Friday, March 30, 2007

Johannesburg

Way back, in early 1886, Johannesburg did not even exist.

In January 1886, Johannesburg was but a field, dull and in effect, useless farmland claimed by a few Boer farmers.

Let's start with the back-story to it all; a bunch of people left the Cape of Good Hope (who much later called themselves "Die Boers" or "the farmers") when they got pissed at the British Empire for abolishing slavery. Deciding to keep their slaves, they packed their bags and dragged themselves into central Southern Africa to establish two smaller states to be known as The Orange Free State and the Zuid Afrikansche Republiek (ZAR ). Beating up any natives they found on the journey, they claimed as much land as they possibly could on their way. This event was later named the "Groot Trek" or Great Trek.

When these Boers left the British colonies, the Brits didn't really bother with them much. A few other states and protectorates were established by the Brits for some of the more restless natives, but beyond Cape Town and Durban they didn't give really give a shit either way.

That is until the 1860's when diamonds where discovered in a field that what was to become known as Kimberley and everything changed.

Now back then diamonds where actually worth something, considerd "rare" and thus valuable. A mad diamond rush took place and a huge mother-fucker hole was dug in what used to be a volcanic pipe, creating what I still believe is the largest man-made hole on the planet. Go there. See it with your own eyes. It is something to behold.

Out of this fandango a couple of geezers got very very very rich (here's where we get people like Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato). Most of the people who arrived didn't make much of a living at all. The folks who did get rich out of this set-up though, managed to get the British Empire to annex the diamond fields, (which was previously owned by the indigenous inhabitants) and set up shop in Kimberley and a far bigger Cape Colony than had ever been imagined.

Problem was, that soon more diamond fields were found, and then some more, until the point that there were just too many diamonds. In fact, in many parts of Southern Africa, diamonds are like pebbles, a dime a dozen, too tha point that there are so many of them that they really are worthless. I really can't stress this point enough, other than to say; DIAMONDS ARE PEBBLES. Ok?!

Anyways, the rich geezers figured the only way the diamonds would be worth anything would be to grab as many diamonds as possible and control the supply.

So say hello to a company called De Beers, which controls the world's diamonds to this day by setting quotas of how many diamonds can be sold. The Russians and the Australians also have oceans of diamonds too, and if they had to sell their diamonds out of their "monopoly quotas" they'd literally have to give them away.

Even today De Beers is still ripping up vast tracts of desert in Namibia to strip what diamonds they can gather in the 'Zum Sperregebeidt' (German for "the forbidden zone") where they have exclusive rights to rip out as many of these stones as they possibly can until 2010 under the original charter issued by the German Government in 18-voetsak. The Namibian people don't get to see a cent of their diamond "wealth". Neither you nor I are allowed into this area, and if you do stray into it by accident, you will be arrested for trespassing and will be body-cavity searched. I'm talking about an area of territory that is far larger and "richer" than Switzerland.

You know the saying 'diamonds are a women's best friend'? And the whole thing about diamond rings being traditional engagement rings? Well, in 1902 De Beers ran that as an advertising campaign in attempt to offload more diamonds out of their ever-growing warehouse. Pretty effective marketing campaign huh?

Tell the love of your life that you want to marry her and give her an over-priced pebble to boot.

Brilliant. Create artificial demand by using sex for your surplus product, that you are already constraining the supply of, in order to maintain price hegemony in your own private monoploy to make even more cash. This is the stuff that textbook captialism is made of.

Anyways, in case you wondering what this has to do with Johannesburg, that was just the intro. Meanwhile back at the ranch, in March 1886, some dude called George Harrison (not related to the Beatle) stumbled, literally, across some gold in a field.

Now it has to be clearly said; gold had already been discovered and previously used by African cultures for centuries, but it so happened that when this particular whitey found some gold, the whole situation went haywire. Big time.

In a matter of 900 days, a farmer's field became a boom town and people from the four corners of the earth had arrived to seek their fortune. The President of the ZAR, Paul Kruger, arrived from Pretoria to name this place Johannesburg. A city of gold, an eldorado, it is also known variously by it's inhabitants as Joburg, Joeys, iGoli and Jozi.

There was a fifth column though; the geezers who had already made it rich in Kimberley and came to Jozi, snapping up farm land as far as the eye could see, because they knew how the game worked, and began to start coining it all over again. But this time there were 2 major problems: 1) the goldfields were in the Boer's Country, the ZAR, and 2) the geology of it all.

The Boers were none too pleased by this gold epidemic, and they didn't really get much of a slice of the pie. So they went about making things difficult for Rhodes and the boys. This would be a topic for another story, but Paul Kruger, I believe, has been much maligned by Imperial and Official History, to the degree that some historical revisionism is in order to properly understand the colonial pressures that were exerted on him and his administration. By this I am referring specifically to Iraq and the sucessive American subjugation of Iraq since 1991.

