A tale of two towns

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 June 2007

Two towns are currently taking shape, more or less at the opposite ends of Africa, although one is just into Asia. About as far south as you can go, and a few miles to the east of Cape Town lies Heritage Park. Development started here in 1996 and a decade later there are 1,500 residents in 650 new houses, as well as two churches, two schools and quite a substantial complex of factories and other businesses.

Another 800 houses will be built on the 500 acres of what was originally a farm and vineyard, where there will soon be 6,000 residents. The development is expected to be very popular with buyers, situated as it is close to the beach and with a backdrop of attractive mountain scenery. Indeed, some of the business premises were resold within six months of purchase with 45% mark-ups. As the developers put it: "The natural beauty of the area will not suffer as existing woodlands and mountain streams will be retained while landscaping and beautification around the developments will ensure a pleasing environment."

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001.

Elsewhere in the marketing literature the developers enthuse about that environment: "Throughout the town there are several clear mountain streams which have been left to provide a major feature of the town. In the centre of Heritage Park a dam has been stocked with trout and hundreds of water birds have adopted the lake as their sanctuary". The internal environment of Heritage Park is matched by its location: "Added to the beauty of the immediate surroundings are the vast and stunning views of blue tinged mountains with wine farms nestling into their folds and the soft golden beaches of False Bay only a few kilometres away."

A key part of the Heritage Park concept is the provision of enlightened schooling centred on an international school located within the development. This will take 3-year old children into a nursery school which will feed into a primary school, in turn leading on to a high school through to the age of 18, the whole complex eventually having 900 students. Residents of Heritage Park could see their children educated entirely within the town, and the character of the school is expected to be hugely attractive to those prospective parents:

"The unique blend of the School's philosophy of internationalism; the ethos of Christian love and care which underpins its discipline and relationships; the internationally respected and recognized broad and balanced curriculum based on the UK National Curriculum and leading to University of Cambridge IGCSE and A level certification has proved to be a recipe attractive to both citizens and overseas visitors alike."

It is clear that Heritage Park is intended to be something pretty close to a utopia.

A model community

Several thousand miles to the north, just across Sinai and into the heart of the middle east, another town is fast taking shape. This is Baladia, and - as it nears completion by the end of 2007 - it is already looking remarkably like a typical Arab town of the region. Like Heritage Park, it is being built entirely from scratch, although on desert scrub rather than a former vineyard. It is also similar in size to its South African counterpart, with 1,100 buildings when complete, and is costing about $45 million.

Baladia will have all the features typical of the region, with a town centre, shops, a grand mosque and hospital and even an old-style casbah quarter with five-foot thick walls. Miles of paved main streets, narrow side-streets and a sports field will all help make the inhabitants feel at home. Indeed, one could almost imagine people from some of the refugee camps in the neighbourhood moving straight into Baladia and seeing it as a blessed relief from their poverty and deprivation. In a few months time, there really will be plenty of people around, including young women in their keffiyeh, shopkeepers, humanitarian aid-workers and even the media.

What sort of heritage?

In practice, neither Heritage Park nor Baladia are quite what they seem. Each, in its own way, could even be seen as a metaphor for the wider world. Take Heritage Park first. It certainly is intended to be a haven of peace and tranquillity, not least because of one key feature - the entire development is surrounded by what is described as a six-foot high fence with "an attractive palisade style" - except that it is less than attractive to potential intruders, being electrified to 33,000 volts. The Heritage Park website says proudly: "We have taken a leaf or two out of the medieval past and placed it in our future. To be precise, we have stolen the concept of whole-town fortification to create a crime-free state."

That "crime-free state" has additional features. Heritage Park has just four entry and exit points, each with security personnel on duty, and residents must have a smart card to pass through, with visitors requiring security clearance. The electrified fence has armed guards on duty every 200 yards, there are optional extra security features in the houses and the whole of the development has surveillance cameras.

Heritage Park is not restricted to any particular ethnic group, although all but fifty of the first 1,500 residents are white. The developers also point out that part of the intention is to improve the economic situation for the many thousands of people who live in overcrowded townships close to the complex. The park itself requires numerous people to work as labourers, maids, cooks, gardeners and security guards, and the developers have even built accommodation for many of these potential employees, although they live beyond the barrier and must have security clearance to get to work.

Nevertheless, Heritage Park is an example, by no means uncommon, of the retreat from disorder and the fear of "the other". It is perhaps unfair to cite this particular example, as the South African government is involved in numerous poverty-reduction initiatives across the country. Instead, it is best to see Heritage Park as one of the results of an economic system that is producing an extraordinary socio-economic divide across the world as the globalised free market produces growth without emancipation.

The extent of that divide is startling and remains largely unrecognised, as does the fact that it has increased markedly in recent decades. The period from 1965 to 1990 was particularly acute - in 1960 the average GNP per capita for the richest 20% of the world's population was thirty times that of the poorest 20%. By 1995 this had widened to sixty times.

