Johannesburg and surroundings, from space. Google Maps view, November, 2023.Johannesburg and surroundings, from space. Google Maps view, November, 2023.
Linda Ndlovu, Danie lMandlo, Dumisani Mahlangu, and Calvin Sibanda, 2013. These four Zimbabwean men, writes photographer Ilan Godfrey, were “highly skilled informal diggers with many years of experience,” respected in their communities for their courage and skills. Godfrey visited their worksite many times to build up the trust required to photograph and name them. © Ilan Godfrey, "Legacy of the Mine". Linda Ndlovu, Danie lMandlo, Dumisani Mahlangu, and Calvin Sibanda, 2013. These four Zimbabwean men, writes photographer Ilan Godfrey, were “highly skilled informal diggers with many years of experience,” respected in their communities for their courage and skills. Godfrey visited their worksite many times to build up the trust required to photograph and name them. © Ilan Godfrey, "Legacy of the Mine".
Precious Sibanda, Roodepoort, 2013. Also from Zimbabwe, Sibanda arrived in South Africa a few months before this photo was taken. She was one of several hundred women responsible for grinding rocks excavated by informal gold diggers. © Ilan Godfrey, “Legacy of the Mine”. Precious Sibanda, Roodepoort, 2013. Also from Zimbabwe, Sibanda arrived in South Africa a few months before this photo was taken. She was one of several hundred women responsible for grinding rocks excavated by informal gold diggers. © Ilan Godfrey, “Legacy of the Mine”.

YOU CAN SEE APARTHEID FROM SPACE / Residual Governance – How South Africa Foretells Planetary Futures

By Gabrielle Hecht



The following text is an excerpt from the new book Residual Governance: How South Africa Foretells Planetary Futures (Copyright Duke University Press, 2023), where Gabrielle Hecht dives in to the history of South African gold and uranium mining, showing how forms of state governance and the fight for infrastructural and environmental justice tell a global story of racial capitalism and the Anthropocene.


TO FIND JOHANNESBURG and Soweto from space, look for a string of orange and yellow polygons. The largest ones tend to have all straight sides, though a few combine straight and curvy edges. Zoom in, and notice a boulevard bisecting the city, running west to east for over 8 kilometers. Continuing your descent, observe that throughout the most built-up parts of the metropolis, the polygons all sit south of this thorough fare. Keep going until you see its name appear on your online satellite map: the Main Reef Road.

Maybe you scratch your head in puzzlement. You’re looking at a landlocked conglomeration, after all. But then you start thinking on deep time scales and realize that this reef is a relic, the remains of a sea that retreated long ago: a mineral reef, not a coral reef. As you zoom in, notice the first landmark named by your online map: Gold Reef City Theme Park. Switch to 3D and continue clicking to downscale. The polygons, you now see, represent titanic tailings piles, composed of the residues of extraction. The always already fractured city was built on gold. The traces remain visible from space, consummate markers of the Anthropocene.

How big are these polygons? You decide to pay them a visit. As your plane approaches, you get a bird’s-eye view of the Witwatersrand plateau, commonly known as the Rand: a nearly 100-kilometer-long band stretching west to east right through the metropolis. Over one-third of all the gold ever produced on Earth comes from this zone.(1) Its mines are the deepest and hottest on the planet, and its name was adopted as that of South Africa’s currency, the rand. Your plane nears O. R. Tambo airport. In actual 3D, the piles look bigger than ever, less like abstract polygons and more like man-made mountains. An hour after landing, you’ve boarded the Gautrain into town. The next day, a colleague fetches you for a drive along the Main Reef Road. The stark spatial distribution of the residues acquires texture.

