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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2010 > July 2010 > A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

Toronto and Johannesburg are both hosting major international events — but only one is doing it well

Thursday 1 July 2010, by Richard Poplak

The FIFA World Cup Finals and the G20 summit may at first glance seem entirely disparate, but both events have had a profound effect on the narratives of their respective cities. Those narratives, at least this week, are linked, and deserve a review.

Earlier this week, I found myself traversing two worlds — both of them familiar, both suddenly upside-down. For years, I’ve been commuting between Toronto and Johannesburg, which is not quite as bad as the 400 to Barrie during rush hour, but comes a near second. This week, both cities have been in the news, if for very different reasons.

Let’s start with Toronto. On a recent Tuesday in June, I sat at a sushi restaurant in the downtown core, staring out at the long line of concrete and chain link barricades that suddenly dominated Wellington Street. I was reminded of Beirut, a city famously divided by such contrivances into segments, sectors, zones — “a house of many mansions,” as Kamil Salibi put it. The effect was profoundly disorienting, ameliorated only by the relative good repair of the surrounding skyscrapers. What struck me was how easy it is to fortify a city, to take command of it from above and afar, to wrest it from its citizenry as if they had no claim on it in the first place. Toronto, like Beirut, was now divided into security zones with varying degrees of access. All it took was the brute force of half a billion bucks — a pittance really, if you think of what it buys you: A major Western city, for a few days.

The twenty visiting luminaries and their vast entourages have accepted our invitation; in return, we owe them protection. Once every eight years, Canada gets to set the agenda at the G20 summit, and this is a not an insignificant forum. (Okay, perhaps it is. Such is the price of eating at the adults’ table.) Still, the price tag is a head scratcher, no matter how meticulously the government breaks it down. And as far as I’m concerned, money isn’t the worst of it. What, I can’t help wondering, is at stake here?

Johannesburg helps answer that question. In order to properly consider the links, I must describe my itinerary of the past several days. It goes like this: New York City to the Billy Bishop airport on Toronto Island. No buses to downtown, because the Royal York Hotel depot is in the main security zone. Cops everywhere. Cab home, drop off old luggage, collect new luggage. Drive along the Gardiner to Pearson International, all the while reading electronic security alerts warning of impending delays and shutdowns. The city wired, on edge. Slower than usual security lines at Pearson. An interminable flight. Land at Oliver Tambo International, Johannesburg. Brace for hell. Instead, at least a hundred customs officials manning their booths, unobtrusive security guards, smiling cops.

Wait a second. Where was I?

As I mentioned, this may at first seem a fatuous comparison. Toronto is hosting twenty world leaders who count their collective enemies in the billions; Johannesburg is the temporary Ellis Island for drunken legions from South America, Europe, and beyond. These World Cup Finals would, however, rate at least an Orange on the old Bush-era alert system. South Africa and its security partners sifted through dozens of terrorist threats. Xenophobic violence against migrant African workers wracked the country two years ago, leaving hundreds dead; Nigerians, who are here in the tens of thousands, bore some of the worst of it. Hooliganism is always a potential blight on these tournaments. And there are scores of South Africans with real grievances against their government, who threatened to use the Cup Finals as a platform by staging strikes and protests.

So where, then, are all the riot cops and heavily armed military junta types carrying AKs? (Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium is more fortified during a pre-season friendly than was Soccer City during the Ghana/Germany matchup.) South Africa’s ruling ANC government hasn’t exactly been above the tinpot tactics. They’ve cleared the streets of homeless kids and other undesirables by rounding them up and dumping them of the edges of major cities; doubtless, other such stories will out when the hordes have left for home. That said, South Africa’s undertrained, underpaid police force (or SAP) is performing admirably, against odds that are resolutely against them. Ontologically speaking, the democratic-era SAP was hamstrung when the old regime cleared out its offices; the force was purged of the apartheid-era brass with millions of man hours of experience, most of which was replaced by inefficient, entitled ANC struggle-istas. (Meet Jackie Selebi. Enough said.)

This was nothing compared to the formidable social impediment that the SAP faces. So many of the people they must police — in the main, the rural and urban poor — went unpoliced during the apartheid era, and the act of policing them now requires compromises that make the SAP both more and less than a police force. That unpoliced vacuum was filled by other elements. They will not go quietly.

