Johannesburg and nationalism: 1890 vs 2012

by The Editor

FEATURE: There are many parallels between the ANC’s particular brand of African nationalism and the nationalism practiced by previous governments in South Africa’s past. It is a comparison not often made but one which holds many lessons. Consider Johannesburg in the late 1800s for example: under the control of a nationalist administration it faced and created numerous problems which we face today and a description of the city back then, which follows below, sounds eerily familiar.

Johannesburg and nationalism: 1890 vs 2012

By: Gareth van Onselen

23 July 2012

Generally, South Africa cares little for history. For most, little more than pain preceded 1994 and so, apart from the appropriate condemnation, not much attention is paid to it. That is understandable but to our detriment, for there is much to be learnt from our collective past. And not just apartheid but from what preceded that in turn. Nationalism, for example, is not new to South Africa. This dangerous ideology has a long history and was practiced just as vociferously by numerous previous administrations, as far back as the late 1800s, as it is today by the ANC. That is a comparison hardly ever made today – least of all by political analysts, fresh faced and enamored with dispensing indignation about what happened yesterday – but for those with a greater appreciation for the human condition, the parallels, similarities and continuities are well worth dwelling upon; if anything because they illustrate that many of the challenges we face or not new and, if they are, the response to them – one fuelled by ethic nationalism – certainly isn’t.

The second edition of my father’s book – New Babylon New Nineveh – contains within it a 2001 foreword, in which he briefly describes Johannesburg as it was in 1890s. It is a short, powerful description; and telling. Suspend for a moment the fact it addresses Johannesburg in the 1890s and consider the parallels with the city today and the ANC’s attitude towards it. It would appear nationalism in all its guises and whichever particular ethic group advocates its attitude to public affairs leads inexorably to the same kind of problems.

New Babylon New Nineveh

By: Charles van Onselen
First published in 1982
Second Edition; Jonathan Ball, 2001

Foreword to the second edition

Johannesburg, a concrete encrustation on a set of rocky ridges, has never been loved by nationalists. Without fertile soil, striking natural vegetation, a lake, a mountain, a valley, a river or even an attractive perennial stream, it lacks the landscape of affection or mystery easily appropriated by myth-makers and nation-builders. A poorly-behaved urban delinquent, it only came into being through its supposedly inspiring ability to vomit up its mineral innards and its unfortunate habit of belching into the clear Highveld sky. These anti-social habits attracted bad company in abundance and did little to endear the city and its nondescript surrounds to more genteel folks.

Nature’s parsimony, in everything except the gold that it chose to bury more deeply here than anywhere else on earth, meant that the Rand could barely offer its earliest inhabitants a subsistence existence, let alone sustain the luxury of trade in bountiful products. Without a meaningful history of continuous settlement, there was no ready store of deep folklore, tales of derring-do, or great drama for appropriation by ideologues intent on finding an authentic experience of the soul with which ‘the people’ could identify.

Indeed, it is precisely because nationalist pickings remain so thin that so many triumphalist accounts are sprouted and peddled about the integrated slum that was first Sophiatown, then became racist ‘Triomf’, and is now once again ‘non racial’ Sophiatown. In truth, much of the real story of the first 50 years of Johannesburg revolves around the contest between the narrowly-based economic self-interest of the mine owners and the relatively cosmopolitan labour force that served the industry. It was the immediate clash of class interests around the principal industry that did more to excite the passions of the citizenry than any supposedly primordial yearning for cultural expression or striving for a more encompassing identity. Other groupings, ranging from small manufacturers, hawkers, retailers, traders and service workers through to the structurally unemployed and their cousins – the criminal classes – almost found their interests rendered subservient to those of the dominant enterprise.

The city has never cradled a national political party of note of either the franchising or the disenfranchising variety. Its shallowly-rooted, first generation bourgeoisie and the crass nouveau riche of subsequent generations have always felt more comfortable in the bank, the stock exchange and the sports stadium than they have attending a church, sitting in a concert hall, walking through an art gallery, reading in a library or even serving in the ranks of their city council.