Back on point, the geology of the gold is interesting too… at first they thought it was a deposit of gold in small area. It turned out though, that this was just the top of a ridge of gold - later named the Witwatersrand - formed across the floor of an inland sea millions of years ago, as one of the richest deposits lining the bottom, in a kind of bowl shape, stretching from Johannesburg in the ZAR to Bloemfontein in the Oranje Vry Staat (Orange Free State).

Over the centuries the water dried up and was replaced with mud and rock, in fact the all the gold is embedded in rock, and in some places it is 2 to 3 miles underground. Initially the gold was extracted without a problem, but after 3 years of srcthing the surface, the true picture became apparent. It was all a bit more complicated than originally thought. The gold was there, and lots of it, but it was unreachable.

Undeterred, the rich geezers slowed up on mining and started making plans. They turned to selling pieces of paper for massive sums of money - shares in mining companies that weren't producing any gold - merely the basis of potential future earnings that might come from the gold that they couldn't reach.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange was the most happening thing in town. But these guys still didn't see eye to eye with the Boers, so old boy Rhodes organised himself a private militia and plotted to invade the ZAR and take over the show in the name of the England. The invading "force", led by one Leander Starr Jameson, fucked it up entirely. The 'Jameson Raid' was an abysmal failure.

Plan B, then, was full-scale war and Rhodes codged the British Empire into attacking the Boers, in what is now known as the Second Anglo-Boer War. It turned out to be a very nasty affair that lasted two years, really being the first modern war of 20th century.

In the beginning the British Imperial Army got a fair hiding from a bunch of farmers on horseback with hunting rifles. Eventually the thing grew into a stalemate as the Brits poured troops into the battle and adopted a "scorched policy", where victory was finally taken by the Brits when the Boers where exhausted. The peace treaty formed the basis for the Union of South Africa, which ultimately happened in 1910, bringing the old Boer Republics into something like what Australia is today, where the British monarch was supposedly the sovereign king-pin. Empire and all that.

Under this dispensation though, the head-honcho's of the mining companies had control of the land (after the war) and basically ran Johannesburg like their own private domain, owning all of it, and buying up all of the remaining lands of interest.

Already stinking rich, they got down to the business of pulling the gold from the ground.

The necessary technology had finally been invented to make it possible to mine so far underground that had never been tried before. All it required was a few extra hands.

Thus it is that SA has some of the deepest mines in the world, and the whole area underground of Joeys is heavily mined, with earth tremors being a regular occurrence when tunnels collapse - a bit like the San Andreas Fault in California, but the effect is more often and different psychologically.

Now the mine bosses needed many things, but the most important thing was labour, preferably cheap and docile. Not many Africans worked on the mines originally, just some Boers who had lost their land during the war and gold-rush happy foreigners. The mine bosses needed more workers and lots of them. Until this stage, most black Africans had been ignored by the Brits (and the co-operative Boers), but when the need for a large labour force arose they did two things - probably the two most hectic things they could ever have done: The 1912 Land Act , and the introduction of hut(poll) taxes.

The 1912 Land Act essentially divided up the land so that 80% of it ended up the hands of the Whitey colonialsts while the majority black population was left with only 20% of the land. Add to this; where someone didn't own the land, one now had to pay rent, and where they did, they now had to pay a tax on your house or head (yes, I know its was all a lot more complex than this, but this is this the nitty-gritty of it). Where people were previously self-sufficient, they were now brought into a cash economy, and in order to get money to pay these new taxes they had to work for an employer, and where was there work available? Yes, only on the mines.

Gold mining in South Africa has always fallen consistently into the category of slave labour. These workers migrate from all over Southern Africa, - there are nasty ways in which the Portuguese in Mozambique played a role in this too - leaving their families in the rural areas to live on the mines in hostels (read concentration camps) for months at a time. Add to this the fact that it is extremely dangerous and unstable to work 2 kilometres underground.

When all that rock above your head falls on you, you don't stand a chance. Thousands of miners have died in the most horrific circumstances imaginable, for the most meagre of wages conceivable. No danger pay, and until recently, no compensation for the bereaved. The disappearance of able-bodied men from the rural economy has also had a disastrous effect and helped create widespread poverty.

Some miners would send portions of their earnings back to their families in the rural areas, but these were never enough to really sustain their familie; to provide for education, health and the basic necessities was never possible.

Meanwhile back on the farm Braamfontein, (now a suburb, similar to other farm-to-suburb names like Doornfontein), things were really cooking, and Johannesburg was growing at a rate of knots.

