Exploitation and eviction in Johannesburg

Exploitation and eviction in Johannesburg


What happens when a group of Swiss and South African artists together tackle the roots of homelessness.


The first showing of «Converting Eviction», May 30, 2019, at The Centre for the Less Good Idea, Johannesburg. Picture credit: Zivanai Matangi.

More than most people can imagine, Switzerland’s history is closely aligned with that of South Africa. Swiss banks, corporations, artists, solidarity movements have all intersected in the former’s relationship to the latter. If we take Switzerland’s relation to South Africa during apartheid; the Swiss government’s “neutrality” towards the Swiss corporations and banks was one of the core concepts. The enterprises “just” did business—never politics. The state too pretended to not be responsible. This of course was just the public pretense. Behind the curtains, the Swiss government supported relations with the apartheid system, for financial, racist and—allegedly—anti-communist reasons. From 1958 on, the Swiss government and the apartheid regime worked together to relocate companies such as UBS Bank (formerly known as SBG) to South Africa, in case of nuclear attacks or political fallouts in Europe.

Exploring “political neutrality” (more on that later), is one of the themes of Converting Eviction (working title), a performance-project and a transnational collaboration between the Johannesburg-based collective Ntsoana and KMUProduktionen from Zurich, Switzerland. Within a trans-national framework, together we try to reflect upon the history of exploitation, property and eviction of people out of their living conditions.

Some of our starting points were: The actual threat of evictions resulting from the Xolobeni mining project in the Wild Coast region; the movement to reclaim the recently discovered remains of the Kweneng Kingdom; Swiss-South African relations during apartheid; the attempts by the Jubilee 2000 movement for cancellation of apartheid debt; and the Khulumani Support Group’s work to hold to account 28 companies and banks that profited from dealing with the racist apartheid regime.

As we approach the following questions, we are strongly aware of our respective positions: That of Swiss-based cultural workers, struggling for some kind of global solidarity while still profiting from involvements into a colonial past and a strong neo-colonial, neoliberal present. And, that of African artists, who reflect upon self-images shattered by apartheid, while re-constructing new futures.

Nomarussia Bonase from the Amadiba-Crisis-Committee. Image by Tim Zulauf.

In our conversations as Converting Eviction, here are some of the questions we’ve asked and reflected upon:

What political and economic structures lead to people being evicted?

Wealth – Wealth should not be material accumulation, but rather “wealth in people”. Housing is wealth from and for people.

Naturalized Economy – Evictions are enabled when capitalist economy is defined as “neutral”, rather than anti-social. Such an economy attempts to turn every human relation and all basic needs into quantifiable and extractable commodities. Be it water, housing, emotions or friendship. Through this process, capitalist economy has been split from collective living, culture and politics, and thus is conceived as “neutral by nature”.

As Felwine Sarr puts it: In African societies, the economy used to be embedded into a broader social system. It is no longer like that. To anchor the economy in society again, African societies could reconnect to relational economy; that is “including the whole palette of positive and negative relations, that individuals build up, produce, exchange, or perpetuate—independently from material considerations or pure material interest.” So called “informal economy” would also be an important part of that relational economy, even though contested from the point of view of “good government” and not considered if it comes to estimate the gross national product of a country.

Political neutrality – Again, with Sarr, such economical abstractions have been the very motive of colonialism for ages. They were meant to dehumanize black workers, render their landscapes into extractive economies and universalize the Global North/western concept of the human being. African societies were framed as needy and inferior. In combination with the physical eviction of people out of their ancestral and legitimate spaces, the eviction of colonized people out of their cultural realm was a necessary and horrible stepping stone towards the extraction of wealth.

These structures persist until today, spatially and mentally. They have been reinstalled by neoliberal concepts, that, again, pretend the economy would be “neutral” or “natural.” The colonial scheme has shifted to “no alternative to neoliberalism”—exploiting black labour while wielding the threat of violence, as shown by the horror of the Marikana-massacre and workers dying in Swiss-based Glencore’s mines every year.

Emptiness – Switzerland participated in upholding the apartheid-idea of South Africa as an empty and basically white country. The relocation of bank head offices—a dislocation-agreement between Switzerland and South Africa—was conceived directly after the Sharpeville massacre, and at a time in which, cynically, international investment to South Africa grew from all sides. In the eyes of the investors, it seemed, the apartheid-state had violently proven its will to keep cheap black labour under control.

