I have just returned from South Africa’s “countryside” where I had gone on a preliminary/exploratory field research. I was basically interested in mapping the architectures (and I mean buildings) that populate the country’s northernmost province, Limpopo. I ended up more fascinated by two issues. One was the extent to which goods made in urban South Africa and others imported from “industrialized” countries outside Africa, are present in the countryside as pollutants. Baby diapers that are not (readily) bio-degradable, lead-based paints and asbestos roofing and piping materials that are still being sold to rural consumers despite their health-related bans in urban areas and in the global north. From a theoretical perspective, it raises interesting questions about the “rural” as the dumping ground of the “urban”; at an applied/public intellectual level, it posits key questions on the possibilities of unemployed youths creating money out of dirt.
The second aspect I was chasing was the tapestry of rural “African stores” and who owns them. I was looking at this as an example of “hidden champions”. I did find a lot of these–a chap who has established a computer and electronics company in his village without ever having trained in computers at all and is now the point man in the wireless mobile technology revolution unfolding there, giving a whole new meaning to the “remote”; villagers that have established grocery stores within the village and capitalize on kinship networks and “the community” as market; and Indian traders that buy up or lease all the grocery stores locally to kill competition, and then charge whatever prices they can, while bringing crappy second-hand goods sold in the wholesales of downtown Johannesuburg, themselves imported from China and the Middle East.
And finally, an emerging “town” in the countryside, one whose origins are quite interesting: a polygamist who had about 30 wives, who had a lot of children with each. At each homestead, in the spirit of his people’s rules of “peaceful and happy polygamy” that what you do unto one wife you do unto all, the chap built one rondavel hut (the traditional round house under thatch that is the signature of a woman’s power) and a bedroom (for the few nights he “visits” each wife, and a quarters for his children with each wife. This basic infrastructure pretty much determined subsequent technological innovations (both originated locally or imported)–grid lines of electricity; municipal water supply; fixed telephone lines; and now subscription to wireless networks.
As our project evolves, I am hoping to get in-depth, more videographic, and get some photos and interviews.