What was originally a mining camp, was transformed overnight into a metropolis. And yet, and this is a crucial point; Johannesburg has never having lost its 'mining camp spirit'. Johannesburg is also unique in terms of human habitation. Now most cities, in fact all cities, evolve over time. Primarily they require a fresh water supply, plenty of surrounding agricultural land and a proximity to other cities for trade and markets to develop over time.

Notably, Johannesburg does NOT have it's own sustainable water supply, the foremost requirement for any city's sustainability. Incredibly, Johannesburg re-wrote centuries of city development in just 10 years by consistently colonizing it's water supply from areas far beyond it's natural watershed. The mining industry alone requires enormous volumes of water in it's day-to-day operations, accounting for something like 60% of the water consumption. Even though the agricultural land surrounding Joburg is not of great quality, it also relies on sources of water from far and away.

Inspite of this, Johannesburg rapidly asserted itself as an epicentre for trade and industry and still to this day is the financial powerhouse of Africa. But the only real conclusion one can draw, after digging this deeep, is that Joburg is an anomaly. In a sane and rational world, Joburg should not even exist.

Perhaps it was an early 20th century form of modernist idealism that allowed such an aberration to happen. Or perhaps it was the enormous financial power of the Randlords and sheer captialism or just the pull of it being 'Egoli', Eldorado, the place of gold that made it so.

But as it so happens, there is nothing particularly sane and rational about the world we live in, and this became abundantly clear in 1948, when the Boers, under the name of the National Party came into power.

Let's be clear about this; racial discrimination has been around since the first foreign settlers arrived over 5000 years ago. The National Party didn't invent racism, they just perfected it. The local population had been consistently subjugated,beaten up, restricted from free movement, withheld form certain jobs (the colour bar in the mining industry prevented black workers from getting senior positions which were reserved for whiteys only) and an endless list of forgotten things.

Now the Boers hadn't quite forgotten the Boer war, and they organised themselves into what we now know as Afrikaners. Now when the Boers went a great-trekking, they only really took one book with them in the ox-wagons; big family-size bibles written in Dutch, German and French, and they wandered around the wilderness with these great tomes, leading some to think that they were one of the lost tribes of Israel (and therefore god's chosen people). Not all thought like this mind you, But after the Boer war, there began a move to establish an "Afrikaner" identity. This was done by taking a dialect of Dutch that was used by the Malay slaves who were brought to Cape Town, by the Dutch in their own slave-trading days. It was the slaves who had added in words from the Khoi-San, some Xhosa, French, German and English. The new Afrikaners conveniently forgot all about the slaves and claimed it as their own, and manufacturing a dictionary and language out of it.

Next they took some of the dodgy characters from the great trek and converted them into National Heroes, making icons out of them. This wasn't just on the cultural side of things, economically they began to gather together Afrikaner financial interests, and urged their supporters and followers to invest in banks like VolksKas and insurance companies like Sanlam. Through a variety of convoluted political ideas such as the 'swaart gevaar' (the black danger) amongst others, their political engine, the National Party came to power.

Some thoughts that strike me about this overgrown mining camp, stem from it's early origins, as an environment that was all but suitable for human habitation. Vast open stretches of veld, that were barely farmable in early 1886 were rapidly transformed into one of the most crazy experiments of modern capitalism.

The rabbit warren of tunnels below the metropolis are notoriously unstable, periodically collapsing on the heads of the mine bosses, the putridily rich men who have disguised their involvement behind layers of companies and subsidiaries, sit in the Rand Club eyeing the tangential nature of the stock markets on what sued to be Diagonal Street, but now are safely in the confines of Sandton. The occasional earth tremors, less disruptive than the plate tectonics of the San Andreas Fault, are but a distant rumble. The preciousness of the metal is the apparent driving force of this Eldorado, remarkably expensive to produce - both in human and economic terms - yet at the end of the day purely constructed in its value, a human fascination for shiny metals. Yet what has it produced beyond the intrinsic destruction of the mining.

The insanity with which Johannesburg was born continues unabated to this day, more than just gold, it is the industrial powerhouse of Southern Africa attracting people from around the globe. To know it as home seems strange, as it lacks innate beauty, where people have had to adapt to harsh circumstance, and through struggle have found ways of making do.

