Of frogs and fractals

In 1951, a British mathematician and Quaker pacifist named Lewis Fry Richardson was researching the unlikely question of whether there was a link between the probability of two countries going to war and the length of their common border. He noticed that they often could not even agree on the length of their borders: the Spain-Portugal border was quoted at between 987 and 1214km and the Netherlands-Belgium border at between 380 and 499km.

The difference lay in how they measured the border and his simple but penetrating observation was that the smaller the ruler you used to measure, the longer the border got – because a smaller unit of measurement had to take into account more detail and complexity. Measuring every twist and turn made it longer, and the closer you went in, the more twists and turns there would be.

A French-American mathematician, Benold Mandelbrot, in 1967 use this to write a paper called “How long is the coast of Britain?” and concluded that the coastline was – theoretically – of infinite length. This is now called the Richardson Effect and Mandelbrot was the first person to use the word fractal to describe the self-similar shapes which produce this effect.

Going into Diepsloot every day for some months to observe, interview and gather information, I was struck constantly by the realisation that the closer I looked, the more complexity I saw. It was the journalistic equivalent of the Richardson Effect: peeling away layer after layer of this community as I learnt more ever day, did not make things clearer, but more complex and difficult to understand and explain.

You will likely know Diepsloot as a place of fear. From the outside and from the media, you will associate it with high crime levels, violence, protest, xenophobia and vigilante justice. Once you enter it and spend time there, as I did over the last nine months, of course you get a different, much more complex, much more nuanced picture – and this is what I hope to have captured in my book, and to convey today.

After the momentous ANC conference at Polokwane, I wrote a column asking why most media and journalists had got it so wrong, why we had misread Zuma and the political swing that would bring him to power. I said it was because journalists were focused on what was happening in the Union Buildings, in Parliament and in Luthuli House – the edifices of power – and not what was happening among ANC membership and branches, not what was driving the ANC at a local level. There was not enough basic reporting at the grassroots to discern the driving forces behind a Zuma ascendancy.

That is why I went to Diepsloot. If everyone was looking upwards, so to speak, I wanted to look around us and get a fuller understanding of what was happening on the ground. This need was heightened by the outbreak of xenophobic violence in 2008 and the service delivery protests of 2009/10, and a desire to understand what these incidents portend for the future of South Africa. Just yesterday, I wrote a column in Business Day saying that we needed to change the tone and terms of our national debate, and I hope that part of that is more of a focus on places of instability, volatility and challenge, like Diepsloot. Areas such as Diepsloot, informal settlements, exist on the edge of the city in every sense: on the edge of our consciousness, on the edge of our city planning; and on the edge of the law. If we are to confront the inequalities that render our society unstable and our future uncertain, then these places have to move to the centre of our city, our consciousness, our media coverage and our policy debates.

Why did I choose Diepsloot? Well, Diepsloot is interesting for many reasons. One of them is that it sprung up in 1994, so it is a product of the transitional period. It has come to be seen as one of 3/4 places where the many people migrating into Joburg – either from rural areas or from other countries – could rent a piece of land, put up a shack and even join a queue for the housing that was promised. The population grew exponentially, at one stage taking in about 80 new people a day, so that it now numbers about 200 000 people (though let me hastily give you the caveat that all these numbers in relation to Diepsloot are estimates and there are no accurate numbers to go on).

The core of it, known as the Reception Area, is one of the poorest areas of Johannesburg, with very high unemployment (estimates put it above 50%), high levels of dependance on state grants, and a high percentage of Zimbabweans and Mozambicans (probably about 25%),. At the beginning, the city put in taps and toilets, one for 80 houses per sq km, and now there are about 270 houses/sq km. This means the sewage overflows, the toilets constantly break down, conditions are truly hazardous.

In looking at it, one comes face to face with the tough issues of land policy, housing policy and welfare policy. Also, interestingly, it is home to the ANC branch of the year: in January this year, the Ward 96 Havana City branch won the Luthuli Prize for the best organised ANC branch. This means it is a place of lively political activity, with an array of competing structures.

I am a journalist, so my methodology is that of a reporter: I spent about four months interviewing scores of people, hanging out in places like the clinics, watching, attending meetings, following key figures like headmasters, walking with NGO caregivers attending to the sick, eating and drinking in the taverns, and even getting thrashed at the pool table. As a journalist, my work is essentially reportage. I have been criticized for showing no awareness of being white in Diepsloot. It is true that I did not foreground this issue, as may be the trendy way to deal with it, but I don’t doubt that it is clear that I give my perspective, and mine alone, and the choices I made about who to interview, what to use and not use, how to frame and tell the story, reflect who I am and where I come from. But I was conscious that this book was not about me, and that the story should be told, as much as possible through the voices of the people of Diepsloot – albeit processed by me. I try and take the reader on a very local voyage of discovery with me, and try to convey in the book both the possibilities and limitations of this kind of journalism.

I certainly found that I could understand a great deal more about our national political battles when I saw what was happening at a local level, and the way that the national divisions and splits are produced at a branch level. To take one illustration, what you can see happening now in Diepsloot is the Youth League leadership systematically and purposively moving into key position to take hold of the ANC branch, in preparation for driving their agenda in forthcoming leadership and policy battles.
Diepsloot is in the midst of a transition from an informal area to one integrated into the city of Joburg. The political and social structures of Diepsloot grew organically in a situation where there were few rules or regulations, no rule of law, and few state institutions to impose order. So people organised themselves into street committees, which formed community courts, and the Community Policing Forum, which patrolled the streets and dealt with crime – in a situation where there were no police and little access to the justice system. People made their own rules, and the structures to enforce them, about who could put up a shack, where they could do it, and what facilities they could use. They set up their own crèches, informal orphanages an support networks. As you might expect, these structures were sometimes corrupted and crossed the line into protection rackets. They became places of struggle for political dominance.

I want to to tell you about a most extraordinary meeting I stumbled across in Diepsloot. It took place in a shipping container in Diepsloot, converted into a cellphone shop, painted bright red in the company colours. Around the sides, were cellphones attached to car batteries, which people would normally come in a pay to use, but on this morning the shop was closed to allow this meeting to happen. Seated in a circle on beer crates were six members of the newly formed Diepsloot Business Chamber, four of whom represented local traders and one who represented the Foreign Traders Forum, which was made up of a Pakistani Traders Forum and a Somali Traders Forum. Also present was a representative of the SA National Civic Organisation, Sanco, which is a member of the ruling alliance and an organisation with a strong presence in Diepsloot. They had gathered to deal with the complaint from local traders that the foreign traders were opening too many shops, undercutting their prices and driving them out of business. This meeting was shortly after the World Cup, so it was a time of tension over the threat of a resurgence of xenophobic violence. This meeting hammered out an agreement: those foreign traders who were already in Diepsloot could stay, as long as they only operated one shop and closed their second or third shops; and no more foreigners would be allowed in. This agreement was accepted, it received the political stamp of authority from Sanco, and they said it would be reduced to an affidavit to be posted at the police station. Such an agreement would have no legal standing – in fact, it was the formation of a illegal cartel, which would fall foul of our competition law – but it was likely to be implemented by the political forces which control Diepsloot.

What they were doing was redefining who was a foreigner; anyone there that day was acceptable, anyone still outside was not. Those inside had got together to preclude anyone not inside yet.

Now the state is trying to impose the control which it needs in order to do what states do, such as provide security and deliver services. They have to clear shacks to allow roads into the area, to be used by police, ambulances or service delivery vehicles; they are trying to number every shack in order to get a hold on who is coming in and where they build a shack, and to try and constrain that growth; they are trying to introduce policing and stop vigilante groups killing suspected criminals; they are trying to impose health and safety rules on the orphanages and creches which popped up of their own accord; and stop people selling access to electricity and water, or stealing it.

What is interesting is that at this stage the state can only do this in conjunction with the organic, bottom-up structures of Sanco in particular, and attempt to co-opt them. So they provide police to go on patrol with the Community Policing Forum. They negotiate with Sanco to try and clear road access. They employ members of the community to number shacks and report when new shacks go up.

This in-between state is best symbolised by the police station. On the edge of Diepsloot, peering over the settlement, is the biggest police station you have ever seen, half-built. Its arrival is a crucial step in the “normalization” of the area, its integration into the city and state structures, an attempt by the state to deal with its most fundamental role, having the sole right to impose its authority by force. But it is half-built and there has been no work on it for abut 18 months. After much inquiring, I found out that this was because the builder had all his accounts frozen because of a much earlier dispute in a different place, and thus could no longer pay his workers. The station stands therefore as an imposing and impressive symbol of the state’s desire – and failure – to take command of the place, to impose its will and to bring the services that states bring.

It is not true to say that the state does nothing. It has built five schools, two clinics, three community halls, a library, a skills development centre, an emergency services centre with ambulances and firestation, and half a police station. It is true to say that the state cannot possibly keep up with the growth of the place, and its plans and service delivery runs a steady five years behind needs and demands and is constantly falling further behind.

I spent a good deal of time in the city structures, trying to understand why development appeared to be so fragmented, haphazard and stop-start. You will see in my book that there are many multiple reasons for this: lack of coordination in city structures; inappropriate housing policies; political battles and squabbles …

But I would like to focus on one element today. I believe we need to rid ourselves of the notion of service delivery, which implies a top-down role for the state, rather like a pizza-delivery service. Stick around and we will bring it to you. You might have to wait a bit, and it might be cold when delivered, but it will come eventually. This is disempowering, rendering citizens as passive receivers of state largesse, rather than the makers and shapers of their own development – and it goes to the heart of how we envisage the process of development. There is no shortage of energy and determination in Diepsloot, of people looking for ways in which to participate as citizens; but they are told, hang one, wait a bit, and we will give you a house. Those in shacks – and some have been waiting in the Reception Area fo 15 years – are told they have no security where they are. One has to ask: would you spend money on your house if you were told you were going to be moved to a better one and the current one would be destroyed? There is something fundamentally wrong with this promise and its effect on communities such as this, made worse by the fact that the state is aware that in fact they cannot and will not deliver as many houses as are needed in an area such as this. What we are failing to do is to mobilise the energy, structures and citizens of a place like Diesploot to contribution to their own solutions for the housing and related problems. Rather than try and facilitate solutions, the state makes unrealistic promises of top-down delivery.

One of the most striking things about Diepsloot, for a media watcher like me, is the absence of a local media which give voice to citizens. Of all the criticism we hear of our media, the one we hear the least is of this gaping silence. If people want to be heard, want to stake their claim as active citizens, we give them little choice but to take to the streets in protest. And then we are surprised when they do it.

I titled this talk, Of fractals and Frogs, so let me tell you that one of the things I came across in trying to understand the impediments to development in this area – and perhaps the most surprising – was a frog, the Giant African Bullfrog, Pixicephalus Africanus, in fact. This frog has a great deal in common with Gauteng urban developers. They both like the marshy northern areas of Joburg. The frog is a large, ugly, bad-tempered creature which protects its children fiercely, but also sometimes eats them. I will leave you to work out how that relates to Gauteng urban develops.

The frog is an indicator species, which because of its porous skin, lets us know quickly when there is a water problem. If you want to know the state of the environment in northern Joburg, listen for the cow-like moo of this amphibian. If you can’t hear it, you know there is a problem.

If you want to know the state of our city and country, my book is an appeal to listen to the people of Deipsloot. But in this case, it is when you hear noise that you should worry. It is when the people of Diepsloot are making a row that you should think about the future of our city and country.

*A public lecture, deliveryed at the University of Johannesburg, 4 Aigist 2011

One thought on “Of frogs and fractals

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