More recently, a detailed study from the World Institute for Development Economics Research (Wider), a research and training centre of the United Nations University, has published an analysis of the global distribution of household wealth. By 2000, the richest 10% of the world owned 85% of household wealth whereas the poorest 50% owned barely 1% of the wealth (see James Davies, Susanna Sandstrom, Anthony Shorrocks and Edward N Wolff, "The Global Distribution of Household Wealth", WIDER Angle, 2/2006, World Institute for Development Economics Research, Helsinki).

This "elite" community is both very substantial and not rigidly concentrated in a few geographical areas. While most of the populations of many north Atlantic and west Pacific states belong to it, there are substantial wealthy components of this elite in India, China and Brazil; and most southern countries have smaller numbers of people who belong in the same category. The most immediate effect of these brutal divisions of wealth and poverty is continual marginalisation, ill-health and suffering; but it also leads to insecurity in the form of petty crime and, frequently, a desire to migrate in the hope of an improved standard of living.

Heritage Park may be a local response, but the same pattern is seen on a far larger scale in the fencing off of much of the United States/Mexico border, the Indian proposal to erect barriers along the border with Bangladesh, the European fear of north African migrants, the Australian actions against boat people, and a host of other examples. It is a vain attempt to close the castle gates, but can all too easily lead to desperation and radicalisation - whether this be the Naxalites in India, the Maoists in Nepal or numerous other radical social movements. It even relates to much of the support for movements such as al-Qaida, and it is here that the other town, Baladia, is all too relevant.

Reality bites in the desert

When completed in a few months' time, Baladia really will look like any ordinary Arab town, although it might seem strange to recreate as much as a casbah in a brand new development. The reality is that Baladia will be a town entirely without Arabs, for its full name is the National Urban Training Centre (NUTC) for the Israeli Defence Forces (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "Fake, Flexible City Rises in the Negev", Defense News, 11 June 2006 [subscription only]). All the "Arabs" will actually be Israeli soldiers, even down to the young women in their keffiyeh who will be Arabic-speaking Jewish graduates from Israel's universities; members of the international media and even Red Cross personnel will be played by Israeli soldiers. The entire centre is designed to improve the training of combat troops engaged in urban warfare (see Shelly Paz, "IDF builds fake Muslim city to prepare for war", Jerusalem Post, 22 January 2007).

Moreover, Baladia is not just intended to mirror the West Bank or Gaza, but has a purpose extending across the middle east. The whole scheme is designed with maximum flexibility; and while Baladia is in a landscape akin to that of Gaza, even the hill villages of southern Lebanon or Syria can be recreated there. As the NUTC commander, Brigadier-General Uzi Moskovitch says:

"We have the capabilities to create a realistic representation of where we're most likely to fight. Give me seventy or eighty tractors for a month and I'll recreate the hills and topography of a Lebanese village. It won't be identical but it will be enough to provide the type of realistic training our forces require. It might not be politically correct but we're not pretending here. What looks like a mosque is a mosque. And our people will impersonate Arabs, not the Swiss. We need them to act the way our enemies are likely to fight on their own home turf."

There is one other feature of Baladia which might give further pause for thought. Although it is located in the Negev desert in Israel and will be used initially by the Israeli Defence Forces, it is actually an American project. The entire "town" has been constructed by the United States army corps of engineers and paid for mainly through US military aid to Israel. It will, in due course, become a training centre for the US army and marine corps, readying them for deployment in Iraq or anywhere else in the middle east that US security policy takes them. As General Moskovitch puts it: "This is something developed by us in cooperation with the US Army; we intend for it to become a valuable centre of knowledge that will also benefit our American allies and other friends."

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here.

Paul Rogers's latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament.

In the way that Heritage Park is a defence against disorder and crime, with its enlightened schooling rooted in the Christian ethos of love and care and helpfully protected by 33,000 volts, so Baladia represents a more aggressive response of taking the war to the enemy. Create your enemy's town, and train your troops to attack with much greater effect.

It seems to occur to no one in the US military that just one effect of its commitment to the Baladia project will be to confirm in the minds of people right across the region that the war really is a joint US-Israeli operation. The crude al-Qaida propaganda of the "crusader/Zionist war against Islam" will be so much easier to confirm in the minds of millions. For that reason alone, Baladia is likely to prove as deeply counterproductive as so many other aspects of George W Bush's disastrous war on terror.

Both towns - Heritage Park and Baladia - are symbolic of the elite attitudes of the early 21st century. Heritage Park protects the few from the many and Baladia is yet another example of the imperative to maintain control. In their fundamental superficiality, they are grand evasions of the deeper issues of violence and radicalisation that they are ostensibly designed to address.

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