Aug 17 2009 5:33pm

Xenophobia for Dummies: A District 9 Primer

District 9 opened this weekend, and wow, is it terrific: both gripping and totally thrilling, a thoughtful and intelligent movie chock-full of death rays, mecha battles, and mother ships. It’s also a rare wide-release movie set in a cultural context wildly different from America or Europe. So, as the blogger with (I believe) the most direct experience of South Africa, I thought I’d explain a few of the cultural references that might be mysterious to you:

District Six. A famous ghetto in Cape Town, always South Africa’s most liberal city, in which people of all races coexisted harmoniously even during the apartheid years. In the 1970s, more than 60,000 people were forcibly removed from the district and resettled elsewhere, on the grounds that interracial interaction bred conflict. Cape Town’s District Six Museum maintains a memorial to that shattered community, and the title of District 9 is almost certainly a nod to District Six.

Johannesburg. At one point, the protagonist of District 9 flees through the grass-covered hills that surround this skyscraper-studded megalopolis of 10 million: they’re manmade, the heaped tailings of 19th century gold mining. Some 40% of all the gold ever mined from the Earth came from beneath Johannesburg. To this day, at the Gold Reef City amusement park just south of the city center, you too can plummet half a mile into the earth to tour an ancient gold mine.

Muti. Black magic, the belief in which is pervasive throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and often deadly. I have seen local newspapers in Zimbabwe report the terrifying discoveries of goblins or tokoloshes without irony. See Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun, the best book ever written about Africa, for more about muti, among many other things.

Nigerians. South Africa is a remarkably xenophobic society. Because it is Africa’s economic superpower, immigrants flock to it from across the continent, especially from Zimbabwe, a once-prosperous neighbor ruined by a despotic leader, and Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. But illegal immigrants, particularly Nigerians, are scapegoated for the country’s high crime rate and for taking jobs away from South African citizens. (Sound familiar?) District 9 is partly metaphor for the apartheid years, yes, but also for the xenophobia of present-day South Africa, and I for one was pleased to see that both the movie’s text and subtext feature as one of their major morals: you do not want to fuck with the Nigerians. I was less pleased to see the Nigerian English subtitled.

Prawn. Means shrimp in British-influenced English.

Race. All I want to say about race in South Africa today is that the subject is very, very complicated—this is a country with eleven official languages, and scores of unofficial ones—and any attempt to superimpose American or European norms on the subject should probably be reconsidered before it even begins. That said, the incursion into the alien township, and the way the aliens are treated, are clearly meant to recall the terrible apartheid years.

Townships. South African cities built during apartheid invariably feature a white-dominated downtown surrounded by satellite townships where the black workers lived, with barren no-man’s-lands between. (Soweto, the most famous, is only one of many around Johannesburg; the name comes from Southwest Township.) The apartheid government built them to be governed and controlled with an iron fist: for instance, Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest suburb, is speckled with 200-foot-tall floodlights that could turn night into day so that troops could search the area. The razor-wired alien township in District 9 is little poorer, or more neglected, than the worst townships in South Africa today.

Violence. South Africa is much less violent than most Westerners (and, indeed, most white South Africans) imagine. Johannesburg does have no-go areas such as Hillside, but most of it is perfectly safe by day, and I’ve wandered Cape Town by night without ever setting off my street-smarts alarm. However, it does remain a volatile society, and private security forces such as those in District 9 are ubiquitous.

For more. I recommend the hugely entertaining books Acid Alex, an autobiography by Al Lovejoy, a Zimbabwean/South African reform-school-dropout-turned-drug-dealer-who-found-God, and everything by Jonny Steinberg, particularly The Number, about South Africa’s jails and the truly extraordinary gang mythology found therein.

Jon Evans is the author of several international thrillers, including Dark Places and Invisible Armies, and the forthcoming Vertigo graphic novel The Executor. He also occasionally pretends to be a swashbuckling international journalist. His novel Beasts of New York, an epic fantasy about a squirrel in Central Park, is freely available online, under a Creative Commons license.

2. Schizohedron
Makes me want to see it all the more. Very useful primer; thanks!
seth johnson
3. seth
Thanks for this cool tutorial on the movie's references to South African history. I saw the movie over the weekend. Terrific film. Nice to see solid Science Fiction take the number one box office spot rather than yet another comic book movie.

