A Blog about Literature, Culture and the Environment

From Apartheid South Africa to Climate Apartheid: Mongane Wally Serote’s “City Johannesburg”


Image by Clodagh Da Paixao on Unsplash

In one of the most recognisable South African poems of the twentieth century, Mongane Wally Serote’s“City Johannesburg” (written circa 1971), the black narrator of the poem searches through the pockets of his trousers and jacket for his passbook as he mockingly salutes the city of Johannesburg, the sprawling metropolis that developed out of the discovery of gold in the surrounding Witwatersrand gold reef in the 1880s. The history of modern racial segregation in South Africa is tied to the rise of industrialisation in the late 19th century which brought about the need to obtain a cheap labour force to fuel the region’s bourgeoning new industries whilst simultaneously preserving the racial composition of white cities. This process was intensified through the commencement of the policy of apartheid – meaning apartness, or separation of the races – in 1948.Serote’s poem is an explicit response to the dual universe fostered under these conditions in the early 1970s, where movement between the bustling white city and designated black townships and Bantustans was monitored by strict influx control policies that required black travellers to carry passbooks.

The poem “City Johannesburg” offers us a glimpse of the sociality of South African apartheid. Yet while the poem alludes to the distant social worlds fostered under apartheid laws – what the Nobel Prize laureate Nadine Gordimer aptly referred to as “a world of strangers” in her 1958 novel of the same name – it arguably also gives form to the conditions of a kind of environmental apartheid that endured through and alongside the social and political dimensions of white segregationist rule. For although Serote salutes the modern city of Johannesburg with its “neon flowers” and “cement trees” (a reference to the city’s expansive urban forest), he also gazes back at the degraded environment of the formerly blackdesignated areas – places characterized by soil erosion, “dongas” (dry gullies) and whirling dust. 

In “City Johannesburg”, Serote registers the extraordinary environmental destruction wrought by South African apartheid, not only through intensive industrial activities like mining, but also through the notorious Land Acts of 1913 and 1936, which increased pressure on the 13% of land reserved for black populations (some of the worst and most degraded in the country) and led to disastrous ecological consequences such as soil erosion and desertification. These consequences made living and producing food in these rural areas increasingly difficult, with women oftenbearing the greatest burden. The effects of soil erosion in the formerly black areas were powerfully illustrated by Alan Paton in his celebrated novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), which opens with a description of the degraded hills of the rural Ixopo Valley in the eastern province of Kwa-Zulu Natal. The conditions of this environmental apartheid were exacerbated by the way some of the country’s most prized landscapes, protected by nature parks like the iconic Kruger National Park, were reserved exclusively for white visitors. 

In recent years, UN experts have deployed the term “climate apartheid” to describe a potential future in which the last fifty years of development, global health and poverty reduction threatens to be undone by the risks associated with global anthropogenic climate change. This would lead to a scenario whereby the rich would be able to pay their way out of intolerable conditions while the majority of the world would bear the brunt of ecological damage. In a world where unequal wealth distribution is entangled with lingering racial and gender divisions – as exemplified by South Africa, which remains one of the most, if not the most, unequal societies in the world – it is clear that climate apartheid will not be colour-blind. This draws attention to the importance of environmental justice to the struggle against climate change, understood as justice for those communities that are most vulnerable to environmental risks by virtue of their race, class, gender or location.

There is a certain blindness, however, underpinningthe rush to adopt the dystopic metaphor of climate apartheid as signifier for a possible future defined by unequal exposure to a suddenly hostile environment. As the case of South Africa shows, certain populations have for centuries endured proximity to hostile, life-threatening environments under apartheid-like conditions. The geographer Kathryn Yusoff makes a similar argument in her book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018), where she critiques the “White Geology” of the Anthropocene, referring to the narrative that the Anthropocene – the new geological epoch of human impact on the earth – introduces a new era in which humans suddenly find themselves exposed to the effects of a volatile planet. In fact, a sense of continuity between past and present underlies the way marginalised communities (especially black communities) have long endured exposure to environmental risks.

Evidently, a proper scrutiny of climate apartheid cannot be achieved merely with recourse to a projected future, but requires interrogation of what could be called climate apartheid’s “deep history” over the last several centuries, in particular the history of racialized resource-based capitalism and colonial expansionism – where racial oppression and environmental degradation have tended to meet.  

Might the climate apartheid metaphor that has seized hold of public discourse as a projection for the future be complicated by the overlapping histories of the past and present? Indeed, might it be possible to envisage more stringent ties between the seemingly unrelated moments of apartheid South Africa and climate apartheid? What implications would this have for the ways we organise our environmental politics and activism at a time of increasing uncertainty over the state of people and climate?

The language of apartheid has been decoupled from its provenance in South African history in the service of an imagined future of uneven climate vulnerability.Language is indeed dynamic. It gathers new meanings and sheds older connotations. Yet it is possible that a broader case exists for bringing the two together: for recognising how climate apartheid necessarily draws us into a deep history of systemic racial oppression and environmental degradation across the formerly colonised world, and in turn how the particularities of apartheid South Africa might have always been fully planetary in scope – that is, part of a gradual process of rendering the earth uninhabitable for some and more liveable for others.

It is against this backdrop that the poem “City Johannesburg” might be read from today’s viewpoint as a fleeting image of the uneven planetary transformations – the climate apartheid – that have been with us for some time, persistently for some, and imperceptibly for others.

Author: Benjamin Klein holds an MPhil in Environmental Humanities from the University of Cape Town and an MA in English from the University of Leeds. He is currently a doctoral candidate in the English faculty at the University of Cambridge, where he is completing a dissertation on environmental justice in modern South African literature. His research interests lie in the intersections between environmental criticism and postcolonial thought, with a broad concern for literary engagements with the nonhuman world across varying historical, cultural and geographical contexts in the Global South. He has published ecocritical work in the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry and Oxford Research in English.

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