The fortress city
Our visit to Cape Town and Bloemfontein in April 2017 was my first time in sub-Saharan Africa. It was a fascinating trip and we were made very welcome by our South African collaborators. I was left, however, with an acute sense of dislocation, driven in part by this being my first experience of a country in the Global South. A lot of UK academics are now heading to ODA (‘official development assistance’) countries, driven by a shift in funding streams. This means that many scholars who are not development experts are finding themselves confronted for the first time by the complex challenges of the Global South.
Because of its unique history, South Africa is a fascinating case study of extreme wealth coexisting with dire poverty. On our first morning, we walked around the beautiful V&A waterfront development in Cape Town and the UK team found themselves making comparisons to similar schemes around the world – including, of course, Birmingham’s BrindleyPlace.
The comparison that struck me more, however, was from my visit to Los Angeles in 2013. In City of Quartz (1990), Mike Davis used LA to examine acute segregation within cities (rich, poor, black, white). I’d found LA to be a very uncomfortable place to visit – islands of loveliness surrounded by seas of poverty. Of course, those pleasant parts of LA came at a price – gating, pricing and other mechanisms of restricting entry. In that early work by Davis, LA was very much the archetypal fortress city, showing the future of a planet where the gaps between rich and poor were growing, not shrinking.
My crude impression of South Africa from our very brief visit, was that cities like Cape Town and Bloemfontein are an even more extreme version of Davis’ LA. It was never going to be a quick process undoing the legacy of apartheid but more than two decades on, separation is an inescapable reality of everyday life. Visiting some of the townships and seeing the vast numbers of people living in shacks a short distance from Table Mountain and the CBD was shocking. One of the most striking images for me was the razorwire fencing surrounding the University of the Free State campus at Bloemfontein. For sure, UK university campuses have security measures, but the symbolism of “everything past this line is a threat” was striking.
Now of course this securitisation of space is so shocking to outsiders because it operates at such a small scale – wealth and poverty in close proximity. Visit Calais, however, and you see the 15-foot high razorwire fences around the Channel tunnel, designed to keep the desperately poor from sub-Saharan Africa out of the UK. Life back home is just as dependent on fortification to keep out the global poor, it’s just that on a day-to-day basis we don’t actually see the bars on our cage.