the region. From the early 1960s to 1990, when they finally withdrew from Namibia, South African armed forces were constantly involved in internationally condemned wars throughout the region – casually launching major military operations across their neighbours’ borders whenever they felt like it. When their Portuguese ally collapsed in 1975, their army intervened directly in Angola and was only halted by the intervention of the Cuban armed forces. Their proxies destroyed mineral transportation infrastructure elsewhere to increase dependence on South African ports – the railway from Katanga in DRC to the port at Benguela in Angola was closed in 1975 (as it remains) and the railway lines to the ports in Mozambique were frequently destroyed during its civil war.

A brief chronicle of apartheid | Africa | DW | 23.04.2014

As the tide of independence rolled inexorably forward, the South African regime increasingly turned to right-wing militarist cold-war adventurism for political and financial support, recasting their white-supremacism as anti-communism. The regimented, paranoid, militarised state was largely successful in subjugating the native population of South Africa. Targeted massacres at Sharpeville and Soweto were successful in quelling popular agitation and the state security and intelligence services managed to effectively prevent armed resistance movements from having any significant impact in South Africa. However, in the rest of the region they could not stem the tide – with Zimbabwean independence in 1980, South Africa was the last white-supremacist settler state on the continent, increasingly cut off from the regional markets and mines that its economy depended upon. Johannesburg risked losing its regional hegemony – the big imperial mineral concerns could route their exports to East African ports via the great lakes. The TAZARA railway opened in 1975 linking the copper belt to Dar Es Salaam and Mozambiquan ports started coming back online as the civil war faded. With the big mineral concerns threatening to abandon South Africa and move their financial operations to London, the apartheid regime was finally forced to surrender and return to the imperial fold. The white working class were sacrificed – their racial privileges and perks were jettisoned and public services became diluted across a larger population. However, after a century of policies designed to increase the economic divide between racial groups, removing the racial barriers left a bitterly and deeply divided society where 80% of the population were starting out with zero wealth, with the whole physical organisation of the country designed to keep it that way. Ultimately, the settler political elite abandoned their cherished white supremacy to maintain their wealth while leaving a social scenario in which crime and decay were the only available means of wealth redistribution.

The shock of the end of apartheid and the reduction of state support for the white population led to significant white flight during the 1990s. However, once the shock was absorbed, the population stabilised at about 10% – the only substantial population of European settlers left on the continent. Their survival as a group remains somewhat tenuous, however. As long as they are separated by a huge economic chasm from the bulk of the native population, they remain vulnerable to political shocks such as have occurred elsewhere on the continent.

VI Cape Town

Cape Town is separated from the rest of the population centres in South Africa by a huge desert which covers the whole Western half of the country. The 1,400km drive from Jo’burg is easily covered in two days driving – a long, straight road through endless arid scrub passing through the occasional dusty settlement. The thin coastal strip around Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate, unique in Africa, which gives it an ecosystem with many flora and fauna that are found nowhere else. Cape Town also has a physical setting that is hard to beat. The city is moulded to the contours of a great mountainous peninsula which juts out into the Atlantic. Behind the city, a great flat-topped table mountain, blooming with flowers and forests, looms in the background, with buildings tumbling down its slopes to the waterfront and the downtown skyscrapers below.

The core of the Downtown area is a slightly crumbling 1970s central business district with commuters and office blocks and wide roads full of traffic and little else. The most memorable feature is a motorway ramp right in the heart of downtown that goes nowhere, a road project that was abandoned when the two ends of a road bridge turned out not to meet up properly. The gridded city streets continue up the slopes of the mountain behind the business district. Some of the early buildings from the period when the Dutch East Indies company controlled the city still stand on the slopes and these historical neighbourhoods contain many restaurants, cafés and bars. Long Street is the centre of city nightlife – it offers safari restaurants serving 10 different types of antelope in atmospheric 18th century Dutch buildings with many choices of venue for cocktails and sundowners on the rooftops and balcony cafes that line the street. The intimacy of the neighbourhood and the large number of venues and customers provides some sense of security. However, it remains an environment in which it is difficult to relax properly – drug dealers and hustlers mingle with the crowds and there are enough stories about shootings and muggings in the newspapers to keep one slightly on edge when walking the public streets.