From above, the piles seemed lifeless. But if you turn off the Main Reef Road, you’ll notice that some are inhabited. On one, you observe a group of people in white robes. At the bottom of another, nestled in a small cluster of trees, you detect some shacks. There’s a lot of life along the road itself: people selling cool drinks, peddling fruit, walking home or to work. A man sells concrete bricks at one intersection. At another, a woman tends a kiln next to a substantial pile of gravel. You begin pulling over to look closer, maybe ask some questions. You may need an interpreter for some of these conversations: South Africa has eleven official languages plus a long history of migrant labor, so you never know which language you might encounter. The concrete bricks, you learn, are composed of discarded rocks and other found materials. Trash fuels the kiln, where the woman is firing up bricks made from rocks and clay.

You’re still within city limits when your colleague spies an unmaintained road branching off from the thoroughfare. It leads around another pile of rocks: a hill from your current vantage point, but unremarkable from the plane. You find yourself on sloping ground. Near the top sits another brick-making operation, much larger than the ones by the side of the road but nowhere near industrial scale.

If you’re foreign to South Africa, it’s conceivable that until you exit the car, your experience of the environment through which you’ve traveled is independent of your racial identity or appearance (though not your economic class: you’re in a private car, after all). Once you climb out of the car, however, that’s no longer plausible.

A gaunt old white man slowly walks toward you. “Hallo,” he says. Wat gaan aan? (What’s up?) A small group of Black men, taking a break from their labor, eye you from across a courtyard. A few raise their hands in greeting. Others simply stare. Your skin tone and facial features shape their reactions. So do your clothes, your car—really, everything about you. For the rest of this story to ring true, therefore, you must imagine that you’re a foreign white female academic. Wat gaan aan?

Your white South African colleague is an architect. In fluent Afrikaans, she explains that you’re both interested in the bricks. What are they made of? Who buys them? The man takes you into his dilapidated office, pushes a cat off his desk, and describes his business. People in nearby Soweto come to him for bricks to build additions to their government-issued houses, enabling them to rent out rooms to supplement their income. Or they use them to build houses in the first place, because the government hasn’t come anywhere near meeting its goal of universal housing.

The man takes you on a tour around the site, explaining the operation. Your colleague asks some pointed questions about the brick-making process. She wanders off to take photographs and collect a few gravel samples. He turns to you. So, he says in English, you’re from abroad? You confirm. After a bit of small talk, he yanks his head toward your colleague, who’s still prowling around. Does she know that all the quartzite around here is radioactive? You nod. The man is no fool. He’s starting to figure out why you’re here. You wonder if he asks his Soweto clients that question.

Your colleague returns, and your little group moves down the hill, which after some sloping reveals a massive, mined-out pit. Perhaps you noticed this one from the plane. A little way down the slope—not visible until you get past the rise—a group of Black men perch above a small encampment, shirts strung along a clothesline leading to makeshift shelters. The Afrikaner watches your reaction. Your colleague asks, Zama zama? He confirms, adding that the men in this group hail from Zimbabwe and Lesotho.

Time for another perspective. In this mental exercise, you’re male; southern African, not North American or European; Black, not white.

Your life circumstances have led you to emigrate to South Africa in search of a livelihood. Hundreds of thousands have done this before you, packed onto coal-powered trains by recruiters for the world’s deepest mines. Those jobs are long gone. But your brother, who used to hold one of them, knows that small bits of gold still lurk in the empty shafts. Following his advice, you assemble resources for the trip. Your brother accompanies you and your cousins. Other men bring their wives and sisters. You pay a truck driver to conceal you under a pile of goods for the border crossing, though you have a bribe ready for the guards if you get caught. After a long, bumpy, dusty trip, you finally arrive in Johannesburg.(2)

You’re not welcome there. You’re an alien. Locals view you with suspicion, sometimes fear. No one will hire you into a salaried job, regardless of your education and experience. Not that there are many salaried jobs to go around. But you’ve prepared for this. Your brother knows a cousin of a friend of an uncle who steers you to a community where others speak your language. They help you buy tools and identify a shaft that isn’t already spoken for. A team of women will grind the rocks you bring up, and men will show you how to amalgamate the powder with mercury to extract the gold. You’ll find a middleman to buy the output.

