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What actually changed for the average South African when apartheid ended and a new democracy was ushered in?

This is a question that’s been widely discussed in recent times — at least it’s one that I’ve run into a lot during my stay. Many people feel that there is an answer to this question: Not enough. The shared threads between present day and apartheid are many. From which areas are poverty stricken to how labor systems operate, these threads are beginning to blend into the fabric of society. This normalization of destructive practices bred from a hateful regime is occurring in part because it is hard to link one of these threads to another. If there aren’t obvious commonalities between, say, poor housing in Philippi, and migratory work patterns enforced by rural gold minds, it becomes difficult to keep a finger on their ties to apartheid. They begin to dissolve into normal life. For the same reason, it’s also difficult to rally large groups against any one of these individual legacies of apartheid. As easy as it might be to rally people against the idea of apartheid, people in Urban areas might not rally behind the plight of miners and vice versa.

Despite this, there have been attempts at unifying people to fight certain legacies of apartheid. An example of one of these attempts is the Fees Must Fall Movement. Beginning as a call for free/affordable education, the movement quickly picked up on other stagnant economic trends and grew to rally behind the call for “economic change within our lifetime.” Much of the rhetoric surrounding this broader rallying cry dealt with the economic similarities between apartheid and the present. The movement was effective in several ways; it caused social and institutional disruption, it mobilized students — a historically necessary group for social change, and it gained widespread publicity. However, long term economic change has yet to be seen with regards to either education or general economic well-being in the country.

I think that part of the reason the movement eventually came to a stalemate with government and institutions of education is because economics is too broad of a commonality to be useful in uniting legacies of apartheid and colonialism. Economics is too big of an umbrella, there is too much that falls under it for anything to get done. While miner’s rights might be too small to amass a large movement, “economic change” is too big to result in tangible solutions. Economics is also — I don’t have concrete evidence for this — essentially witchcraft. How can you have a field of experts that claim to be grounded in empiricism who’s opinions are consistently split along sociopolitical lines? Alas, that’s a discussion for another blog post.

So, if economics are too broad and the individual relics of apartheid are too narrow, how can we design a movement to destroy the legacies of apartheid that still exist in South Africa? In my opinion, the answer lies somewhere in the writings of Mbembe and Foucault. The situation demands a focus on biopolitics and more specifically, necropolitical power. It seems to me that even though the apartheid government is dead, the structures that supported it have not only retained patterns of subjugation but have retained a very real necropolitical power over the people of South Africa — especially black South Africans.

Take, for example, the mines that I keep discussing. Recently a campaign was launched to help raise awareness and win litigation for gold miners affected by silicosis. Silicosis is a pulmonary disease caused by exposure to crystalline silica dust. Once the effects of the disease set in, victims are unable to work anymore. However, in many cases working is the least of their worries. Silicosis often makes every day activities such as getting dressed nearly impossible. Death is also common.

But miners need jobs. Mines have been around for so long that their patterns of employment (including dangerous working conditions and migratory labour) seem to be here to stay. If we are to trace out the life of a miner in modern day South Africa, the biopolitical and necropolitical influence of apartheid is impossible to ignore. A miner is often born in a place where there is not enough economic opportunity to leave. From the very beginning, the ghost of apartheid exerts biopower through the limitation of movement and economic mobility. Family members might get sick early on, preventing the would-be miner from pursuing an education. Here, again, legacy wields biopower. Later, the would-be miner has a family and must support it — he takes a job at a gold mine just like all the others that he’s grown up with. He travels significant distances to work and spends most of his time away from home, away from the family he works to support. His movements are regulated by a system based in apartheid, his exposure to his own family is also limited by this system. The past reaches forward and strangles some of the most precious time a person can have. After years mining, the past reaches forward and chokes the miner on silica dust. The miner is now sick, his children have to leave school to take care of him just like he did for his family. Another few years pass and the miner is dead. The necropolitical power that once allowed apartheid police to kill black South Africans with impunity is now disguised by poverty, poor educational opportunities, and among many industries — the mining industry.

In similar ways, the legacy of apartheid exerts biopower in many aspects of day-to-day life in South Africa. As a rallying cry, ending apartheid’s biopolitical influence invigorates memories of the past, draws upon the immediacy and temporality of human bodies, and remains broad enough to cover many threads of apartheid while staying narrow enough to provide a course of action and a cohesive rhetoric.