symbolic apartheid: the segregated state of beaches in brazil

April 13, 2018
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By Jasmin Joseph, AFROPUNK contributor 

I’m expecting magic when I hop off the plane, at the very least in the form of sunshine but I’m not given even that. It’s early but shaping up to be one of the many days the fog is so thick you that can’t even see Cristo. Rio de Janeiro knows she is beautiful regardless, and so she is a tease, the clouds hang over the city ominously, maybe it’ll rain, maybe it won’t. It takes forty-five minutes, 200 reales (a massive rip-off) and one cab (“Cabby”) to drive from the Tom Jobim International airport to the the bohemian-arts neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Some of the asphalt streets are reminiscent of Sausalito, California, other cobblestone streets share elements with the ninth arrondissement in Paris, but Santa Teresa posses a charisma all its own, tucked away from the ocean, streets lined with houses painted in bright yellows and purples, some with the brick and adobe mouldings characteristic of Spanish and Portuguese architecture. Many homes are gated for safety and security, similarly to the wealthier suburbs I’d encountered in Cape Town, but instead of tall concrete walls with barbed wire trimmings, there are iron fences and intricate iron gates outside the doors and windows, sometimes wrapping around the contour of the property itself. In many cases, the iron is not painted at all, taking on the natural rusted color of oxidation; otherwise, they’re painted white, or, in the nicest of places, they might be the same bright color as the house. Depending on the season, wildflowers and vines grow on them, making the fortifications inviting rather than intimidating. There are cute bars and hostels run by people born and raised in the neighborhood, but there is also a Sofitel Santa Teresa and a restaurant run by a family of Germans. Cabby shifts gears three or four times attempting to climb the neighborhood’s steep hills, he and the vehicle sputtering as it goes. In the ten minutes it takes to drive up and over the hilly maze of this side of the neighborhood, I have seen a wealth of extranjeros in all their conspicuity. There are around ten favelas occupying the hillsides of Santa Teresa which, depending on the location of your hostel, to some tourists is a point-of-concern. The closest interaction I have with any of them is during one of my first days, when I am roused in the middle of the night by the sounds of rapid small fireworks (foguetes), also known as bottle rockets (as we call them in US), that are marked by their long wailing

Peeeewwwwwww before

Brap! Brap! Brap!

The sound is familiar, reminiscent of summer evenings in the neighborhood I grew up in, when the leftover firecrackers from the Fourth were expensed in loud and colorful nightly displays all throughout July.

Suddenly, the fireworks started going off wildly,

Brap! Brap! Brap! Brap! Brap!

It’s a man made of fire running through gunpowder.


My neighborhood sounds different now I notice that night, quieter mostly, now that folks all grew up, moved out, forced out, moved down South, got locked up, died. It’s only been a few years since the new young people started getting their hands on the larger fireworks, commercial-grade almost, the ones that sailed up high over the projects and homes and exploded with loud BOOM!s, that shook the neighborhood from its foundations, sounding like gunfire during wartime. With the comfort of the knowledge that for all that it was, shootings didn’t really happen in our neighborhood, so the BOOM!s were always first investigated as fireworks, anything else second.

I tried to fall back asleep.


Brap! Brap! Brap! Brap! Brap! Brap! Brap!





Favelas, for those of you who haven’t seen City of God, are the colloquial term for the informal housing settlements that developed out of slavery in Brazil; when denied capital for or access to housing in the expanding urban centers, freed ex-slaves built their own communities. These “shantytowns” were technically (and still are) illegal in the eyes of the government and, as a result, were developed unregulated with respect to basic infrastructure including but not limited to building/zoning codes, electricity and power grids, sanitation and waste removal, etc.