Jessica Tiffin
4. extemporanea
Deeply unfair that it's only opening here in South Africa in about two weeks, I'm really looking forward to it.

I wonder if there isn't more to the "prawn" reference - there's a Johannesburg-specific giant cricket known as a Parktown Prawn, see Wikepedia, which is alien-looking and frankly disturbing when it runs across your bed unexpectedly in the middle of the night. They're pretty much legendary in Joburg.
Chris Hsiang
5. Grey_Area
Thanks to you and extemporanea for the information. I wonder if "Madam & Eve" would ever make special strips including life with the aliens.
Jason Ramboz
6. jramboz
Thanks for taking the time to write this. It's really interesting (and important) to know, even apart from the movie.
John Fitzingo
7. Xandar01
Jon, thanks for adding some depth to this movie. It amazes me how easy it is to forget the people can be the same everywhere; the same strides toward achievement and the same failings and blindness toward others not like them.

For those who never travel this is even harder. To many times I have met people who have never travel outside of their own state or even city that have little understanding of other cultures.

extemporanea, thanks for the link to the Parktown Prawn
8. sofrina
i thought the movie was fantastic! and i love that you don't really get played out at the end. it's a cold take black, credits up that sort of leaves you still caught in the throws of the story.

there was nothing i did not like.

thanks for the illuminating primer.
9. MattG
I did get a wry chuckle out of the phrase "British-influenced English"

I haven't seen D9 yet, but the more I hear the more I want to!
10. Shadar Auditor
I am looking forward to it as well. Being both a sci-fi fan and a South African I think it'll be awesome.

For all the other Saffas on Tor: 10 best things about District 9:
1. Americans will finally know where Johannesburg is.
2. It's the first local movie that has serious hope of getting an Oscar, not because it's "foreign", but because people really think it's the best movie of the year.
3. It was made for $30 million, and it made $37 million in its first weekend alone, topping the US box office.
4. That District 9 spaceship solves the burning issue of what we're going to do with used 2010 World Cup Soccer stadiums... if we can just figure out how to get them to float upside down.
5. It wasn't made by Leon Schuster.
6. It doesn't star Colin Moss, the schmodel-chick from FHM with the hot sister, or any of the other overly recycled actor "in-crowd" we're all so sick of seeing onscreen.
7. The South Africans in it sound South African, not German, Dutch, French or American.
8. The Van Der Merwe joke has now gone international, possibly galactical.
9. Thanks to lead actor Sharlto Copley, the sexy South African accent will finally get the international recognition it deserves (Arnold Vosloo set us back by at least 10 years).
10. They're already talking about a sequel. Who said crime didn't pay?

PS: I am a Van der Merwe so dit is moer cool!
Jon Evans
11. rezendi
Extemporanea - thanks! I had no idea about the Parkdale Prawn.

Shadar Auditor - ha! Also, what exactly is "the Van Der Merwe joke"?
12. Shadar Auditor
Hey rezendi,

Van der Merwe jokes are like typical sterotype jokes... Closest I can come up with is Irish jokes with a Paddy in there somewhere or Polish jokes in the States.

Only one I can think off offhand is:
"Jan van der Merwe is driving from Johannesburg to Pretoria (60km) and notices a good looking woman hitch-hiking. He pulls over and picks her up. As they drive, he starts chatting her up and smoothly drops his hand on her leg. As they get closer to Pretoria his hand is pretty far up her thigh, so she turns to him and says: 'You can go further.'
So Van drove to Pietersburg (another 150km past Pretoria."
13. Jeff Kelly Lowenstein
I like your primer a lot and wrote a post about Richard Rive's Buckingham Palace, District Six. The novel gives a flavor for the community in apartheid era South Africa that was destroyed under the Group Areas Act:
Jon Evans
14. rezendi
Wanted to add links to a couple of interesting essays on District 9 I found via Twitter:

Out Of Afrofuturism by Henry Jenkins (via Richard Nash)

Another South African perspective from Amigo de Casa (via William Gibson)
seth johnson
15. seth
NPR did a cool story today about District 9 being released in Johannesburg. It has interesting interviews with locals expressing their impressions of the film.


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