South Africa's Reality Bites

Sci-fi blockbuster District 9 is all about aliens and spaceships. But its fiction is rooted in the facts about South Africa's troubled history of housing and immigration.

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This summer, I spent six weeks in Cape Town teaching human rights to a multiracial group of South Africans and Americans—many of whom wanted to party on Long Street more than they wanted to study human rights. Still, I managed to get their attention long enough for us to focus on two recurring issues—housing and immigration. Shortly after I got back, I found myself sitting in a movie theater in Silver Spring, Md., confronting these same issues masquerading as entertainment in the major summer sci-fi blockbuster, District 9.

District 9 begins in 1990 when an alien spaceship stalls in the skies above Johannesburg. After three months with no contact, the South Africans decide to board the ship, only to find 1 million aliens who appear to be in need of rescuing. The South Africans move the aliens from the ship to District 9, which is a cross between a township and a refugee camp. Jump forward 20 years: It’s 2010. The alien population has grown; their living conditions are horrific, and the South Africans’ extraterrestrial goodwill has waned. (The aliens are now called “prawns,” a derisive term that brings to mind apartheid’s “kaffir” and “bantu.”) The solution: an intergovernmental effort to forcibly remove the aliens from District 9 to District 10, some 240 kilometers away.

The conditions under which District 9’s aliens lived, as well as their forced removal, brought to mind a case decided by the South African Constitutional Court on June 10. Residents of Joe Slovo Community Western Cape v. Thubelisha Homes and Others concerns a group of poor people who are not lucky enough to lawfully occupy the permanent, but austere houses found in South Africa’s townships. Instead, the residents of Joe Slovo occupy dwellings that are little more than amalgams of plastic tarps and corrugated tin pitched between the edges of Langa township and the N2 highway. As described by Constitutional Court Judge Zac Yacoob, the conditions in Joe Slovo are “unhygienic,” “unsafe” and “unfit for reasonable human habitation.” In South Africa, the press to reach equilibrium in the affordable housing market is intensified by constitutional mandates regarding housing-related rights. Building new houses on sites occupied by informal settlements, such as Joe Slovo, makes the “immeasurable … human price to be paid for this relocation and reconstruction” unavoidable. According to the court, removal is a reasonable means to ensure the progressive realization of the right of access to housing as recognized in Section 26(2) of the South African Constitution.

The fate of the Joe Slovo residents is only the most recent massive removal in a city infamously known for having used the law to force tens of thousands of people from their homes. Case in point: Its destruction of District 6, a thriving multiracial community, the mere existence of which challenged the fundamental assumptions on which apartheid was based. Despite the obvious parallels between real and fictional forced removals, District 9’s aliens are not stand-ins for the displaced residents of either District 6 or Joe Slovo. Rather, District 9’s aliens bring to mind the Somali, Zimbabwean and other African immigrants who have sought refuge in South Africa. Some come to South Africa for the chance at a better life in a democratic country based on principles of non-racialism. Others come because of expectations: The expectation that a country led by the ANC, a political party nee liberation movement that relied heavily on the willingness of others to open their borders to South African exiles fighting against apartheid. Surely such a country, the reasoning goes, would not deny them a safe place to rebuild lives free from whatever particular atrocities forced them to leave home.

If only it were so. Whatever their motivations, immigrants are routinely targeted by those South Africans who see these other Africans as direct competitors vying for post-apartheid South Africa’s limited spoils. At its worst, this nativism erupts into the kind of xenophobic violence that, in 2008, forced many African immigrants to flee their township homes and seek refuge in temporary encampments. Townships with extraordinarily high rates of unemployment were the fecund ground in which the frustrations of those disgusted with the slowness of post-apartheid progress took root. Most recently, less than two weeks after the constitutional court handed down its opinion in the Joe Slovo case, tensions in townships including Langa, Gugulethu and Samora Machel forced Somali shopkeepers to shutter their businesses until they could broker agreements under which competing businesses might peacefully and profitably co-exist.

It is unlikely that this agreement will end anti-immigrant violence and antipathy (especially that reserved for Nigerians who are routinely blamed for all things violent and criminal both in real life and in the movie). It demonstrates, however, the benefits of meaningful consultation with all stakeholders in matters that implicate the dignity at the core of human rights. While South Africa has come a long way in the relatively short period since apartheid’s official end, it has a long way to go before the consciousness and actions of the government and its citizens comport with the country’s constitutional aspirations.

Lisa A. Crooms is a professor at Howard University’s School of Law.

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