Finally, you’re ready to descend. The work is extremely dangerous. You inhale dust and fumes. If you’re lucky and find a promising vein, you may stay down there for weeks or months, in which case you’ll rely on vendors to send down food at exorbitant prices. If shaft walls and roofs cave in without warning, you die. In isiZulu, zama zama means trying, and trying again. And again. And again. Zama zamas “are those who risk everything to survive.”(3)

Danger also comes from other humans. So-called artisanal mining is illegal. This hasn’t stopped you, your brothers, or thousands of others— but it does foster gangs, violence, and extortion. So you view the white women with suspicion. The Afrikaner tells them that the police stop by three or four times a week to collect their cut. You shift uncomfortably, glancing at your companions, then at the women’s cameras. The Afrikaner notices your gaze and tells the women: No photos. Bet- ter. He turns back to you. Shall we do a braai tomorrow? You exchange jokes with him. Everyone laughs. Eventually the Afrikaner turns back to the women. I have no problem with them, he smiles. We live in peace.

At least so far, you think to yourself. You know all too well that arrangements like this can shift at the drop of a hat. For now, you’re happy to share the occasional cookout. But whatever provisional trust he’s earned from you doesn’t extend to the white ladies. Why would it?



The tailings strung along the Main Reef Road serve as a geological index of the gold-bearing veins that once wound through the rock layers. They also function as a historical index of urban life and national development. They bear witness to the violence of colonialism, to the segregation that shaped the country’s spaces and topographies. They attest to the extremely profitable racism of South Africa’s mining sector, the sector that brought the nation into being and operated as a hub in global economic circuits. They are, in short, quintessential expressions of racial capitalism.

The sediments of racial capitalism frequently remain invisible to those whose lives are smoothed by infrastructures, those for whom infrastructures (mostly) work. But those smothered in the wastes of these infrastructures have no such luxury. Eternally aware of the sand in the machine, they suffer the daily effects of the grind. In present-day South Africa, this sedimentary dynamic is no mere metaphor. Especially not in Gauteng Province, which comprises Johannesburg, Soweto, Pretoria, and their surrounding areas. There, mine tailings compose the literal sediments of racial capitalism, adding new dimensions to its violence. Violence against the rock: the mining void under the metropolis is the largest on Earth. Violence against water: a century-plus of extraction has drained aquifers and, in tandem with urban development, created a perennial problem of water scarcity. Violence against hundreds of thousands of mine workers, mostly (but not all) Black, who lost lives, limbs, and health drilling through rock and hauling it to the surface. And running through it all, the systemic, enduring violence of racism, baked into infrastructures.

The relative placement of tailings and road were far from accidental. Starting in the late nineteenth century, mining companies, urban planners, and the state worked together to site white suburbs upwind of the mining belt, and Black townships downwind and downstream. The Main Reef Road marks this separation. Spatial arrangements built and entrenched for over a century—solidified by highways, skyscrapers, sewage lines, and other infrastructures—cannot be readily dismantled by a quarter-century of democratic elections.

That’s why you can still see apartheid from space.

Tailings don’t merely testify to this history; they carry its damage into the present and the future. Their most spectacular violence—tailings dam failures in 1974 and 1994 that released floods of slime with enough force to kill people and destroy homes—were construed as accidents. But their violence also operates in slower, more quotidian ways. During the winter months of July and August, winds whip across the Witwatersrand plateau, blowing toxic, radioactive dust off the piles into homes and lungs. The voids left behind by extraction also engender violence. Spectacular violence for the zama zama miners who descend in search of leftover bits of gold, risking entombment should an unmaintained shaft collapse on them. And slow violence, wrought by the acid drainage spilling out of abandoned mines. Water rising through the voids acidifies as it reacts with pyrite in the exposed rock face, becoming an eager host for metalloids and heavy metals (including well-known poisons like arsenic, mercury, and lead), eventually decanting onto farmland and seeping into water sources, palpably sickening people. Viewing the Anthropocene from South Africa makes it impossible to disentangle racism from ecocide.

