Of Migrants, Minions and Magnates

I begin the title of this presentation with migrants because in a sense that’s my story, my own personal experience of the world, and it would seem, that of so many other South Africans, and indeed other citizens of the world.

Migrancy, a defining experience worldwide, has been such for millennia, and seems especially so in our present globalised world. The rapid shifts in demographics play havoc with social planning and its various constructs. Mirrored to these shifting human movements, is that of rapidly shifting economies and finances, with finances in particular having become virtual. How we experience this ‘virtuality’, is all too real however.


Which brings me to another defining experience for South Africans in particular, that of extremes in wealth and poverty, as most of you well know. Some might like you to believe that it is crime, which is of course inextricably linked to that of this phenomenon of inequality. We South Africans vie for first place in the category of most unequal country in the world.


And of course, yet again, this is a global phenomenon and experience. According to a recent United Nations Development Report, titled, ‘Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience,’ released this 24th July, ‘More than 2.2 billion people are “either near or living in poverty.” The study also found that about 1.2 billion people survive on the equivalent of US $1.25 or less a day, while 12 percent of the world’s population (842 million people) suffer from chronic hunger.


These conditions of global suffering and deprivation are not due to any absolute shortage of resources. The world economy produces enough to provide a decent standard of living for every man, woman and child. But the distribution of wealth makes this impossible: the 85 wealthiest people in the world own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest people combined.


So, as above, a disproportionately large number of South Africa’s citizens reside in poverty, in a third economy, have done so for centuries and not much has changed since our advent to democracy in 1994. In fact, a recent survey finds that for the black majority, income has dropped about 2% since 1994, risen marginally by about 3% for those of coloured descent, by about 16% for those of Indian extraction, and around 19% for those deemed white.


Clearly, 1994 has been good if you’re Indian or white, or an elite in government, and it would seem especially for the corporates and the elites, which own them. For the vast majority however, not much has changed economically. This picture is one, which resonates for me as a photographer, the expanded black middle-class notwithstanding.

That, with its attendant malaise, is our downside.

The upside, and there is one, is that we have fantastic weather, amazing people and a beautiful, if tragic land. We also have a resolute will to improve our lot, no matter what the prophets of doom might pronounce.


Talking of prophets, politicians will sell you heaven, while delivering hell, and are largely responsible for the mess both South Africa and the world are in. Politicians, along with their financiers, the corporates, democracy notwithstanding, whose bidding they do.

In this light we can see this false start in economic reform as an obstacle yet to be overcome, a diversion on our path to freedom. How we got to make the sudden changes in ideological and economic approach, which set us on this path, is a matter of contention yet to be properly confronted, clarified, and rectified. As of now, we seem committed to the profit system, more of the same which has taken us down this road to stagnation for the majority, in a time when costs are rising exponentially globally, when job opportunities dwindle and disappear, when social securities are systematically scraped in the name of ‘austerity’.


This is the context all of us find ourselves trying to make meaning, and a difference in, and architects and planners are no exception, since directly these two entities are a chief source of commissions, as they are for most of us.


All the while, the status quo largely remains; for an elite, the heaven the politicians promised is realized. This elite gets to determine the rules of the game and the way in which the cake is cut and apportioned. For a fair minority; the labours of serving the machine bear fruit, and life is reasonably tolerable. For the majority; life is a constant struggle, fending off hunger one day, the debtor the next, with a few days of relief in between for the lucky few.


Some questions:

  • What solutions does our economic system have for systemic poverty, which equates in the first degree to violence?
  • How do we construct and reconstruct our world under these circumstances?
  • To what extent do we accommodate the now norm of a surveillance and security state in our construct of public space and human habitation?
  • In South Africa, and Africa, how do we ‘go native’ in meeting the particular needs of an African economy and society?
  • To what extent are we beholden to power and capital?



Do I sound grim? I assure you its worse in the living flesh. And this apocalyptic scenario I sketch I know is global, if still cushioned in the seats of capital by the built up reserves, which dwindle by the day. In the global south, it’s a matter of life and death. And it’s on these canvasses that we sketch.












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