A couple of days ago a reader sent us a link to “The Death of Johannesburg”, a blog run by a fellow who calls himself the Real Realist. It’s not just a single blog; it’s a series of photo galleries set up as separate blogs to reduce the bandwidth drag for readers who load the pages. When you go over there, you’ll want to click your way through the various gallery links and spend some time browsing through the various photos.
The end of apartheid in South Africa in the early the 1990s was a cause for celebration. After Nelson Mandela became president, and national reconciliation became the order of the day, most of the world’s attention turned elsewhere.
But South Africa didn’t turn into a multi-racial paradise. It hasn’t yet gone the way of Zimbabwe, but there are ominous signs that it is heading in that direction.
The Real Realist has taken it upon himself to document the changes in South Africa as exemplified by the city of Johannesburg. There are few before-and-after photos in his galleries — his effort has been to record the current state of the city. But the damaged, filthy, gutted, and ruined modern buildings speak plainly enough about the decline of the city.
Here’s one of the few before-and-after comparisons:
Joubert Park was one of the first open spaces for Johannesburg’s inner city, proclaimed in 1906 but planned in 1887 and named after Boer War hero, Commandant-General PJ Joubert. It used to be a place where the city council put up Christmas lights, where choirs would sing Christmas carols…
nowadays it’s just a slum with squatters living there…
|We’re used to photos of city life in squalid Third World backwaters: the trash in the streets, the shantytowns, the filth and sewage, disease and poverty and degradation. But these scenes in Johannesburg are startling because the same reduced way of life has been overlaid on a modern and prosperous city only a decade and a half after the end of white rule.
What is arresting here is the idea of what the city used to be, versus what it has become.
|A common sight in these photos is the bricked-up business. Affluence and modern commerce have all but disappeared; that which remains might be called the “bodega economy”, a series of small informal businesses that can be run in questionable neighborhoods with little capital investment, since no one in his right mind would want to risk real money in places like these.
It’s obvious that capital has fled abroad. South Africa has yet to raise up its own version of Robert Mugabe, a thug-dictator who will expropriate what’s left of the country’s prosperity. But much of South Africa’s wealth has departed voluntarily.
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|Many of the high-rise towers in downtown Johannesburg that were once polished and gleaming are now decrepit and filthy, inhabited by squatters, with broken windows and laundry hanging from the formerly fancy balconies. The streets around them are filled with garbage, broken furniture, and abandoned appliances. The businesses that used to occupy the ground floors are gone.
This seems to apply to apartment buildings, office towers, and hotels alike. Unless the owners have somehow managed to successfully barricade their properties, the buildings have all suffered the same fate.
Here’s what the Real Realist has to say about the Carlton Hotel:
It’s easy to bring race into this situation, and I’m sure there are plenty of people, both in South Africa and elsewhere, who see the situation through the prism of race. But I won’t even go there; I don’t think that’s what this is about. Neither black self-government nor a legacy of white racism is what’s responsible.
South Africa stands out because it was the most prosperous country on the continent, but it has hardly been unique in its decline under non-white rule.
Culture plays a large part in the process, as it has all across sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the Third World. The end of colonial rule in Africa left the natives — with no experience in self-government above the tribal level — to their own devices. The predictable results have been poverty, dictatorship, and rampant corruption.
But the primary culprit in the current degradation of Johannesburg is Socialism. It’s important to remember that the ANC is a Marxist organization that enjoyed the patronage of the Soviet Union right up until the fall of Communism. The ANC apparatchiks who have governed South Africa since the end of white rule loathe capitalism and are fond of statist solutions. Like Robert Mugabe, they are indifferent to the general welfare of their own people, and they nurture a form of governance which encourages corruption and dictatorial rule.
The consequences came to Harare first, but Johannesburg is well on its way.