Monday, July 4, 2016

Can Some Residents of a Modern Society Stay Permanently outside of Modernity?

From looks the main urban areas of Cape Town is no different from anywhere in the developed world.  Coming from Tanzania, where paved roads and street lights are luxury even in the main city of Dar es Salaam, the immaculately maintained main streets of the city, flanked by vibrant shops, hotels, and malls,, is, by no exaggeration, the envy of sub-Saharan Africa.  The suburbs immediately surrounding the city center and hugging the Atlantic coastlines are home to first-class expressways and homes with modernistic architectural designs that are not out of place in the most moneyed American residential areas.

But a closer inspection reveals something that is glaringly out of place.  The city, whether it be the center or the suburbs, is inhabited by a large and transient group of street wanderers, going around place to place, picking through the city's nice public trash cans and asking passerby for cash.  No, these are mostly not the residents of the city's impoverished slums (known here as "townships").  Instead, judging from their languages (many speak a variety of East African languages the author can partially make out) and their way of dress ("are they sure they will survive in the Cape winter with that little clothes?"), they are not from South Africa,

And that "foreignness" is further given away with their general sense of "dumbfoundedness."  Many of them look intimidated by the hustle and bustle of a big city like Cape Town, flabbergasted (but trying their best to not to show) by some many people of different colors and nationalities mingling in massive shopping complexes that only existed in their dreams in the not-so-distant past.  This is well-reflected by their tendency to joke around when they beg to hide their uneasiness, quickly scuttling away if the people spoken to show either no reaction or, worse, visible irritation.

Of course, this is not to say that the intimidated beggar is the standard profile of the non-South African African in the city.  The author was lucky enough to meet several, some taxi drivers, some workers at restaurants and his hostel, who have more or less successfully integrated themselves into the complex economic fabric of the city.  But even when they are asked of life in South Africa, they quickly lament about two things: the massive difference between the life of the rich and that of the poor here, and the complete lack of opportunities from them back in their home countries.

For the wealth gap, they have nothing but scorn.  Pointing at the architectural gems lining the slopes leading up to Table Mountain, the author's Rwandan taxi driver cannot help but speak of them as the "other" that they do not even dare to aspire to.  But, at the same time, he mentions that, after a decade of living in South Africa (and being successful as a driver), the prospect of going back home, where "they is nothing to do" in their words, sounds completely ludicrous.  The migrants do not like the rich, yet have no choice but to continue working for them.

Conversely, it seems the rich do not like them either.  Beyond the frequent news stories of migrant laborers getting beat up by South Africans for "stealing jobs" and the fact that South Africa remains one of the most economically unequal societies in the world (4th highest Gini coefficient in the world according CIA), the view on the streets is not at all comforting.  Against the increasing vocal beggars and their monetary demands, "safety police" is installed in every street corner in the city center, ensuring that their nuisance to regular pedestrians are kept to a minimum.

Such action only sweeps the problem under the carpet.  If beggars cannot make ends meet by begging, they can easily turn to more violent means for parting money from people who have them.  In his more than one day of stay here in the Mother City, he has been cautioned to not use certain ATMs because they are rigged to steal PINs and hijack cards for illicit withdrawals.  And he has meet travelers who had their wallets stolen and even deposits for short-term apartments skimmed off, robbing them of huge amounts of money that in turn forced them to cut their vacations short.

The bottomline for all the crimes, going back to the beginning of this blog post, is that the migrants (and many locals) are not properly prepared for life in the big city.  No institution is in place to help them look for jobs, and none exist to help them acquire skills to fill open posts.  For these unskilled people, they can never be productive part of the local economy no matter how true were the rumor of Cape Town's plentiful employment that drew them to the city in the first place.  Without concrete government actions for actively supporting "modernization" of the unemployed, the city and the country will continue to be rife with problems of potentially violent people left behind by modernity that constantly surround them.

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