Democracy’s Infrastructure

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Democracy’s Infrastructure –
Techno-Politics & Protest after Apartheid
By Anita Von Schnitzler
Princeton University Press – £22.95

By the standards of students of the liberal principles, the southern African plural urban society is in need of a great deal of reform before it could be expected to function well.

                                                                                       J.A. Lombard 1978

Surely this is a most profound understatement of the most profound order?

In 1978, Nelson Mandela was still incarcerated on Robben Island. It was also his sixtieth birthday, which the then British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, acknowledged, by sending him formal greetings from the House of Commons. I should imagine Mandela was beside himself with joy; especially as South African society was, if nothing else, still fundamentally out of control and seemingly beyond repair.

Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves amid a society, still teetering on the brink of breakdown, although said breakdown is supposedly reflective of South African society itself.

As much is coherently brought to bear throughout Democracy’s Infrastructure – Techno-Politics & Protest after Apartheid, by the anthropologist, Anita von Schnitzler. A savvy account of an overtly troubled nation, written from the premise of dare I actually write: that of a semi-apolitical perspective; namely that of the country’s water rights and the introduction of the all governing (it would seem) water meter.

A technological product or policing breakthrough or however you’d like to describe it, which, as von Schnitzler explains, is more clinically Orwellian, than many might initially imagine: ”A prepaid meter is a device, which, apart from measuring networked services such as electricity, gas, or water, automatically disconnects users in cases of nonpayment. In order to access services, users have to purchase and load up credit tokens in advance, either by entering a numerical code or by using a magnetic key or card. Failure to do so results in immediate ”self-disconnection.” While the meter is one of many increasingly sophisticated infrastructure technologies that mediate access to flows of goods, information, and money in many places of the world today, it is also a distinctly South African thing […]. Living prepaid mirrors life in a moment in which income has become precarious, where reliance on a regular monthly wage is the exception rather than the norm. Here, payment for basic services is no longer shaped by the cyclical temporality of regularly recurring monthly salaries and bills; instead, income as well as payment is often incremental and ad hoc.”

By it’s very nature then, living ‘prepaid’ has essentially been introduced and designated to ultimately fail.

And to fail in such a way as to both condone and promote an everyday existence which is undeniably stressful – to say the least.
Or is it?: ”While the threat of cutoff is what makes many residents object to prepaid meters, it is paradoxically also this ability to prevent debts from accumulating that often makes them attractive. Prepaid meters, in this sense, are technologies of precarity that reflect the multiple dilemmas and vicissitudes of life after the ”end of the salary” (Mbembe and Roitman 1996). Thus, they provide a window onto larger shifts in experiences of time, consumption, and life after formal employment.”

Hmm….
As the second part of the book’s title suggests (Techno-Politics & Protest after Apartheid), these six chapters traverse much of what is enabling South Africa to move forward, whilst simultaneously dissecting that which is quintessentially holding it back.

David Marx

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