Nationalists, sensing that this was apathetic, difficult, perhaps even intractable human material with which to work and to try to fashion some grander consensus, have always ruled the rich and poor of Johannesburg from afar with a mixture of apprehension, contempt, disdain and neglect. The city, thank heaven, has usually returned the favour by being only lukewarm about the nationalists of the day, paying only lip-service to the ideology of the moment that came from 30 miles away. Johannesburg’s industrialists had the brass, Pretoria the politicians with their snouts in the trough. The one paid and the other pronounced – it was never a marriage made in heaven.

When Johannesburg first emerged, the country’s racial defined electorate, much taken with an ethnically-exclusive nationalism that was seemingly adverse to Eurocentric ideas, was composed for the most part of semi-literate, poorly-educated rural folk who had little or no knowledge of the requirements of a modern industrial economy. Most of Johannesburg’s citizens did not qualify for the vote. The members of parliament sent to the national assembly were – in term of formal education – for the most part indistinguishable from the voters who had sent them there. The ruling party’s strategy for the development of a manufacturing sector centered on a scheme based on agricultural production that guaranteed direct or indirect nationalist control.

This policy of nationalist economic empowerment was loosely based on the old Tsarist practice of confining the granting of concessions for industrial development to members of the landed Russian nobility. The concept itself had been sold to the pipe-smoking state president by two entrepreneurial east-European Jewish immigrant friends whom he lauded as ‘patriots’. The granting of the initial monopolies, as well as the subsequent broadening of the patterns of ownership relating to them, was accompanied by a great deal of venality which frequently enveloped members of parliament and both Johannesburg and Pretoria reeked of corruption.

The country’s civil service, confined almost exclusively to ethic nationals, was often as crass, illiterate, unskilled and inexperienced as the political administration it served. Indeed, so pronounced was the problem that at the most senior levels nationals were, for a time, replaced by specially recruited advisors and consultants from abroad, who were paid market-related salaries. Most of these skilled administrators, ‘Kruger’s Hollanders’, unambiguously European at a time when the local were keen to run everything on their own, came to occupy these posts on a full-time basis – a development bitterly resented by the most strident of the ethic nationalists.

In its desire to retain political control of all the most important structures in the country, including the Johannesburg municipality, Pretoria’s ethic nationalists jigged the constitution of the mining city in a manner which, in effect, allowed the government of the day to appoint the mayor. Lacking a coherent, integrated city council with roots deeply embedded in local communities, Johannesburg’s municipal services remained primitive in the extreme, further undermining any sense of civic pride. Large parts of the filthy city and the municipal market were a public disgrace. The drivers of the local horse-drawn cabs – rude, poorly-trained and given to fleecing the public – were notorious for their ‘furious driving’. Public transport was hopeless. Unable or unwilling to develop or maintain the roads leading in and out of the country’s foremost commercial centre, the government introduced a system of privatized toll gates that was loathed by industrialists, farmers, retailers and travelers alike.

With Johannesburg itself – partly overrun by illegal immigrants, well-organised gangsters and motley undesirables drawn from Europe and Africa in equal measure – law-enforcement fell to new lows almost each year before the turn of the twentieth century. On the streets most of the police – consciously drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of the sons of the soil, from the ethnically dominant nationalists – were without proper equipment, remuneration or uniforms, badly educated, semi-literate and often commanded only their mother tongue or some very broken second language. In the courts prosecutors did creative and imaginative things – dockets, exhibits and evidence disappeared with alarming regularity and most ordinary policemen had financial interests in either brothels or illegal drinking dens; often both. In the dirty, over-crowded prisons overseen by officers at least as cynical and corrupt as those in the police, hundreds of inmates were herded into inadequate facilities that spawned violent anti-social gangs, whose members preyed remorselessly on the young and vulnerable.

History, as we all know, does not repeat itself. Every now and then, however, it bears rereading with a sharp eye looking for underlying continuities – be they ideological, political, economic or social. If these few vignettes of the 1890s help sharpen our understanding of the modern Witwatersrand’s predicament they will have served their purpose.

Charles van Onselen
March 2001

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