The size of the piles, the extent of the dams, the volume of the void. The colossal scale of these residues constitutes a “wicked problem.” Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, the Berkeley professors who first formulated this notion in 1969, contrasted “wicked” with “tame.” For them, “tame” problems had relatively straightforward definitions, for which experts could develop decisive solutions. Once upon a time, they wrote, the job of urban planners and architects seemed straightforward, a matter of eliminating “conditions that predominant opinion judged undesirable.” For Rittel and Webber, the “spectacular” results of expert efforts spoke for themselves: “Roads now connect all places; houses shelter virtually everyone; the dread diseases are virtually gone; clean water is piped into nearly every building; sanitary sewers carry waste from them; schools and hospitals serve virtually every district.” They deemed these accomplishments “truly phenomenal, however short of some persons’ aspirations they might have been.”(4)

Half a century later, what first stands out is the white privilege and parochial techno-optimism embedded in their illustration of a tame problem. It’s hard not to react by listing all the ways that urban spaces fell short of the ideal. How many and especially which “persons” had not seen their aspirations met? Doubtless Black Panther Party members in neighboring Oakland, who in 1970 launched the People’s Free Medical Clinics along with other services to make up for white policy makers’ neglect of Black residents, would have taken strong exception to the Berkeley professors’ assessment.(5)

Indeed, Rittel and Webber’s theory explained their own color blindness: as white urban planners, they too had a stake in the success of twentieth-century urban designs. Still, let’s note that they wanted their readers to confront complexity, to question the ability of a single expert or discipline to address social challenges. They saw wicked problems as so convoluted and intractable that their very definition was contested. Addressing such problems effectively required inclusion of all stakeholders. By definition, a wicked problem could not have a single, optimal solution; what counted as a solution, optimal or otherwise, depended strongly on one’s history and perspective.

The current condition of our climate presents what some scientists call a “super wicked problem.” They list four features that kick problems into the “super wicked” class: “time is running out; those who cause the problem also seek to provide a solution; the central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent; partly as a result, policy responses discount the future irrationally.”(6) By these criteria, the Anthropocene is certainly super (super!) wicked. However you characterize it, one thing is clear: in the present epoch, some humans have wrought irreversible geological, ecological, and atmospheric transformations that forever change everyone’s conditions for thriving, living, or—for far too many—just plain surviving. The Anthropocene marks the apotheosis of human-generated waste.(7) Especially since 1950, powerful humans and their institutions have discarded as valueless ever-increasing quantities and types of matter, matter whose release or transformation is inimical to life. Apprehending the Anthropocene means thinking about human, ecological, and geological histories simultaneously.

In many parts of the world, racialization has functioned as a permit to pollute some people’s places but not others. As environmental justice scholars and activists have argued for decades, the disposability of racialized bodies forged the uneven spaces of contemporary cities, prisons, and chemical corridors. These dynamics start with extraction, which has long relied on geological science to expand its reach. Since its origins, the science of geology has been implicated in racial capitalism and ecocide.(8) This noxious entanglement continues. One recent calculation found that the wealthy countries drained $242 trillion worth of resources (including raw materials, land, energy, and labor) from the so-called Global South between 1990 and 2015.(9) Another report es- timates that over $40 billion of value are exported from Africa every year.(10) Such calculations put monetary values on a dynamic that activists and scholars have been highlighting for decades: Africa is not a poor continent in need of white saviors, but a rich continent whose wealth continues to be stolen.(11)

South Africa’s Gauteng Province presents a particularly potent concentrate of our planetary predicament. Constituting less than 1.5 percent of South Africa’s territory, the province is home to 26 percent of the country’s population. That’s 15 million people: 77.4 percent Black; 15.6 percent white; 6.4 percent Coloured, Indian, or Asian. Estimates suggest that 1.6 million of them live on or very near tailings dams and other mine residue areas.(12) Gauteng thus offers a dense microcosm of struggles faced by many people, in many places.