One of the most striking features of the place is the open and conspicuous display of wealth, where the chasms between rich and poor are of horrific proportions, the most dramatic feature is the unbearable cost of life. The toll of living in Johannesburg is much higher than most places on earth. This might be one of the cheapest cities in terms of 'living costs', but the real cost are much higher. The story of water is highly significant: Johannesburg, unlike most major cities has no fresh water supply that it can call its own, having colonised water from far a- field, most of which is consumed by the mines and industry, the cost of importing the technological know how and machinery to get water here is mammoth. The same goes for the original mining equipment, the pressed tin ceilings from England, the Cell-phone network which is one of the most successful by global standards, or even the incredulous numbers of BMW's in Sandton alone. The ramifications of wealth, expressed in a western 1st world standard, all carry the high cost of importation, standards which were conceived a hundred years ago, by a few Randlords, who came to this new frontier with ambitions that were satisfied at exorbitant cost, setting the parameters for a money game that few could reproduce.

The key to it has been the gross exploitation of labour, the original mining being labour intensive, it was only payable - and still is - on the backs of cheap labour. The 1912 Land Act which divided the land, and the imposition of taxes on the population, forcing people into a currency system that was already stacked against them led to the creation of a massive pool of cheap and unskilled labour, much to the advantage of the Mining Houses and the first Industrialists.

The numbers of miners killed every year is not added to the price of gold, merely another statistic, in what is becoming a country of statistics It is also a city of dreams and visions, the pavements carry the echoes of the footsteps of many fortune-seekers, who have come to try where others have failed. It is still a city of opportunity, but the seekers far outnumber the successes,so much so that crime, in Johannesburg terms, is high-intensity class conflict, if property is theft, and the dollar is king, then just by virtue of setting foot in this town you are part of the process, both victim and victor.

The problem with sitting on the fence, is that you get slashed to pieces by the razor-wire, there is no middle-ground, it is all one. The security industry is like no where else on the planet: hired guns patrol the suburban neighbourhoods day and night, razor-wire and electric fences feed a collective paranoid psychosis. The stress levels of it all are probably higher than New York

The irony of it all though, is that while the crime is committed by only a small percentage of the population, everyone else is just trying to make a living and get by. Distorted by the media, and fed by the collective paranoia that riddles the city's inhabitants,"'crime conversations" are at the top of the menu at the dinner tables of the Northern Suburbs and the shebeens of Soweto , where everyone tries to out do the others with their most recent horror stories. One true hero in all of this was Max the Gorilla, resident of the Johannesburg Zoo, who stopped a fleeing housebreaker in his tracks. He took a bullet in the process, lived to tell the tale and become a worldwide media sensation. Every lamppost in Johannesburg sported a discount warehouse poster advertising a "Max the Gorilla Size Sale".

If there is one thing though that really characterizes life in Joburg, more so than anything, it is the unflinching steadfastness displayed during a summer thunderstorm. It conveys more than any true local would care to admit. In the midst of what sounds like a thermo-nuclear explosion, the true Johannesburger will not even spill their gin and tonic while they continue with the apocryphal urban legend they were relating. Virgins duck for cover.

The sheer pyrotechnic beauty of these thunder and lightening storms is amazing to behold, as the sky is illuminated by sheet lightening, and the explosive force of the thunder rattles the window panes. It shakes you deep down. It is electricfying and terrifying at the same time. Those who are born here and know nothing else take this place for granted now.

Sons and daughters of gold-diggers, they know nothing else. Whatever you do, don't blame them, rather listen to them, because they will have a story to tell. It will begin something like this:

When you've worked hard, when the sky above you explodes and the ground beneath rumbles, when the engines constantly roar, when the halogen night flashes with police lights, when you can tell the difference between gunshots and fireworks, when you know you are grateful to be alive, that is when you know you are in Johannesburg.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Bunfight of the Inanities

There I was thinking that the 2007 French Presidential elections might be worth writing about. Boy, was I wrong; its worse than a Tom Wolfe novel, that much I can tell you. To a casual observer like myself, its even worse than trying to watch French TV on a Saturday night.

We are being bombarded with wall-to-wall coverage each time one of the candidates farts. Turn on the idiot-box and Nicolas Sarkozy is falling over his smarmy self again, pick up a newspaper and Selogene Royal's latest gaffe litters the front page, switch on the radio and Le Pen is ranting on about how France should dig a deep trench along her borders and cast off from Europe.

What grates me the most is that these are all career politicians (with the exception of Jose Bove), who have never done a real days work in their lives, all claiming to know what is best for France and the French people. They are being elevated to the level of celebrities and one wonders whether they shouldn't have gone into the entertaiment industry rather than politics.

Maybe the whole farce would be more palatable if Johnny Halliday was running off against Laetitia Casta - although I think neither are eligible anymore because they have "off-shored" for tax purposes. C'est la France.

On a more serious note though, if this nutjob Sarkozy gets the top dog position, I believe it will be a sign for me to pack my bags and move on tout suite. There are only two kinds of people in France: those who love him and those who hate him. If anyone has the potential to create the situation ripe for a civil war in France, it'll be our dear little Nicolas.