It was crucial that apartheid did this not only on its own terms, but with international support and esteem. Nowadays, it’s poverty and the lack of education, which are used to discriminate against people, force them into underpaid jobs, and move them out of areas that are claimed by the rich and so called knowing … who are, historically, still white. As long as the education-system is not changed radically, such discrimination along racial lines will stay in place.

Image: Zivanai Matangi.

What are the minimum appropriate conditions needed to make a home for oneself and one’s family?

Colonial phantasmagorias – If we speculate about what “standards of living” means, the structural global injustice becomes obvious. Too often conceptions of “liveable life” are compared with the north/western standards of the colonizers—including the ideas of success, self-realization, or how a family should look. These phantasmagorical visions are omnipresent and very much still responsible for wrong approaches not only in the former colonized countries, but in the Global North/west as well. As these phantasmagorias of wealth grew themselves on colonial land-taking and exploitation, specifically in the USA, they were wrong from the beginning. The US-American standard of each family living in a house of their own, owning two cars, following heteronormative gender- and job-relations was enabled only by huge amounts of violence against indigenous people, enslaved black workers and nature. Now why should these ideas still be exported globally, to solve housing problems on the African continent? To conceive houses for a core-family of father, mother and two kids?

Ubuntu, again – Together with the reestablishment of a relational economy, relational family- and social-structures, a broader understanding of human networks through friendship, solidarity and migration should be reconsidered. To enable such networks that produce sustainable living conditions for every human being, idea of shared properties, ubuntu, cooperatives and transnational communes have to be picked up and improved. Private property has to be overcome.

Image: Zivanai Matangi.

What are the traumas of the past that are restricting people?

Recognition – As long as there is no recognition of all the harm done by white colonialists, the trauma of violence and eviction will remain. After so many perpetrators got away unpunished through the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, it’s time to re-evaluate the crimes committed, on the physical level as well as on psychological, cultural and material ones.

Economically, the colonial north/west is afraid of making any confession. The South African Khulumani Support Group wanted to hold 28 international corporations and banks to account in a New York court, for trading with and thus supporting apartheid. The case was lost, in 2014.

Silenced history – If corporations would have been sued for their profit making with Apartheid, and such a precedent could have been made, the opportunities for other de-colonizing countries to do the same would have risen enormously. A big threat for colonial profiteers! That’s why Switzerland, obstructed its own official research: The very executive, the “Bundesrat,” which ordered the research project into the Swiss-South African relations from 1948–1994 (the so called NFP42+ – National Funds Project 42+, from 2001–2004), decided to close all relevant documents in the Federal Archives regarding the Swiss-South African relations, as soon as the historians started their research. This silencing is no approach to historical harm, but on the contrary trauma-extension.

What is the agency that people have to convert hostile environments in a way that suits them?

Voicing Involvements – We could research and document experiences of witnesses, digging into our personal relations, and make them speak. Everybody should have a very close look into his or her or their involvements into any kind of racist policies. Only then can our societies start redefining themselves, by changing the passive role of the victim into an active one, and unlocking the perpetrators’ silent aggression. And only then, can we find ways for perpetrators who profited on a very abstract or structural economical level from racism and colonialism to pay back what they took.

Deviant Narrations – The legitimation for eviction lies in ways of “narrating space,” i.e. naturalized narratives about what belongs to whom and why, and then embedding these stories into a legal framework. Therefore, we have to start telling new stories and produce counter-narratives that enable a redistribution of resources, which are no longer solely based on the idea of private property.

Image: Zivanai Matangi.

Ghosts – The countries that suffered and still suffer from colonial exploitation need the opportunities and means to re-center their understanding of themselves. These decolonizing countries offer crucial insight into rethinking the concepts inherited from colonialism, and to confront them with their ancestral economic and social ideas—ideas that are older than liberalism or neoliberalism.

These ghost-like social relations need to be reactivated to confront nowadays’ neoliberal exploitation of the world’s wealth. One important step will be to question the form of the nation-state itself. We have to bring up new concepts of migration, and understand how it is weaving peoples and families together, creating places, housing opportunities and alliances beyond nationality, as social theorist Achille Mbembe insists. On a small-scale level, it will be all about sharing-economies and sharing the legal and economic knowledge that allows us to create small cells of collective wealth.

  • Converting Eviction‘ is co-directed with Sello Pesa, performance artist and choreographer from Soweto.

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