Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

From Cheap Labour to Surplus Humanity: World-Ecology and the Postapartheid Speculative in Neill Blomkamp's District 9

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

From Cheap Labour to Surplus Humanity: World-Ecology and the Postapartheid Speculative in Neill Blomkamp's District 9

Article excerpt

What are the impulses animating 'the recent phenomenon of visionary sf narratives originating in ... "marginal" national cultures' (Smith Globalization 1)? And in what sense is the appearance of these fictional modalities relatable to the contemporary postcolonial materialities from which they emerge? How might a speculative effulgence be bound up both with local histories of colonisation and with the particular geopolitics of the millennial world-system? In this article, I broach these questions in respect of Neill Blomkamp's District 9 (US/Canada/New Zealand/South Africa 2009), a film which, as I will show, demands critical perspectives cognisant of current globalising forces, but also - perhaps more urgently - a sensitivity to the South African locality with which it directly deals.

The history of this context, and specifically of its political economy, is central to the analysis that follows. Between 1948 and 1994 South Africa was governed according to the infamous policy of 'apartheid'. The word translated from Afrikaans means 'separateness', and in the context of South African history and politics it designates a complex regime of institutionalised inequality, framed in racist terms to ensure white minority rule. After its election in 1948, the National Party (NP) developed and passed into legislation an official taxonomy of races. 'In its infinite wisdom', writes Shaun Irlam, 'the apartheid regime concluded that there were four distinct species and baptized the nation accordingly' (700). The Population Registration Act of 1950 - referenced here by Irlam - crystallises the grounding assumptions on which the state would, over the next 50 years, go on to distribute rights to settle, earn, marry, learn and gather unevenly across South Africa's artificially divided demographics. And the act - along with the wider legislative scaffolding of apartheid - also has deep roots in the previous century, and particularly in a piece of legislation written by the notorious colonial capitalist, Cecil John Rhodes. The Glen Grey Act, enforced in 1894, transformed indigenous-held land into heavily taxed reserve territories. It marks a definitive moment in the history of institutionalised racial segregation in the country, and was instrumental in redressing labour shortages following the discovery of gold in 1886.1 South Africa's newly established mines 'quickly realised that the fundamental requirement for profitable operation was the recruitment of large numbers of Africans at low wages', Charles Feinstein writes (63). Glen Grey, which forced black reserve populations into the wage economy to afford taxation, was a key solution to this problem in its nineteenth-century iteration. As Harold Wolpe argues in his formative economic analysis of twentieth-century South Africa, the complex repressive edifice of apartheid should be understood as an answer to the same problem as this surfaced half a century later (446). The NP administration, on this view, engaged in a sustained attempt to ensure that South Africa's white 'capitalist class' continued to have at its disposal a labour resource at a price and on a scale sufficient to meet the demands of economic growth (427).

In what follows I return to Wolpe's insights, which place cheap labour at the centre of apartheid's programme of human and geographical organisation. I refract his analyses through the lens of world-ecological thinking, and, further, show that together these perspectives shed singular light on conditions in the South Africa of the present day: they focus both the uncanny extension of historical materialities beyond the lifespan of their originary legislations and also the modulation and repurposing of this unevenness under the auspices of neoliberal governance. It is this South Africa, I will argue - shaped by a layering-up of past and present, by an overlap of particular formations of capital - that finds anxious form in the country's increasingly prominent speculative imaginary. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.