The Weekender: An alien nation apart

Published: 2009/09/19 08:10:20 AM
An alien nation apart

by Richard Pithouse

IN THE cities of the global south, elites are often desperate to repress the reality of shack settlements. Maps are printed in which they appear as blank spaces, laws are passed that assume that everyone can afford to live formally and, in the name of order and development, the poor are beaten out of the cities.

The great elite fantasy is the creation of “world-class cities” — shiny, securitised nowherevilles in which the poor understand that their place is to live in some peripheral ghetto and only come into the city as menial workers.

But cinema — from City of God to Slum Dog Millionaire and now District 9 — has put the shack settlement in the mall and at the heart of how Rio, Bombay and Johannesburg feature in the global imagination.

In District 9 the shacks in Joburg are inhabited by extraterrestrials which humans call prawns. Science fiction can, to borrow from the lexicon that the film’s hero Wickus van de (sic) Merwe has taken to the world, just be a load of kak.

But, like all forms of fantasy, it can also be a dream of the present, illuminating it with more power than the ordinary categories through which we see the world. When fantasy illuminates aspects of reality that are hidden by ordinary ways of seeing, it can reveal those ways of seeing to be the real fantasy.

District 9 is set in something very near to contemporary SA — Mahendra Raghunath reads the TV news, the Red Ants swarm through the shacks with their crowbars, and the human rights activists demonstrating outside the shacks are vastly less effective than the xenophobic mobs.

But the film also evokes the past. Apartheid is everywhere, from the ubiquity of white and male power to the peculiar type of nerd that Van de Merwe’s character parodies.

District 9 also reaches into a vision of the future.

Van de Merwe works for a multinational corporation rather than the state. Multinational security companies are already in the business of beating the poor into their place but they take instruction from the state.

In District 9, in a staple of nightmare visions of the future, the state seems to be a junior partner to the multinational.

By weaving past, present and future into a single cinematic vision, District 9 steps out of the all-too-easy, absolute break between bad apartheid and good democracy, to look at how some processes of exclusion endure or mutate as we move from one political system to another.

Some reviewers, referring to their experience of apartheid evictions, have written about how the eviction scenes have a strangely hyper-real feel despite the fact that the evicted are fantastical aliens.

But these scenes are also a hyper-real description of contemporary evictions. The bureaucrat who is “here to assist you” by destroying your home, the clipboards, the helicopters, the Red Ants, the casual and contemptuous exercise of arbitrary violence, the assumption that the shack settlement is a zone outside of the ordinary rules of society, and the relentless presumption of criminality are all very real aspects of our society right now.

Shacks in Johannesburg have always housed aliens. Apartheid turned most black South Africans into aliens in their own country.

In democratic SA, we turned Mozambicans and Zimbabweans into aliens.

The obvious value of turning the shack dweller into a real alien is that the film can deal with the continuities in the processes by which we turn people into aliens, contain them, criminalise them, beat them and then evict them “for their own good”.

District 9 confronts these continuities head on and so, although it is a fantasy, it contains more reality than we’re likely to find in many of the spaces that produce, circulate and authorise the official consensus.

It shows contemporary development-speak — in which the only real issue is the “pace of delivery” — to be a fantasy as ridiculous as it is perverse.

After all, we tell ourselves that the new order has made a decisive break with the essential logic of apartheid, as we are driving shack dwellers and street traders out of our cities at gunpoint.

We tell ourselves that we have a new order founded on human rights and protected by the best constitution in the world as we exclude migrants and the poor from that order.

We tell ourselves that building stadiums and “eradicating” street traders and shack settlements will bring us into a new era of prosperity while we are actively and often violently making the poor poorer.

The reality is that we have, at all levels of society, colluded to exclude some people from those who count as real citizens.

This exclusion is often built into our speech. Some of us call others makwerekwere.

The state conflates “illegal immigrants” with “criminals”. It conflates the theft of electricity cables to sell the copper with “illegal electricity connections”.

Exclusion is also being actively built into the structures of our cities. Shack dwellers are removed, often at gunpoint, to peripheral ghettoes.

The reality is that some people and some spaces are treated as if they are outside of the law. The state, whether wielded by the Democratic Alliance or the African National Congress, engages in openly criminal behaviour towards the poor.

People who cannot afford to live their lives according to the rules of a society that assumes everyone can be a consumer, are usually understood in two ways by elites. They are either dangerous criminals who need to be repressed, or childlike incompetents who need to be placed under some form of tutelage.

District 9 makes a welcome break from this consensus, which is another elite fantasy, when it shows the aliens have a weapon. In contemporary SA, those weapons are the road blockade, the vote strike and the land occupation.

But, just as our move from apartheid to post-apartheid changed who we turn into aliens but didn’t put aside the assumption that we should construct our society against the alien, this film has its own aliens.

In District 9 the Nigerians — as in Jerusalema, another recent film about Jo’burg — are presented through the basest racist stereotype. Their depiction is so extreme that many reviewers have concluded that it was intended to illustrate that as one alien is humanised, another is created.

But the filmmaker’s comments don’t lend much weight to this interpretation. It seems that the film has inadvertently reproduced exactly what it set out to overcome. Perhaps this is its key lesson. As we humanise one alien, we create another.