South African journalist Jonny Steinberg, in his excellent Thin Blue: The Unwritten Rules of Policing South Africa, puts it this way:

The most important precondition for policing in a democratic society is the consent of the general population to be policed. A people that is policed is one that lives in a condition of civil peace. Collectively, it understands that conflicts do arise, but it regards those as temporary ruptures, not as threats to the underlying order. It accepts… that a state agency must exist to deal with these breaches of the peace. A precondition of democratic policing is that there is a demand for it among the general population.

In other words, democratic policing is less about authority from above, and rather more about the act of being policed. It’s a deal we make. For the meantime, and in the context of the Cup Finals, many South Africans have made that deal. (I’m speaking here as much about the wealthy as the poor; contempt for the police is the one South African universal.) In a city as ordinarily violent as Johannesburg, calm, of a sort, now prevails. The road to the stadiums and the fan parks take visitors through areas of the country otherwise untouched by the sheen of the tournament; the consent is thus broader than it is narrow. That SAP are policing Soccer City due to the largesse of South African taxpayers (thanks to a labour scandal within Soccer City’s Stadium Management SA, which underpaid its guards, resulting in a strike just days before the first game) may turn out to be a good thing, in as much as paying for anything twice can be considered a positive. Private security guards could not transfer the knowledge they accumulate during these games into an agency of democratic government. A police force can.

Is this temporary consent something that can be leveraged into a larger social transformation? It’s too soon to say. Certainly, South Africa’s poor aren’t thronging into stadiums to watch World Cup games; they don’t get to see their smiling martinets in new uniforms. But the police themselves are being recultured, as are certain sections of society. This is how social transformation starts. In increments.

What on earth, you ask, does this have to do with Toronto, a town that could be cast as Johannesburg’s flipside? Everything. In light of what we’ve discussed, perhaps Toronto’s inhabitants must now, under the thumb of the summit, urgently consider the fact that they have over-consented to being policed. That they have relinquished certain inviolable rights. That our representatives in Ottawa have misread the idea of policing in a democratic society, no matter how extraordinary the circumstances. That the G20 may leave a lasting legacy, manifest in sound cannons and CCTV cameras and well-trained, easily mobilized riot cops. That this exercise can be equally as transformative for Toronto’s police and citizens as the World Cup can be for Johannesburg’s.

All this, depending on whether you dig your Foucault or your Rudy Giuliani, may be a good or a bad thing. But we cannot shy away from the fact that we have consented to being policed in a way that does not square with so many of our other values. Protesters’ rights notwithstanding, the real democratic issue here is with those of us who call the city home. It’s tempting to think of Toronto’s current iteration as Stephan Harper’s iron-fisted ethos writ in concrete and chain link, but that’s bunk. Anyone on Parliament Hill, regardless of affiliation, would have done the same. It’s not their fault. It’s ours.

Moving forward, in the interests of not repeating this conversation eight years hence when our twenty exalted friends return, what are our options? On the one hand, there’s Skype. On the other, we should pause to wonder what else a billion-plus dollars (the G8 and G20 bill combined) might have bought us. How about a purpose built, high-tech conference centre, with a hotel attached, somewhere up north with a workable airport? It could be easily securable, constructed in consultation with the world’s best anti-terrorist minds, sport a defined perimeter, and in the interests of pseudo-democracy, a protest area visible from the site. This piece of legacy infrastructure could be public/private, open for business year round. It could even front a real lake. This infinitesimal sliver of Canada is where we would host luminaries from elsewhere. It is the only consent we can afford to part with.

What we can never again consent to in peacetime is our cities coming under lockdown, our streets cut into segments, our neighbourhoods divided into zones. We cannot agree to be barred from our places of commerce, our universities, our democratic institutions. We cannot, ever, consent to live in a house of many mansions.

So, on the one hand, Johannesburg, and a tentative move to something more. And on the other, Toronto, and a slide into something less. It’s a slide that we must stay.

Reproduced with kind permission from the fine people at the Walrus

RICHARD POPLAK is a writer, traveller, kibitzer. He is the author of Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-era South Africa (Penguin 2007); and The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Penguin, 2009).