That alone would make its story worth telling. But the province offers more than a good example, more than a metonym. According to some measures, South Africa alone produces well over 80 percent of all waste generated on the African continent. In 2006, nearly 80 percent of South African waste came from mining, the vast majority of it generated on the Rand. And this is just one aspect of the story. The materials, corporations, and state entities that drive mining in South Africa have played key roles in accelerating planetary transformation and amplifying its dizzying inequities. Gauteng is both a microcosm and a motor of the Anthropocene.



Wicked problems require conceptual frameworks that offer a wide variety of entry points. They demand tools for hearing and connecting dramatically different perspectives and scales, concepts that offer tools for thinking through the contradictions and multiple causalities that characterize any complex human endeavor. Such frames must themselves be wicked: to have value, they must resist easy description. The analysis in this book relies on the concept of residual governance, which I derive from the history, present, and imagined futures of Gauteng’s mine residues. I submit, however, that the concept has relevance well beyond this case, describing many of the dynamics behind the acceleration of waste in the Anthropocene.

Consider, first, the term residue. In common and chemical parlance, the word refers to traces, leftovers, or by-products: the matter left behind by the main event, often—but by no means always—considered waste. Historian Soraya Boudia and her colleagues identify characteristics that unite residues of all types, including accretion (they pile up), irreversibility (you can’t put things back the way they were; matter doesn’t disappear but is transformed), and unruliness (even when they’ve been confined, residues tend to escape unauthorized).(13) The term suggests tiny particles: droplets, dust, molecules. But particle girth doesn’t determine significance. Absorbing apparently minute quantities of endocrine disruptors, for example, can have life-changing consequences. The scale of wastes can exceed that of production: burning a ton of coal produces over two tons of carbon dioxide. Tiny things can irreversibly alter ecological systems at all scales, from local springs to our planet’s atmosphere.

Residues defy scalar expectations. Residue accretion is the principal physical driver of our planetary crisis. And monitoring this accretion constitutes the key method of Anthropocene epistemology: it’s how we know the geological, atmospheric, and biophysical impact of human activity.

In the Anthropocene, residues are the main event.

Residual governance involves three entangled dynamics. First: governance of residues. Most straightforwardly, this involves managing discarded materials. Mining, goes the industry’s inside joke, is above all a waste management project.(14) Profitable minerals typically occupy a minute proportion of their host rock, a ratio known as ore grade. The highest gold grade ever recorded in South Africa was 22 grams per ton of rock. That was in 1905. Since the late 1970s, grades haven’t exceeded 10 grams per ton.(15) Concretely, that means a typical 14-karat gold chain contributes one ton of discarded rock (degraded earth) to the Rand’s tailings piles—not counting the waste produced by mining the copper, palladium, and other metals that compose 40 percent of the 14-karat alloy. The residues, in other words, constitute far more material than the treasure. South Africa has recorded 6,150 abandoned mines, most of them on the Rand. Their residues continue to morph, spread, and poison. Managing these residues occupies an ever-increasing proportion of financial, administrative, and expert resources.

Second: governance as a residual activity, typically tacking between minimalism and incrementalism, using simplification, ignorance, and delay as core tactics. In a world that fetishizes commodities, the price of stuff rarely includes the costs incurred by its waste streams. New energy systems—be they eighteenth-century steam engines, twentieth-century nuclear power plants, or twenty-first-century solar panels—almost never account for the environmental impacts of extracting their fuel source or their constituent materials. Sometimes such exclusions come from the urge to simplify. Often they’re deliberate. Economists call them externalities, a notion whose power to write off inconvenient excesses has enchanted capitalists for over a century. Originally conceived by a British welfare economist as a tool for improving social well-being by regulating negative spillover effects, the concept of externality changed valence in the hands of American economists, one of whom even received a Nobel Prize for arguing that mar- ket forces bring positive and negative externalities into “equilibrium,” conveniently eliminating the need for government regulation.(16) Small wonder that capitalists fell under its spell. Words matter: the term externality enshrined the treatment of residues as insignificant, by-products that required minimal attention. It legitimated ignorance by sidelining pollution-related facts and predictions.

