There is something wrong with a society where a dog leads a better life than some of the people it is protecting its owners from, writes Suraj Yengde.It is a bright sunny day in Johannesburg. The weekend has started, and restaurants are opening to host the crowds of foodies, wine-lovers, partygoers, and tourists among others in Melville, a suburb in the vicinity of two universities – Johannesburg and Wits.
Melville’s attractions are food, short-term accommodation, bars, and a new mall. Youth flock to taste its delights.
If you pass famous 7th Street, you will witness a carnivalesque scene of suburban Joburg life – the pavements crowded with people eating, chatting over drinks, some in suits having business meetings, others smoking all kinds of herbs.
If you decide to take a walk in its lush side streets and enter one of the avenues adjacent to 7th Street, you would be mistaken to think it would be a peaceful stroll on the path that was host to a series of 7th Street Afro techno-modern logos.
Rushing in rage and hostility, the unexpected bark of a dog surprises you with its big mouth and saliva-dropping teeth. A hound is seen approaching towards you, snarling, to bite your flesh through the other side of the fence. The immediate rush of the dog, eagerly excited to please its owner, subsides. It continues to bark until it loses sight of you.
As you start making your timorous way, trying to forget the heart-racing incident that you just witnessed, the next gate will be host to other surprises. This time by a bunch of dogs barking in rage. Mind you, if you are not expecting such surprises, you might be dead-scared.
Two years ago in Melville, I was invited by a friend to dinner at a rented cottage of a Portuguese-Argentinian couple’s family house. The couple was in their late 50s or early 60s. The house was well managed. I eased myself in, and we started exchanging interests over the course of some drinks.
We discussed many issues – but mainly Indian diaspora’s connection to South Africa and Indian immigration. As the dinner was served, we continued talking about international politics. After the dinner, over the course of dessert, the discussion turned towards the contemporary South African situation.
The couple expressed displeasure, presenting a range of complaints – crime, corruption, failed state, the ANC, lack of services – all leading to one common underlying concern: the security of individuals residing in South Africa.
For them, during apartheid, the state was in control and there was “no crime scene”, said the Argentinian in a sloppy Spanglish accent.
In the post-apartheid scenario, they were well equipped to fix the crime. A private security company (listed on the stock exchange), ADT, to provide quick response to any incident. Electric fences like those used in the game reserves to keep the wildlife away from individual’s property. High walls, motions sensors, barbed wire and also they had a remote controlled panic button.
In addition, their property was taken care of by a highly trained dog to attack intruders who managed to break through the six-layered security.
The woman who hosted us would not give up on her attempts to boast about her dog.
She would tap him and converse in a childlike dialect as if speaking to a young family member.
On talking about her pet, she lectures on animal rights.
She also defends instances when white farmers have their dogs on the front seat and keep their black workers in the back of an open truck. "The dog is very active breed, what if he jumps off the truck without the notice of his owner. People just make noise when a black elderly woman is not given the same place as dog."
The security industry in South Africa is one of the biggest players on the stock exchange.
It is also one of the leading job creators for the unemployed youth, who are often seen in the company’s uniform in boredom around posh complexes, at black and white parties, taking care of their cars parked outside malls, restaurants, hotels and almost anywhere providing security.
Interested in the lives of security staff, I often have conversations with them.
I asked Jabu, a Zulu man in his mid-20s, about his prospects in the industry.
He said he was married and had to look after the family.
So he ended up coming to the place of opportunities, "Joburg", pronounced as Jo-bey-g in his accent.
He complained about his job, the mistreatment by his superiors and the pay scale. Many security staff around Wits University are outsourced contractors who are paid R80 for a 12-hour shift.
As the situation stands, the security industry continues to get clients – individuals and multinational corporations alike – on account of reproduction of fear.
The security is sold on account of threat or, in some instances, to “buy a coup for multinational corporations” as Jean and John Comaroff suggest in the journal Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism.
The threat is propagated, like the notorious governments of the colonial past who engaged the biopolitic in absolute fear to control the population.
In his description of Johannesburg, Achille Mbembe (Cameroonian philosopher, political theorist, and public intellectual) observes its foundation being centred around the sale of people as property.
In the contemporary context, in the post-colonial, post-apartheid system it appears the other way round. The sale of property on people’s fear. Adding to Mbembe’s discourse of material life of the city, it is the circulation of property value on account of people’s race that determines Johannesburg’s nodal economy.
Race continues to be the overarching factor of determining the clauses of economic production.
The security industry operates as a parallel government with its own by-laws.
Johannesburg, like any other major global city, is crime ridden. The prospects of providing security to the white collar employees continue to grow on account of the poor and dispossessed citizens.
Perplexed by the situation, one can also ask if human lives of those on the other side of the fenced Victorian-style houses matter more?
Or if the problem lies in the poverty-ridden unclaimed spaces of unequally distributed South African society.
Dilip Menon (chairperson of Indian Studies and the director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at Wits) sees this as a move from communitas to immunitas, “living together separately”.
Whatever the answer, the guard dogs continue to enjoy the pleasures of good housing, food, comfort, love, care and compassion over "other" South Africans often suspected as a threat to their security.
Meanwhile, a passer-by walking along the beautiful paths of Melville or Melville-like neighbourhoods in South Africa continues to be surprised by angry hounds.
We called it a night after disagreements on various level as it is routine to leave unfinished discussions.
* Suraj Yengde @surajyengde is a Dalit rights activist and an associate with the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard and Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, Wits University.