The Real-Life District 9—Class and Sci-Fi in South Africa

By Malcolm MacIver | January 12, 2011 3:52 pm

Greetings from South Africa, where I’ve been visiting these past two weeks. It’s a country of great beauty and cultural complexity. Besides mastering driving on the left hand side of the road, and not getting too excited when I see “ROBOT” painted in giant white letters on the road (it means stop lights ahead), I made a stop at the District 6 Museum in Cape Town. The events surrounding the real District 6 were part of the inspiration for both the title and content of District 9, the great 2009 science fiction mockumentary set in South Africa.

The movie, if you haven’t seen it, is about a group of aliens who arrive on a mysterious mother ship hovering above South Africa. Eventually the authorities send an expedition up to find out what’s going on and discover a bunch of starving aliens. They are settled in a South African township called District 9, directly below the mother ship (a squatter camp in the township of Soweto, called Chiawelo, was used for the shooting). Much of the story revolves around the forced relocation of the aliens from District 9 to District 10. Besides being confined to the township and being forcibly relocated, they suffer various other kinds of oppression very reminiscent of the ways blacks were treated during the time of apartheid. Interestingly, in this case, South Africans of all colors are united in their hatred and mistreatment of the aliens, derogatively called “Prawns” (not least because they look like supersized bipedal version of king prawns, a delicious crustacean that is often on the menu at nicer restaurants in South Africa).

In the events of the real District 6 in Cape Town, a thriving community of 60,000 people of various races were forcibly relocated over the course of two decades, starting in the late 1960s. The entire district was then bulldozed for subsequent redevelopment that is stalled to this day. The relocation sparked large protests and great bitterness. The District 6 Museum goes through this history as a reminder of a key historical event during the painful times of apartheid.

Science fiction is rare in South Africa, as Deirdre Byrne wrote in an analysis back in 2004. As District 9 demonstrates, the themes of South African sci-fi are often abstracted versions of the country’s racial tensions and disparities in access to resources. For example, Michael Cope’s book Spiral of Fire, is about a novelist writing a science-fiction story. The story within the story is about an anthropologist who comes to another planet to study a particular sect in the southern area of the planet. Here the anthropologist finds a culture that seems the polar opposite of South Africa in many ways—for example, it is completely egalitarian.

The rarity of science fiction has led me to wonder whether sci-fi is a privileged genre that can only thrive in wealthy countries. Or is it more basic than that? Most people here lack access—or even exposure—to technology, particularly in rural areas. Indeed, they often struggle to rise above the level of subsistence (many of the residents Chiawelo, where District 9 was filmed, were too poor to get transportation and a ticket to see the film). And yet I’m writing this in one of the more remote parts of the country, a small village near Coffee Bay in the Eastern Cape, via an Internet connection through their excellent cellular phone network. The gap between rich and poor in this part of Africa is larger than nearly anywhere else. There is a good technical infrastructure, but outside of the cell network, it is mostly confined to the wealthier areas of the country. The “digital divide” that people in developed countries worry about is therefore significantly worse here. Crossing it may also be part of the solution, of course, and perhaps then sci-fi can become a playground for South Africans to explore their fears and hopes regarding emerging technology as it is elsewhere.

Reference: Science Fiction in South Africa, by Deirdre C. Byrne. PMLA, Vol. 119, No. 3, Special Topic: Science Fiction and Literary Studies: The Next Millennium (May, 2004), pp. 522-525

Photo: Flickr / Big Bambooly

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Movies, Politics
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Comments (2)

  1. Pieter Nagel

    “Prawns” in District 9 does not refer to crustaceans.

    It is a reference to Parktown Prawns, a South African nickname for a type of large cricket that also “infests” affluent suburbs similarly to how the South Africans in the movie felt that the aliens “infested” Johannesburg.

  2. Mitch

    I saw District 9 a couple of years ago. I only understood it completely when I started living in Namibia, which used to be under South Africa, last year.

    I think it’s an awesome movie and you captured what the movie was really all about.

    Cheers!

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