The green expanse soothed my eyes. I was sitting in a luxury hotel, situated at the entrance of a super wealthy residential property in Johannesburg’s private city – redactedii. Comfort - my 27 year-old research associate - and I were debriefing. We had just finished viewing a house on 10,000 square metres of land.
Researcher’s Notes – 10,000 m2 is equal to 2.47 acres. Land prices appear to be much cheaper in metropolitan South Africa as compared to India’s cities.
We presented ourselves as associates of an international politician who was looking to invest. If the real estate agent had asked me which country, I was determined to say Congo. Congo would sell and so would the identity of working for a politician; corrupt politicians everywhere, and especially in South Africa, are part of daily media consumption. Research ethics? I share your concerns. This story aims to complicate your criticality and my researcher identity.
7:30 on a Friday evening. We looked at the price list and told ourselves we deserved a bottle of wine – even if it was going to be the cheapest one. A gentleman came up and said hello. Exchanging pleasantries he pulled a chair, providing us with some unsolicited company. He was clearly drunk.
“I saw you earlier in the afternoon. I have never seen an Indian woman like this before. You were exposed.”
Feeling defensive about my perceived vulnerability, I asked him what he meant.
“Well, you do not see Indian women like this alone and by themselves. They are always with others.”
Researcher’s Notes: His reading was not accurate of the South African Indian women I knew. I read his comment as a historical product of segregation and miscegenation laws couched in elite patriarchy. I was an ‘Indian from India’ and not a ‘South African Indian’ – a useful distinction I had learnt from the field.
As a partner at a big multinational health company he had been to India many times to strike deals with big pharma.
“Comfort, have you been to India? You have to stay at the Taj,” he said encouragingly.
He turned to me, “What are you doing in South Africa?”
“I am an anthropologist interested in understanding property. We work at Wits,” I said.
Researcher’s Notes: I wanted to say that property is the asset class I focus on, to unpack wealth inequality, but why set off alarm bells on a Friday evening?
“Do you stay on the property?” Comfort asked.
“Oh no, this is for the very wealthy. I stay in redactedi.” His modesty seemed uncalled for.
“redactedi is no less,” Comfort said.
From Comfort’s response I gathered that redactedi was where the wealthy political elites of the country lived.
Researcher’s Notes - Business and political elite, check.
(Two young friends at his table asked the waiter to give him water. They probably realised that he needed some steadying.)
We all laughed. Water was what he needed to help him start his story.
“I was one of the first black surgeons in this country. This was in 1981. My speciality was the liver.”
“Why the liver?”
“You see, the liver grows back, no other organ can.” I thought that was rather poetic.
I gathered he was good at what he did, had been on an international fellowship to King’s College in London after which he went to Cape Town. Not given a chance to work on his speciality, he was, instead, posted to the Trauma ward. For two years he would be up all night addressing bullet wounds. There was always the fear of contracting HIV from his patients. What was explicitly missing from his narrative was the everyday racism at the height of Apartheid South Africa that without his choosing, altered his life decisions.
“I had to start wearing a condom you know, Comfort?” He laughed. Comfort and I looked at each other, registering that we were being flirted with. Comfort levelled her gaze at him.
“It is always a good idea to wear one,” I found myself saying sternly.
Researcher’s Notes – What will my field notes say? Was every encounter with men of this profile in my field going to be this way?
Working in Trauma Care drained him, so he moved to business. We were getting broad strokes of five decades of a life. I was eager to hear the missing details but knew this was not the time.
“You must be a very bright man.”
“You think I am bright. I do not think anyone has said that”, he smiled.
(There was a pause; Comfort and I sipped our wine.)
“So, you are researching land?”
I was impressed that he made the connection between property and land. Usually when people heard I was researching property they imagine a project in finance and investment.
“You know the hope is expropriation without compensation!” He said it as a definitive and looked at me preparing for a fight.
Researcher’s Notes: ‘Hope’ for whom I wondered.
“Isn’t the land issue so much more complex?” I asked.
“You would not speak like this if you did not have land to graze your cattle in 1913, and when they threw you out of your land in 1950”.
Researcher’s Notes: 1913 – The Native Land Act, which minimised competition by disallowing Blacks to buy land or be shareholders in white property. 1950 – The Group Areas Act through which cities and towns of South Africa were divided into segregated residential and business areas. People of colour were forcefully removed from their land and homes and sent to cordoned off areas.
“I agree with you in principle,” I said.
He looked comfortable now, not wanting to enter the ring again.
“My wife wrote that report – the Land Commission Report.” I was surprised.
Researcher’s Notes: He supports redistribution. What about his class position?
“My wife would get so many calls. The President, everyone. It was such a difficult time.”
“I will read your wife’s report,” and he gave me her name.
“She is dead now.”
“I am so sorry,” my voice lowered.
Researcher’s Notes – Bereaved.
“The redacted President’s nephew is here and wants to chat. There is a private jet. Do you want to come?”
I cannot remember how I responded. I assume with a mix of sternness and awkward laughter. We exchanged numbers.
“Let me show you a South Africa you have not seen before.”
Researcher's Notes - Two women of colour - black and Indian - at this luxury hotel would fit well within the sugar daddy economy amongst wealthy black men. The blesser and the blessee in South African parlance. We were frustrated about being slotted in this extractive sexual economy, despite making our intentions clear.
Comfort and I looked at each other again. He embraced both of us in turn.
“The hug seemed excessive, Comfort,” I said as we walked back to her car.
Ujithra Ponniah is a Wealth Inequality and Elite Studies fellow at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS), University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
23 April 2022