Colonial African Cities Have Always Been Mass Graveyards For Black People

Johannesburg Fire Tragedy
Medics stand by the covered bodies of victims of a deadly blaze in downtown Johannesburg, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. At least 74 people died when a fire ripped through a multi-story building in Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, emergency services said Thursday. [AP Photo/ Jerome Delay]

 The African city – such as Johannesburg, Harare, Nairobi, Lagos, Kinshasa, and Lilongwe, to name a few – emerges and matures to take shape in the last 200 years through a series of mineral productions, migrant labour systems, and industrial trades. In essence, the interconnected systems of capitalism, colonialism, and neoliberalism entrenched in the last century are the seeds where the modern African city grows from as we know it today.

In other words, the African city was imagined as a site of production, extraction of minerals, concentration of cheap labour, and accumulation of wealth. It is a site of settler economics, where European colonisers occupied it, and pulled cheap black labour into its centre in massive numbers to maximise production, profits, and the excessive development of Europe.

When Walter Rodney correctly diagnosed that Europe developed at the expense of underdeveloping Africa, he was referring to the exploitation of the mass African labour in the African city for the tranquility of the metropolis in Europe.

Apartheid South Africa formalised this colonial design of the African city by crafting a series of racist pass laws – the Natives Land Act of 1913, the Minimum Wages Act of 1925, the Black Consolidation Act of 1945, the Group Areas Act of 1950, the Bantu Education of 1953, and the Black Labour Act of 1964 – to name a few.

White people created these laws to convert black people into animals – where black people are placed in a permanent state of enslavement and exploitation as cheap labour.

This influx control system stretched to the whole continent – where the dispossessed, colonised, enslaved, and landless black people were taken from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and as far as Congo, Nigeria, and Senegal to come work as horses and donkeys in the mines, factories, and farms of occupied South Africa.

Every major city in South Africa and every other major city across Africa emerges out of this colonial design. The African economy as we know it today still operates from the African cities that still operate with the same colonial pattern. Raw materials are still being extracted out of Africa using black cheap labour, this black cheap labour is concentrated in the African city, and this raw material gets transferred to the Global North to create wealth for Europe whilst Africa and its people remain in poverty.

Despite every African country claiming to be free and independent today on paper, the actual reality on the ground is that the colonial order of Africa has not been discontinued. Every single feature of colonialism concerning the place of cheap black labour in the African city has been continued and naturalised in the modern condition we see today. In other words, the modern condition is a colonial condition. The death of over 70 black people in a building fire in Johannesburg last week therefore is a manifestation of the modern condition vomiting its colonial seeds.

Black people as cheap labour die every week as a big number in major cities from shack fires, building collapses, massacres, hospital calamities, road accidents, gas explosions, poverty, murders, mining collapses, factory accidents, and police violence. We recall Marikana, Life Esidimeni, Enyobeni. Boksburg, and the recent deaths from the burning of over 1000 shacks at Kennedy Road Informal Settlement in Durban last month.

The colonial imagination of the African city normalises all these weekly tragedies facing black people and it perpetuates them to maintain itself as a site of profit accumulation. The corporate media also treats these tragedies as minor stories placed on the back pages as nobody cares about the loss of life that concerns poor people.

Its no accident therefore that the majority of the black people who died in that building are immigrants from across the continent who are in SA to work in the retail sector of Johannesburg as cheap labour. Some of them are street vendors, sex workers, Uber drivers, and informal traders who are struggling for a living under this rotten modern condition.

Attempts made in the past by the City of Johannesburg to evict them have thankfully been rejected by the courts. Our constitutional democracy recognises a human being first, and their right to life, housing, dignity, and movement.

The City must therefore stop masking its failures with war talk against human rights organisations – and it must begin to do the difficult work, which is to perform its constitutional obligations to transform cities and discontinue their colonial seeds in structural and meaningful terms.

This moment calls upon all of us to revisit the two most difficult questions of our times – what was the purpose of the struggle against apartheid colonialism in South Africa? Did we lose so many freedom fighters in battle and in exile for Africans to still remain a stateless and a disposable people who roam around the continent today like animals?

Dr Pedro Mzileni teaches sociology at University of the Free State in South Africa, writes in personal capacity

Twitter – @pedromzileni

Email – [email protected]


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