A stranger in Johannesburg immediately notices serious security measures everywhere. High walls are topped with electrified razor wire. Dogs are visible or audible behind the walls. Signs warn of alarms that will bring “rapid armed response” from one of many thriving security companies. The presence of so much defensive and offensive hardware prompts a question: what’s going on here? South Africans have pondered that question since the late 1940s when apartheid became the country’s official policy. Much has changed since the 1940s and much remains the same. Apartheid was abandoned in 1990, after moral censure and economic pressure from the rest of the world. The country’s first free elections in 1994 brought a black majority government run by the African National Congress, which continues its monopoly on political power. Under ANC leadership, a new black elite emerged, blurring the traditional South African equation of race with class. Recent demographic data from the Human Sciences Research Council shows that “the proportion of people living in poverty in South Africa has not changed significantly” in the post-apartheid years. In fact, “those households living in poverty have sunk deeper into poverty and the gap between rich and poor has widened.”
Each morning black workers stream into commercial and residential areas in large numbers, getting down from trains and buses and vans that serve as collective taxis, setting off on foot, sometimes for long distances, to work. Every afternoon, this process reverses as blacks migrate back to the poor townships and shanty towns where they must live. This strange and troubling ritual feels anachronistic and wrong. But with South Africa’s rate of unemployment above 25 percent (by some estimates, closer to 40 percent), anyone with a source of income, however meager, is not the least fortunate.