Residues become harder to disregard when they poison bodies and land. When contamination results from a spectacular event, it gets treated as a disaster: an exceptional, one-off event that, with any luck, can be declared an act of God (thereby deflecting responsibility and potentially enabling insurance payments).(17) Exceptional events require cleanup, but don’t necessarily trigger regulatory changes. Slower, systemic contamination is more insidious. Putting it on government agendas requires considerably more technopolitical work—usually by unpaid activists and underresourced communities.

Every step of the way garners fierce opposition from industrial leaders, who pay experts to help them delay regulation. Time-honored tactics include claims about “unintended consequences” and calls for “more research” (especially when their own research, kept secret under the guise of corporate confidentiality, has shown harmful effects for years or decades).(18) Once delay tactics fail, corporations collaborate with competitors on a set of best practices, then try to persuade overstretched and underpaid state experts that these best practices should serve as benchmarks for regulation.

At that point, simplification kicks in. Governance, if it takes hold at all, proceeds by reducing complex contamination pathways and contexts to a few components. This can make it impossible to apprehend negative synergies, both epistemically and technopolitically. All too often, simplification involves fetishizing linear causality: identifying a single or main cause that, if addressed, will fix the problem. This facilitates dismissing personal accounts as anecdotal, especially when they complicate simplified models. Another manifestation of minimalism: even when new regulatory regimes are enacted, their implementation and enforcement are often dramatically underresourced. And laws are worthless without enforcement. Funding growth (“growth!”) is more politically palatable than funding repair. And funding episodic repair after spectacular disasters is more politically palatable than funding prolonged prevention of those disasters.(19) Residual governance in this second sense is leftover governance, that which remains after all else fails.

Third: residual governance treats people and places as waste.(20) Frontline communities and environmental justice advocates all over the world have decried this marginalization for decades.(21) From Bhopal to Durban, from Louisiana’s Cancer Alley to Martinique’s pesticide-infused plantations, downwind residents struggle to defend their bodies, their air, and their land against chemical invasion—a form of aggression that Portuguese artist Margarida Mendes calls molecular colonialism.(22) All too often, ordinary workers in these industries are also treated as waste dumps—especially (but not only) cleanup and maintenance crews. Consider, for example, the thousands of men who served as radiation fodder after the accidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl, some becoming so irradiated that their bodies had to be buried in lead-lined coffins. More mundanely, reactor refueling involves high-exposure work, which utilities delegate to subcontractors who don’t appear in yearly employee exposure accounting, rendering invisible not only their harm but also the full exposure costs of nuclear power. Especially pertinent for our present purposes: the profitability of South Africa’s vast mining system has depended on treating African bodies as waste dumps for well over a century. Since the 1880s, Black miners debilitated by their work have returned to their home villages, unable to reach mine or state hospitals. The lucky ones have families who bear the financial and emotional burden of treating silicosis, lung cancer, and mobility impairment from mining injuries: externalities one and all.(23) The less fortunate die alone.

Residual governance references all three of these dynamics and their mutual entanglement. Each has its own history. After all, the social management of residues is nothing new. Societies have always dealt with discards, with waste, with the residual legacies of their material and political pasts. But in recent times, the quantities of these residues have grown exponentially, joining the dynamics of racial capitalism with those of the Anthropocene and intensifying each in relation to the others. Problems have become super wicked, the simplifications of solutionism steadily more absurd.

Such dynamics are by no means unique to South Africa. On the contrary: I put it to you that residual governance is rapidly becoming a default mode of rule around the world.

Gauteng offers a window onto this future. Legal scholars Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres would invite us to think of the province as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, whose “distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all.” We cannot address the challenge by “outfitting the canary with a tiny gas mask to withstand the toxic atmosphere.”(24) The devil, of this and all other wicked problems, is in the details. The only way to get traction on the complexities of residual governance is intensive empirical engagement. In diving deeply into Gauteng’s story, this book illuminates the complex ways in which South Africans have responded to the challenges that they (and all of us) face in a world increasingly dominated by residues. How do experts, activists, and ordinary citizens navigate the conditions of residual governance? How do they contest these conditions?

