The Pothole Pandemic: South African exceptionalism, modernity and state failure for the middle class

Authors: Alexandra Appelbaum*, University of California, Berkeley and University of the Witwatersrand
Topics: Urban Geography, Africa, Social Theory
Keywords: potholes, modernity, south african exceptionalism, middle class, discourse
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Ambassador Ballroom, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


South Africa’s belief in its own exceptionalism within the African continent has a long history, and South African (white) middle-class identity has been, at least partially, constructed in relation to Africa as the ‘Other’. A large part of the binary construct between South Africa and the rest of Africa, in the eyes of the South African middle class, is the ‘modern’ infrastructure that typifies South Africa’s cities, as opposed to the perceived rural and chaotic Africa. This is most clearly articulated in the South African middle class outrage and panic about potholes.

A pothole is an indicator of a structural failure in the road infrastructure; as a fixation of the urban middle-class imaginary, potholes are a tangible embodiment of precarity and perceived insecurity. This is fundamentally linked to the precarity of modernity and the perceived encroachment of the African ‘Other’. A key argument of the paper is that the predominantly white middle class hysteria about potholes is driven by fear that the white diasporic modern vision for South Africa, inculcated under apartheid, is crumbling.

Tracing the historical and contemporary discourse of potholes in South African media, this paper demonstrates how potholes have been understood and anxieties expressed, particularly in relation to the meaning of the urban. The paper uses potholes as a lens to explore the relationship between the middle class and the state, as well as the way in which the South African middle class construct their identity; express anxiety, and understand their urbanity.

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