South Africa: Living in a Future Way Ahead of Our Time

South Africa: Living in a Future Way Ahead of Our Time


The human capacity for oxymoronic optimism will literally take your breath away if you’re among the millions living downwind from the dumps. Actual repair is messy, difficult, and expensive. It’s inherently incomplete and utterly unglamorous. Far easier to imagine orderly, well-regulated futures: compliant, funded, absent all corruption. Prosperous, even. Such futures promise to palliate the past. But imagined futures built on “living ruins”—ruins that continue to bleed and cough and seep and surge—cannot heal the wounds etched into lungs and land and lives.

In South Africa, the material and political lives of these living ruins—their technopolitics—are irreducibly entangled with apartheid, its colonial predecessors, and its aftermath. Technopolitics derive their power from their material forms. This makes them difficult to challenge, let alone undo and rebuild. Their endurance is sustained by residual governance of the people and places they’ve laid to waste.

Residual governance is a prime instrument of the racial contract, an implement for etching inequity into bodies and land. It enables racial capitalism to continue shaping the conditions for “living in [a] future way ahead of our time,” as Potšišo Phasha puts it. Whether by design or by default, the spirit and strategies of residual governance have long driven inaction: minimalism, incrementalism, simplification, delay. Manufactured ignorance—whether malevolent or systemic—is a key weapon in the arsenal, one that makes industrial polluters signatories of the racial contract. Inventing a different future begins with identifying and undoing the mechanisms of residual governance that keep the current future in place.

The future in which South Africans live isn’t just theirs. Well beyond South Africa, residual governance fundamentally drives Anthropocene accelerations. Study after study shows that the wastes generated by (racial) capitalist production systems continue to expand exponentially. These production systems need residual governance to continue their predation. They need to treat people and land as waste dumps; otherwise, they have trouble turning a profit. And they need that treatment to be legal; otherwise, their shareholders might object. When new regulations threaten, corporations work together to create global entities (like the Global Acid Rock Drainage Guide) to define best practices. Often, they find support in guidelines generated by international organizations (like the ICRP), themselves populated by state and industry experts. So when efforts to stave off regulation fail, corporations are ready. They arm their officials with a cobbled-together “international consensus” and send them through revolving doors to help write the rules. When the rules become law, companies hire (or create) consultancies to plan and certify their adherence.

These patterns obtain across a wide range of industries. But let’s stick with mining. Just how much waste does extraction generate globally?

Tackling this apparently simple question immediately spotlights a key area of ignorance, because for many places, the relevant data don’t exist. Mine waste data do not generate value for shareholders, after all.

In fact, they have the opposite effect, highlighting dynamics long externalized by industry. So assessing the worldwide accretion of mineral waste requires combining spotty data with modeling and extrapolation. For example, you can estimate residue volumes by applying “overburden multipliers” to production data (“overburden” being the amount of “sterile” rock requiring removal before getting to the profitable pebbles—the industry’s vocabulary is truly wondrous).

I conducted this exercise in collaboration with Avery Bick, then a graduate student in environmental engineering. We found that extraction waste, like other Anthropocene trends, has risen exponentially since the second half of the 20th century.

The graphs depict exponential increases in quantity of earth moved. As I’ve shown, that’s only the beginning of mining’s volumetric violence. Acid drainage plagues many abandoned mines. And there are a lot of abandoned mines in the world. Canada has around ten thousand; the US, over half a million. A 2001 UN report guessed that if you included every single shaft and alluvial working, the number of abandoned mines worldwide would run well into the millions. That’s not counting mines currently in operation, some of which continue to break records for volume and spread.

A 2017 map of active mines from the World Atlas of Desertification could be read as an atlas of future abandonment. Though not everyone would read it that way, of course. When captains of capitalism and their cronies view such atlases, they see growth (growth!). And, increasingly, an opportunity for greenwashing. Look at all the minerals being pulled out of the ground! Soon we’ll have even more stuff, and more stuff will help us combat climate change! Fear not: we will grow our way out of the problem. (We just need to find the right consultants.)