Reckoning with residual governance has become a central political task in the Anthropocene. Rather than detailing the institutions, laws, and processes through which residual governance functions (which, let’s face it, makes for tedious reading), I address these primarily through the work of the scientists, communities, activists, and artists who fought against the damage caused by residues, the minimalist governance of that damage, and the treatment of people as waste. These contestations over residual governance, I propose, offer powerful tools for understanding and challenging the devilish dynamics that couple racial capitalism to the Anthropocene—not just in South Africa, and not just in the mining industry, but around the industrially entwined world.

South Africans, after all, know a lot about contestation. Their struggle against apartheid inspired activists around the world. They don’t need foreigners to prescribe solutions, though they are well practiced at marshaling international allies while asserting their rights. They have been inhaling tailings dust for over a century. Rarely have they been oblivious to the ensuing damage—not since the late nineteenth century, when a botanist in charge of designing parks for Johannesburg referred to tailings piles as “poisonous mountains.” In the late 1930s, novelist and poet Peter Abrahams wrote of them as pyramids “tortured and touched with the coat of death.”(25) By the 2010s, media referred to Gauteng’s residual landscape as “South Africa’s Chernobyl.”

These markers punctuate a long set of campaigns to contest the minimalism of residual governance and refuse the treatment of humans as waste. The time-honored tactic of toyi-toyi—a political protest dance—would not suffice. Effective contestation entailed challenging the very instruments of residual governance, including the (shoddy, selective) science used to justify its minimalism and the legal mechanisms that enacted it. This required resources. Communities needed scientists who would ask new and different questions, who would reveal critical omissions in data, who would demonstrate connections between exposure and health. They needed legal experts to identify pathways of action, file lawsuits, present at parliamentary hearings. They needed urban planners and policy makers willing and able to remake the systemic, spatial, and infrastructural instruments of residual governance. They needed media to tell their stories and keep them in the spotlight, artists who could express their pain and challenge conventional representations. And they needed activists, from within and outside their communities, to coordinate these actions and build allies at home and abroad. The minimalism of residual governance could only be countered by a flood of evidence and a relentless refusal to quit.





(1)     Sithole is pronounced “See-TOH-lay.” This story is adapted from Nieftagodien and Gaule, Orlando West, Soweto.

(2)     Quoted in “The June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising.”

(3)     Editorial by the African Teachers Association of South Africa (Atasa) in The World, January 6, 1975, quoted in Nieftagodien and Gaule, Orlando West, Soweto, 69–70.

(4)     For introductions to the history of the Soweto uprising and subsequent political and historiographical debates about that history, see Ndlovu, The Soweto Uprisings; Nieftagodien, The Soweto Uprising.

(5)     Mrs. Sithole’s account quoted in Nieftagodien and Gaule, Orlando West, Soweto, 75.

(6)     United Nations Security Council Resolution 392 (1976) on killings and violence by the South African apartheid regime in Soweto and other areas, adopted by the Security Council at its 1930th meeting, June 19, 1976,

(7)     The historiography on the Soweto uprising has long argued that “riot” was a racist characterization by the apartheid government. Elizabeth Hinton makes a similar point about so-called race riots in the United States, showing how the idea of a riot was used to justify militarized police response to Black insurgency. See Hinton, America on Fire.

(8)     Cole, House of Bondage, 20.

(9)     Knape, “Notes on the Life of Ernest Cole,” 22–23.

(10)    Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro, 4.

(11)    Bhimull et al., “Systemic and Epistemic Racism.”

(12)    Cole, House of Bondage, 21.

(13)    Mills, The Racial Contract, 43.

(14)    I first developed this meaning of technopolitics in Hecht, The Radiance of France. For a deeper discussion of technopolitics in apartheid South Africa, see Edwards and Hecht, “History and the Technopolitics of Identity”; von Schnitzler, Democracy’s Infrastructure.

(15)    Mills, The Racial Contract, 43, 11.

(16)    Edwards and Hecht, “History and the Technopolitics of Identity”; Edwards, “The Mechanics of Invisibility.”

(17)    Hecht, Being Nuclear, appendix.

(18)    My analysis of the evidence is influenced by a wide range of scholarly fields, including STS (science and technology studies, my field of origin), African studies, history, anthropology, environmental humanities, Anthropocene studies, visual culture, scholarship on racial capitalism and extractivism, critical race theory, and more. Readers will find some of this in the notes, but I have not tried to capture the full influence of all fields on my thinking.

(19)    Kojola and Pellow, “New Directions in Environmental Justice Studies.”

(20)    Iheka, African Ecomedia.

(21)    Maviyane-Davies, A World of Questions.

(22)    Legassick and Hemson, “Foreign Investment.”

(23)    Quote from Mills, The Racial Contract, 26–27.

(24)    N. Alexander, One Azania, One Nation; Legassick and Hemson, “Foreign Investment”; N. Alexander, An Ordinary Country.

(25)    Neville Alexander, “Nation and Ethnicity in South Africa,” quoted in “Racial Capitalism, Black Liberation, and South Africa,” Black Agenda Review, December 16, 2020, -black-liberation-and-south-africa.



Alexander, Neville. One Azania, One Nation: The National Question in South Africa. Edited by No Sizwe. London: Zed, 1979.

Alexander, Neville. An Ordinary Country: Issues in Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa. New York: Berghahn, 2003.

Bhimull, Chandra, Gabrielle Hecht, Edward Jones-Imhotep, C. Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Lisa Nakamura, and Asif Siddiqi. “Systemic and Epistemic Racism in the History of Technology.” Technology and Culture 63, no. 4 (October 2022): 935–52.

Cole, Ernest. House of Bondage. New York: Random House, 1967.

Edwards, Paul N. “The Mechanics of Invisibility: On Habit and Routine as Elements of Infrastructure.” In Infrastructure Space, edited by Ilka Ruby and Andreas Ruby, 327–36. Berlin: Ruby, 2017.

Edwards, Paul N., and Gabrielle Hecht. “History and the Technopolitics of Identity: The Case of Apartheid South Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies 36, no. 3 (September 2010): 619–39.

Godfrey, Ilan. Legacy of the Mine. Johannesburg: Jacana, 2013.

Hecht, Gabrielle. The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

Hecht, Gabrielle. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2012.

Hinton, Elizabeth Kai. America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion since the 1960s. New York: Liveright, 2021.

Iheka, Cajetan. African Ecomedia: Network Forms, Planetary Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021.

“The June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising.” South African History Online, 2013. 

Knape, Gunilla. “Notes on the Life of Ernest Cole.” South African History Online, n.d. 

Kojola, Erik, and David N. Pellow. “New Directions in Environmental Justice Studies: Examining the State and Violence.” Environmental Politics 30, nos. 1–2 (February 23, 2021): 100–118.

Legassick, Martin, and David Hemson. “Foreign Investment and the Reproduction of Racial Capitalism in South Africa.” Anti-Apartheid Movement, September 1976.

Maviyane-Davies, Chaz. A World of Questions: 120 Posters on the Human Condition. Mzingeli, 2015.

Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Ndlovu, Sifiso Mxolisi. The Soweto Uprisings: Counter Memories of June 1976. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1998.

Nieftagodien, Noor. The Soweto Uprising. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014.

Nieftagodien, Noor, and Sally Gaule. Orlando West, Soweto: An Illustrated History. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2012.

von Schnitzler, Antina. Democracy’s Infrastructure: Techno-Politics and Protest after Apartheid. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Woodson, Carter Godwin. The Mis-Education of the Negro. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1933.



Gabrielle Hecht is Professor of History at Stanford University, author of Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade and The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II, and editor of Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War.



YOU CAN SEE APARTHEID FROM SPACE / Residual Governance – How South Africa Foretells Planetary Futures

By Gabrielle Hecht