The Waterfront area has been developed as an alternative, privatised downtown shopping area – a modern entertainment and shopping complex constructed on a platform built out into the sea in front of the city. It is physically segregated from the rest of the city, accessible by car, and serves as a secure contained environment for stress free consumerism. It is pleasant and convenient and has a spectacular setting, at the cost of any sense of place – an open air mall with more or less generic international consumer branding. The big attraction is being able to go to the cinema or the bar and not having to stay alert. We drove to the Waterfront, parked in the multi-storey carpark, wandered around, ate seafood dinner, watched a Ken Loach movie and drove back to park in our lodgings without requiring any contact with the great unwashed or public space at all.

The South African anarchists from Zabalaza books also had a branch in Cape Town. Lucien had warned us that there were cultural and political differences between the groups. In particular, he characterised the Cape Town anarchists as being more ‘lifestylist’ and counter-cultural in orientation than his group which was more ‘class struggle’ oriented. We got in touch by telephone when we arrived and, the day after our Waterfront visit, we drove out to meet Shane and Craig in the Observatory neighbourhood just outside the city centre, near the University, where a community festival was taking place that day. They had organized a demo against McDonalds – with an anti-corporate and animal welfare message – and were holding a banner in front of the drive-through and handing out leaflets to customers. We helped them with the leaflets for an hour or so before we joined more of their friends, Walton, Alan and Matt, roaming around the festival listening to music and drinking.

Deirdre and Walton

The Cape Town anarchists had been introduced to anarchism through punk rock music and the counter cultural world of squats and fanzines which were starting to become accessible over the Internet. The focus of their political action was very directly inspired by what they read about the international anti-globalisation movement online – the McDonalds brand and logo was a symbol of faceless corporate capitalism which often proved an irresistible target for anti-globalisation protestors in Europe and the US who liked to deface and trash McDonalds restaurants during protests. The political symbolism did not, however, translate successfully. In Africa McDonalds is an exotic and rare foreign brand which does not impact upon the consciousness of the population in any way. Few of the customers seemed to understand the protest or its choice of target. It also seemed rather abstracted away from the immediate problems that population was facing, the majority of whom could not afford to eat in McDonalds. Having spent an hour handing out anti-meat leaflets to drive-through customers, I was not shy in expressing my critical feedback during the subsequent beer-drinking. They acknowledged the limited appeal of the protest somewhat sheepishly and failed to offer much of a defence. It was difficult not to sympathise with their predicament, however, the social problems of the country seem so vast and intractable that it is hard to know where to start. A vast economic and cultural chasm separates the majority of the population from the educated urban political intellectuals.

Showing admirable tolerance for my materialist doctrinaire critiques of his group’s political actions, Shane took myself and Deirdre on a hiking tour covering the whole peninsula, starting with Table Mountain itself. Numerous walking trails run up the slopes of the mountain from different parts of the city, allowing one to walk up to the flat topped area where one can enjoy a view of the whole city and peninsula stretching out on all sides. The mountain slopes host a unique African alpine flora with many species that exist nowhere else. Clouds often linger over the top of the mountain due to its micro-climate, producing a wonderful table-cloth effect. Finally, our trips through the peninsula took us further South. The rugged landscape of the peninsula contains a wealth of different communities, in close physical proximity but separated by the landscape. Upmarket beach suburbs in secluded bays full of sports cars sit next to sprawling shanty towns. Simons Town in the South of the peninsula contains a beach where penguins live – another feature of the area that is unique in Africa. We had lunch in the town and a swim in the sea afterwards. I fell asleep and when I woke up two baby penguins, wrapped up in huge balls of fluffy feathers, were standing over me, looking curiously at me. After lunch, just a few more kilometres South brought us to the Cape of Good Hope national park. A couple of kilometres walk through the park and we were finally there – after almost 13 months we had made it all the way from the Western most point in Senegal to the Cape of Good Hope. It had been a most educational and entertaining journey.

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