Such interpretations involve a great deal of magical thinking. Recall Charles Mills’s argument that racial contract theory reflects lived reality, whereas social contract theory, by ignoring race, can only deal in fanciful abstractions. A similar pattern applies here. The neoliberal intellectuals who serve as capitalism’s henchmen insist that limiting growth just isn’t realistic. Much like social contract theorists trumpet the universality of European Enlightenment humanism, the neoliberal crowd makes endless growth sound like a matter of global equity. Poor countries have every right to catch up to wealthy nations, they virtuously proclaim, waving away the proposal that wealthy Earthlings reduce their consumption. How unrealistic! Technological innovation will enable all to prosper without sacrifice. For a bunch of self-styled realists, these henchmen are stunningly cavalier with basic physical principles like the conservation of matter. Abstractions serve their purposes far better. Reciting the growth mantra enables them to propound economic theories and policies premised on an infinite planet.

This move doesn’t just parallel white supremacy’s promotion of colorblindness as an Enlightenment ideal—it depends on it. Rhetoric: growth for all. Practice: treat large groups of people and places as disposable. Magical abstractions even enable capitalists to jujitsu moral critiques into support struts. Historian Asif Siddiqi remarks that the “affective nature of critique—people get angry, they emote, etc.—makes the population feel empowered.” This conveys the illusion that democracy works, that contrary to activist Moekhti Khoda’s accusation, democracy is not just “for the capitalists.” The magical thinking enabled by the twinned abstractions of race-blindness and endless growth enables corporations to embrace climate change as an opportunity rather than a warning. It encourages greenwashing. It promotes carbon accounting as the primary tool for planetary management, distracting from other equally vital aspects of our predicament.

After all, including the full range of issues just complicates matters. Next thing you know, you’re looking at a super wicked problem. Those don’t have solutions. And the lack of a solution can only lead to despair.

Despair is bad. Hope is good. Keep calm and carry on counting carbon.

A South African vantage point on residual governance also illuminates the interscalar dynamics that drive planetary futures—particularly those that link formal and informal practices. These are most evident in settlement patterns. On one end of the continuum, planned, securitized, gated communities extend upwind of dumps. On the other, unplanned shack settlements perch on or immediately next to dumps. In the middle, residents of formal Reconstruction and Development Programme homes and megaproject communities build informal add-ons and backyard rooms to accommodate family members and paying tenants. These backyard builders buy bricks from informal roadside vendors, who crush cast-off construction materials and mine residues, fashioning these discards into blocks with makeshift ovens. This results in residual homes, built with residual materials, for people treated as residual by the state. The construction materials matter, not just because some of them likely emit radon, but also because the homes they form are unlikely to last long; most large, formal brickmaking factories do not use mine tailings because the presence of sulfates causes bricks to crumble easily. Flimsy materials make for flimsy futures. In these scenarios, time itself becomes residual.

The difference between formal and informal construction materials isn’t always clear-cut, mind you. The now-closed African Brick Center, a factory located just west of Kagiso directly across the road from the highly radioactive Robinson dam, was long rumored to derive up to 20 percent of its feed from nearby uraniferous tailings. I couldn’t formally (!) verify this claim. But it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Elsewhere in the world, housing, clinics, roads, and recreational spaces have been constructed with materials derived from uranium tailings, resulting in buildings bursting with radon. Grand Junction, Colorado, underwent a Superfund tear-down of such buildings in the 1970s, but radon-emitting houses in Mounana, Gabon, remain inhabited. Examples such as these make clear why both formal and informal settlement residents refuse to separate environment, housing, food, and water when advocating for their rights. When you live and breathe residual governance every minute of every day, then you know it’s that very entanglement that harms your body, your life, and your livelihood. You can feel it in your bones.

Reworking (or removing) the dumps also follows the interscalar dynamics of formal and informal labor. Corporations like Mintails acquire dumps to squeeze out the last dregs of profit, then indignantly call for police help when they discover that zama zamas have gone to work removing equipment and materials from deserted sites. Meanwhile, zama zamas themselves operate at and across different scales. Some are organized into large groups (sometimes even gangs). Others operate peacefully as independent entrepreneurs. Some stick to the surface, combing the piles for scrap metal. Others descend underground, searching for the metal that symbolizes ultimate wealth. Some were salaried mine workers before closures—or personal initiative—drove them into the informal sector. Others have only ever known mine labor as zama zamas.

Regulatory mechanisms also combine formal and informal practices. Guidelines and regulations, which can run to thousands of pages, seem the epitome of formality. But most have significant, built-in fuzziness. Recall ALARA, the ICRP’s recommendation that operators keep radiation doses “as low as reasonably achievable.” ALARA leaves the question of ability in the hands of industry and national regulators. Those in power decide what counts as reasonable and achievable. These determinations come down to profit (thresholds aren’t reasonable if they cut too much into profits) and capacity (enforcement isn’t achievable without expert regulators and extensive monitoring). Similarly, standards for mine remediation fall within the limits of practicability, a determination made by the state in close consultation with industrial partners. Notions such as “existing exposure scenarios” somehow manage to formalize wiggle room, again leaving it to industries and their cost-benefit decision trees to set the parameters of “ability.”

