A New Form of Apartheid Taking Hold in Cape Town, Author Says

Posted: August 1, 2011 at 1:01 am, Last Updated: August 1, 2011 at 7:59 am

 By James Greif

Tony Roshan Samara. Photo courtesy of Tony Roshan Samara

The South African government’s crackdown on crime in the name of urban renewal in many ways is reproducing the repressive nature and massive racial and socioeconomic inequalities of life under apartheid, says a Mason expert.

Tony Roshan Samara, Mason associate professor of sociology and anthropology, examines these issues in a new book, “Cape Town after Apartheid: Crime and Governance in the Divided City” (University of Minnesota Press).

Apartheid was a policy of racial segregation initiated in South Africa between 1948 and 1994, involving political, legal and economic discrimination. The policy formally ended with multiracial democratic elections in 1994. However, much of the damage and inequality that these policies caused are still present in today’s South Africa and are noticeable in cities like Cape Town.

Samara is especially interested in Cape Town because it is an internationally known cosmopolitan city of historical significance that is trying to implement a form of urban renewal or revitalization first popularized by New York City in the 1990s.

“Much like New York,” Samara says, “Cape Town is getting tough on crime and reorganizing the city around the needs and interests of more affluent property owners, business owners and residents clustered around the downtown, while providing inadequate support for — or even cutting — services for the vast urban majority outside this relatively small space.”

Managing Poverty, Not Eradicating It

The mostly residential and impoverished areas of Cape Town need jobs, education, safety and health care. Meanwhile, the downtown area tries to maintain an atmosphere that is desirable to large international corporations, tourists and more affluent locals by ridding the area of crime and noticeable poverty.

Samara argues that downtown redevelopment has done little to help most of the city’s residents, despite promises that revitalization of the urban area would generate development for all.

“The primary goal of urban renewal, and the focus on crime specifically, seems to be managing poverty, not eradicating it. Most of the poor — and their problems — are far away from the zones of affluence. This geography is one that many other cities around the world are envious of and are seeking to replicate, whether through gentrification, redevelopment or other forms of displacing the poor from valuable real estate,” he says.

In 2010, South Africa hosted four matches during the FIFA World Cup, including the semifinal, in a newly built 64,000-seat stadium. Samara says hosting an event of this international prestige fit in with the urban redevelopment plans that had already been taking place.

“Many of the changes that occurred downtown were in progress already, but the preparations for the FIFA World Cup helped accelerate them,” he explains. “In fact, one of the incentives for hosting such an event is that it allows city governments to push through controversial policies that otherwise would be difficult to pass. These policies tend to be aimed at transforming or cementing a city’s status as a good investment and an international destination for tourism, conventions and other economic activity that would bring in foreign capital.”

Securing Affluent Spaces and Communities

For the urban poor, however, Samara says the consequences are often grim. Housing is torn down, informal vendors are banished and, in cities with high crime, the tensions between poor communities and the police can rise dramatically.

Samara describes this form of development as “neoliberal governance,” or the application of free market principles to all aspects of society, including the economy, provision of water, health care, education and other social services. All social policies, from drug treatment to education to policing, are filtered through the lens of how it will impact revenue generation. Security in this approach really means securing affluent spaces and communities.

“Neoliberalism is the idea that markets are always better than government, even as market actors use government to advance their own agenda. In this case, the market doesn’t get rid of or even reduce government, it becomes government. And not a very democratic one, I should point out,” Samara says.

“All of this shapes how crime is tackled, and what crimes are prioritized In South Africa’s cities. For example, there has been a genuine and often successful effort to reduce street crime in downtown areas, but a tragic neglect of crimes against women and children in the townships. This kind of duality is a central feature of neoliberal governance,” Samara explains.

Samara became interested in Cape Town from an urban planning and governance perspective after a trip there in 2001.

“I went to South Africa to find out why the new African National Congress-led government was looking to U.S. companies to build private prisons in the country, at a time when these were very controversial in the U.S,” Samara says. “But I ended up becoming much more interested in why this new democracy needed so many prisons and was incarcerating people at higher rates than during apartheid. The reduction of crime was seen as a necessary precursor to development, but the policies repeat many of the inequalities seen under apartheid. It appears that what urban renewal really meant and still means is taking the divisions of the apartheid period and reinforcing them in ways that appear consistent with a democracy.”

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu