Green Zone Nation: The South African government’s new growth path

Recent flirtations of the ANC with the Chinese model of economic development suggest that South African political elites fall for the erroneous fantasy that social tensions can be bought off with consumer goods

In his February State of The Nation Address, South African president Jacob Zuma presented a new government growth path based on a series of sweeping infrastructural projects, including the creation of five geographically centered development corridors across the country. This has been interpreted as part of an experiment with the Chinese model of state directed capitalism. But while South Africa’s business press has focused on the perceived economic pitfalls of this strategy there has been comparably little discussion of the political and social implications of the government attempting to emulate a regime which has combined a flourishing consumer society with an equally sophisticated police state.

Indeed most criticisms have come from the right, which still regards the ANC as a communist inspired regime despite the continuous neoliberal bent of the party over the last two decades. For example F.W. de Klerk, who as the last president of apartheid South Africa was familiar with the logistical demands of overseeing a police state, recently claimed that the ANC “imagines that it can write off the influence of free market democracies and align itself instead with China, Russia and its friends in Cuba”.

Certainly it is true that in the wake of the ongoing global financial crisis the state is looking away from the recession bound economies of Europe and the US to new markets in China while ANC politicians have established close links with the CPC. Simultaneously the last few years have seen the ratcheting up of the power of the state security apparatus. Most publicly this has been evidenced in the remilitarization of the police force and a resulting climate of heightened intimidation and violence, sometimes fatal, against grassroots activists. These developments have been paralleled by the increased internal deployment of the army as a support to domestic policing. Within the often shadowy world of intelligence, the State Security Agency (SSA) has increased its powers of surveillance and communication interception, along with being one of the key institutional drivers behind the “Protection of Information Bill” which would dramatically reduce public access to government documents. These parallel developments are especially sinister when it is considered how recently democracy was achieved in South Africa. Less than two decades ago the country was governed as a white supremacist national security state, leaving a profound legacy of basal authoritarianism which has not been fully expunged in the post-apartheid period.

But while the state security forces may indeed be impressed with the example of their Chinese counterparts, securitization in contemporary South Africa draws upon promiscuous ranges of influences which relies heavily upon techniques honed in the Global North . For example, the City of Durban has used the apartheid era National Key Points Act to prevent environmental activists from monitoring industrial emissions at its harbor and refinery. Simultaneously, the harbor has been fortified through its inclusion into the US Department of Homeland Security’s Container Security Initiative (CSI) which is intended to create rigorous screening and security zones at foreign harbors before shipping reaches destinations in the United States. Indeed the police service has long been enamored with US innovations. This included the whole scale approbation of such open ended concepts as ‘zero tolerance’ and the ‘war on crime’, police special forces receiving ‘counter-terror’ training from the State Department and the piloting of surveillance hub ‘war rooms’ like those used by the LAPD. And, learning from the example of the ‘war on terror’, the intelligence services have deployed deliberately vague rhetoric about ‘national security threats’ to legitimate the Protection of Information Bill. The inspirations for police crowd control measures are especially cosmopolitan including ‘management’ techniques developed by the French gendarmerie and Israeli-made water cannons.

The government's focus on creating focused nodes of economic development is also cast in a new light by the security mobilizations at major political summits and sporting events which result in the creation of temporary, linked security ‘islands’ throughout host cities. Using a strategy battle tested at the 2010 World Cup, last year’s COP 17 conference in Durban matched concentrated deployments of the police and military through what organizers described as the city's ‘red zone’ with heightened security procedures at airports and the removal of the homeless. The cumulative effect was to ensure that attending political and corporate delegates were constantly insulated in a security cocoon, immune to the ‘ disruptions’ of protest, crime and everyday life.

While such security measures are common throughout the World, South Africa’s security forces are fast becoming experts in rolling out these procedures. But although such monumental events are intended to convey the prestige of the state they also reveal the widening contradictions at the center of the post-apartheid settlement. On one hand, national and urban authorities are financially wealthy enough to underwrite and manage large-scale infrastructure developments and major events. But this has occurred in tandem with the expansion of a state security apparatus increasingly focused on preempting and containing social disruptions in a society characterized by structural unemployment and one of the world’s highest rates of inequality. Centuries of segregated urban development and a long history of internal militarization and pacification were central facets in the creation of an advanced capitalist country with networks of wealth overlapping with zones of poverty and repression. The preoccupation of colonial and apartheid authorities with movement, control and containment are revisited within the security logic of contemporary ‘world class’ planning and events, creating a generalized extension of parallel ‘green’ and ‘red’ zones within cities and throughout the country. This has been compounded by a post-apartheid development strategy that is actively resegregating cities on the basis of class.

But while developments within the ANC-lead government are troubling, this resonates with a wider dissemination of militarization throughout South African society. The opposition DA has proved just as amenable to using draconian clampdowns on protest in its governance of the Western Cape. Urban civil infrastructure also reflects the logic of conflict: for example the much hyped Gautrain rapid transport project in Johannesburg was proudly with a network of CCTV cameras and “Israeli-developed military-grade thermal imaging equipment to protect its assets…. Imported from and endorsed by the Israeli Defense Force’’. South Africa also has one of the largest private security sectors in the world and companies, like the British based G4S, often augment the police in sometimes brutal evictions. Cities and suburbs are characterized by a range of city improvement districts and Ballardian ‘lifestyle estates’, or as the writer Lauren Beukes puts it “gated communities fortified like privatised citadels. Not so much about keeping the world out as keeping the festering middle-class paranoia in”. At the same time the state is increasingly subjecting shack dwellers to often violent and unlawful forced removals to euphemistically titled 'transit camps' outside the cities which, like the notorious Blikkiesdorp in Cape Town, look more like concentration camps than the 'housing opportunities' promoted in government spin.

The chilly implications of the hardening of the state security apparatus stand in stark contrast with the warm rhetoric used to describe the country's future by officials. For example, Minister of Economic Development Ebrahaim Patel called the new infrastructure plan a “bold, strategic and integrated platform to mobilize the state, private investors and the South African public behind a clearly articulated storyline of South Africa's opportunities”. But what is most striking about the new growth path is its assumption that in a world facing a near future of permanent post-growth economies and environmental collapse the current developmental trajectory can be sustained for the next “50 years" with the correct management techniques.

Not only does the infrastructure plan rely heavily on fossil fuels and assume the availability of increasingly scarce resources, but it is also structured by the idea that current economic models can provide a decent life for all, even if it takes half a century when in fact they are continuing to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

 As a discussion paper prepared by the radical NGO Church Land Programme suggests this is a delusory reading of contemporary social reality: “the entire national debate is based on a fantasy: that there will one day be work for all, and everyone will live in a nuclear family”. In this sense the flirtations with the Chinese model offer another kind of fantasy for political elites: that social tensions can be bought off with consumer goods and that “social harmony”, as the CPC puts it, can be managed through coercion. However the emergent reality may be closer to what Aaron Peters has characterized as a state of permanent “crisis management” as the government attempts to fortify an increasingly unstable and unjust social order.

About the author

Christopher McMichael is a post-doctoral researcher at the Wits University School of Architecture and Urban Planning. His current research looks at state power, repression and class warfare.