Finally, knowledge produced by residual governance—and by struggles against its effects—also entangles formal and informal practices.

The space between anecdotal evidence (as the knowledge of the desperate and dispossessed is often described) and peer-reviewed institutional science is a messy continuum, not a stark chasm. From fundamental science to industry research, from well-funded projects to those conducted under conditions of austerity, from dissident science to citizen science, formal and informal modes of knowledge production often rely on each other.

Capitalist craving for commercial certainty spurs regulatory bureaucracies to distinguish and delimit these knowledge modes, certifying some and dismissing others. Yet bureaucracies, whether in South Africa or elsewhere, can never keep up with the constant creation of contamination. The people discarded by racial capitalism—those who have no choice but to grow crops in contaminated soil and breathe polluted air—serve as frontline sensors. Their bodies are the most sensitive of instruments. But the systems of residual governance are not set up to treat their experiences as data. Instead, these experiences disappear into the tickbox of stakeholder consultation, shoved into quaintness as anecdotal evidence.

The effort to separate formality from informality is always political. When informal practices preserve profits, they receive praise for their practicality and flexibility. When community leaders and activists insist on the epistemic authority of their own bodies to push against the absurdity of purified categories, they face denigration and dismissal.

Imagined futures built on “living ruins”—ruins that continue to bleed and cough and seep and surge—cannot heal the wounds etched into lungs and land and lives.

It’s tempting to attribute the increasingly residual character of governance in South Africa to corruption, which has reduced governance to the dregs left after the powerful have drunk their fill. There’s certainly plenty of graft to go around, starting at the top. Following a devastating report by South Africa’s public prosecutor in late 2016, a commission on state capture (i.e., the capture of the state by oligarchs) was established to investigate further details. Headed by Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, the commission spent over three years hearing testimony and digging into records. The reports rendered in early 2022, totaling some 2,500 pages, present mountains of evidence documenting graft across a staggering range of South African industrial leaders and state officials, far beyond the well-known venal relationship between former president Jacob Zuma and the infamous Gupta brothers. As of this writing, it remains to be seen whether (and which) prosecutions will follow.

There’s no question that corruption has undercut progress on mine remediation, among many other things. In South Africa (and elsewhere), corruption at all scales undermines the capacity of already residual governance. But it would be a grave error to conclude that eliminating corruption would suffice. Doing so would simply repeat the errors of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission by limiting accountability to individuals, instead of pursuing the hard work of undoing the system upheld by residual governance.

In any case, venality and graft are hardly specific to South Africa (let alone, as mass media often imply, to Africa in general—whatever that means for a continent with fifty-four countries, whose total landmass exceeds that of the US, China, and India combined). Many of the world’s dominant nations have legalized profiting from politics. At the global scale, offshore tax havens hide profits and bribes, while dumping licenses hide garbage. These forms of legalized corruption buttress residual governance and the modern forms of racial capitalism that it propagates. Of course eliminating corruption would help. Imagine! But this alone would not be enough to reverse the inequities and contaminations that compose the Anthropocene.

South Africa’s liberation struggle presented real opportunities to turn back the tide of racial capitalism, and of the racial contract upon which it rests. Or, failing that, to significantly dampen its worst excesses. And it’s important to recognize that change has happened. It matters that racial segregation and differential treatment are no longer legal, and that all adults can vote. Millions of people have received homes that transformed their lives. Millions receive state payments that can make the difference between eating and starving. Nevertheless, racial capitalism persists, lodged in infrastructure and sustained by residual governance. The liberation struggle is far from over. But like apartheid, it’s taken a new form.

The people who populate this book show what that struggle looks like now, what’s required to invent a different future. Resilience and hope are not abstract affective conditions. They’re work. As community leaders, activists, scientists, lawyers, artists, and journalists know all too well, this work is difficult and frustrating. It requires study after study, hearing after hearing, for decades. Reports and testimonies are necessary (if insufficient) tactics in renewing the struggle against infrastructural inequity. The repetitions themselves index the power and persistence of a racial capitalism so deeply embedded in infrastructure that it stays strong through the very political upheavals that aim to topple it.

Capitalists and the states they capture prefer generalizable solutions. Solutions whose design and transaction costs can be minimized by economies of scale. (Water treatment plants!) Solutions that can be grandly proclaimed from a political podium. (Megaprojects!) Solutions that will make shareholders happy. (Remine the dumps!) Solutions whose parameters will, thanks to some revolving-door action, limit what regulations can demand. (Existing exposure scenarios!) Solutions that oversimplify wicked problems. Solutions that address part of a problem while declaring the rest beyond the solutioneer’s jurisdiction. Solutions with certainty. Walk-away solutions. Final solutions, though no one dares to use that phrase anymore.

Struggles against residual governance challenge these fantasies.

They shine a spotlight on human and molecular details to highlight the flaws of simplified solutionism. They insist that details matter, and not just on a small scale. Details matter as evidence in lawsuits, parliamentary hearings, and public inquiries. Presented as data, photographs, or personal stories, they can create urgency. Details enable community activists to tack between specific forms of pollution and broader trends in order to maximize their leverage. In a city-region as fragmented as Gauteng’s, and a nation-state that seems to spend more energy eating itself alive than serving its citizens, blanket policies mean little if they can’t be enforced at the microlocal level. This makes specifics—down to the placement and reliability of pollution sensors—all important. Like all liberation struggles, fights against residual governance begin as local struggles.

Local action is vital for holding governments, corporations, and their infrastructures to account. Yet identifying the devils in the details— those that belie the promises of the powerful—is not enough to counter the technopolitics of the racial contract, whose expression in infrastructures too often remains invisible (at least to the beneficiaries, including many who aren’t active signatories). Among many other things, fights against residual governance are fights for recognition. Recognition of personhood, for starters—and of how infrastructural inequalities deny personhood.

This liberation struggle demands recognition that political and economic justice can only be achieved via infrastructural justice. It insists that infrastructures be defined not only by their productive potential, but also by their detritus, their damage, and their destructive indifference. For those who fight against it, the opposite of residual governance is not a souped-up technocratic machine. It’s the creation and maintenance of systems and infrastructures that not only recognize and respect their full personhood (their voices, their bodies, their aspirations), but that have mechanisms for sustaining that recognition and respect over time.

Absent a wholesale upheaval of racial capitalism, securing any form of remediation requires building a case place by place. Officials and experts can successfully invoke international expertise to shore up their policies, but when communities try similar tactics (for example, by citing international studies that link specific contaminants to cancer), the response is almost invariably something like but what about here? Or careful, exposure doesn’t mean uptake! Or prove it! International solidarity is vital in the struggle against residual governance. But staggering resource imbalances make building the necessary networks difficult.

Leveraging them is even harder.

Nevertheless, people continue to chip away at the challenges. They have no real choice. Their lives are at stake. After years spent waiting for the state to come to their rescue, they know that the lifeboats are too few, too small, too leaky, and too easily snatched away. Millions of people feel abandoned alongside the mine sites that surround them. Millions feel treated like waste by men who once promised liberation, and now profit from it. And not just in South Africa.

The abandoned cannot afford to think in boxes. Not for them the neat divisions between environment and society, radiotoxicity and chemical toxicity, surface and subsurface rights, scientific evidence and lived experience. They know better. Their bodies and homes form the front lines where these elements entangle and collide with other residues of racial capitalism. They certainly understand the importance of strategic compartmentalization. If designating a zone “nuclear” improves the odds of obtaining a long-promised home, then radiation measurements become a useful technopolitical tool. But for the abandoned, the first goal is not an abstractly imagined pristine environment. It is, quite simply, a breathable, drinkable, edible one, sheltered from the worst molecules of racial capitalism and the Anthropocene. Most other goals require achieving this one first.

The abandoned and the vulnerable know how the world will look if it remains mired in residual governance. Such a world will be insideout, hollow. In it, almost everyone is a zama zama, digging through the toxic dregs. Some will work in gangs. Some will go it alone. Some will form community; they’ll be better off than others. Most will struggle to breathe.

The alternative? No retreat. No surrender. icon

This text is excerpted from Gabrielle Hecht’s Residual Governance: How South Africa Foretells Planetary Futures (©Duke University Press, 2023) and was commissioned by Ben Platt. Featured image: Artisanal Mine Interior Near Lows Creek Mpumalanga (2013). Photograph by Manyeva / Wikimedia Commons (CC 2.0)



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