As Cabby is driving me that first car ride into the city, I peek down the streets of some of the favelas lining the outskirts of the highway. I can see young people riding motorcycles, sans helmets, weaving around puddles and down wires left by the thunderstorms earlier in the week. Stacked brick and aluminum shanties (again, I’m reluctant to use that word as, design-wise some of the homes appear both complete and advanced) are tucked into the winding hillside shores of a river bed, the broad sides of Dois Irmãos and Corcovado. It looked as if the people pointed to the mountain and said “If they won’t have us, fine. We’ll build a house there and there and there and in there, too, and as we live in them, they’ll be reminded of our humanity, whereby the strength of our will, we transform our houses into homes and our people into a community.”

Vamos à praia!

When I bring up the fireworks during a lazy day on Copacabana beach, because I have befriended only the heaviest of sleepers, no one had heard them but me. I considered that perhaps I had imagined them in a nostalgic episode induced by the humidity, but reading a local publication online, I later learn that fireworks were used as a signal to others that the police had entered a favela. If you stayed at the beach late enough, though further away, you might hear similar sounds.

On any given day, Copa was equal parts paradise and tourist trap because everything was for sale but the pursuit of profit wasn’t weighted with the same relent it might’ve brought elsewhere. Or perhaps it could have been that I was just simply more interested in purchasing rings, bikinis, açai with granola and mango from the comfort of my canga (the thin scarf-like blanket Brazilians have introduced as the superior beach towel) than I would be elsewhere. Occasionally, one might get asked to buy some seemingly strange item like plastic ponchos on a sunny day and the salesperson will kneel down so you are face-to-face, eye-to-eye and then make their genuine offer for maconha or cocaína. In one of these encounters, I realize, though this person smiling so close to my face might not be so preto, black, as we are, he is at least pardo, brown or mixed, and regardless, one of the first preto o pardo, I’ve seen on this beach outing, the few exceptions having been the woman from whom I bought the açai, the Senegalese expat from whom we bought rings, a younger guy who chatted with us during his break from selling Skols and Heinekens.

Rio is much less black than I thought it would be, I observe aloud, taking a quick glance around our spot at the beach, squinting in both directions scoping for other blacks. I see definitely one, two, down the beach, a few potential, three, three and a half, four, scattered swimming in the ocean, a few hiring out chairs, five, six, seven. There are not many, but some.

Negros e Praias

In November of 2015, the arrest of 150 youths who were not carrying drugs or weapons sparked outrage in Rio de Janeiro. The police presence on beaches that predicated this incident were aimed at addressing the threat of arrastao (translated as “dragnet”), a social situation where waves of young people descend on beaches to rob those present, particularly in the summer months. Vitor Coff del Rey, a worker for Educafro, a Rio organization that works in improving educational access for the black youth population of Rio called the act “symbolic apartheid.”

Del Rey’s phrasing, albeit, any association made to the South African-born system of racial discrimination and legislative oppression, could be criticized for being sensationalized or even inflammatory. In reading the report, I definitely formed my own opinions on his statement based on my experiences thus far in both countries. To confirm my own suspicions and Del Rey’s assertion, I decided to look at some graphic depictions of the demographics of the beaches in Rio de Janeiro and compare its appearance to Cape Town, South Africa, a city that has been referred to as the “last bastion of white rule” in post-apartheid society. A Brazilian student, Hugo Nicolau Barbosa de Gusmão and freelance statistician Adrian Firth prepared comparable dot-maps to show the concentration of the ethnic groups on the coastlines of Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, respectively.

The South Zone, the most “famous” part of Rio that includes much of Tijuca National Park, Sugarloaf Mountain, Corcovado Mountain, the Christ the Redeemer statue and Copacabana/Ipanema neighborhoods is 80 percent white, while nationwide, the amount of people who identify as white is only 48 percent. Whites are the vast majority around these beaches (Ipanema, Copacabana, Barra) where the real estate prices are highest, while black and mixed race peoples are concentrated in certain inland neighborhoods, the density of blacks highest in the nearby favelas (Santa Marta, Rocinha, Pavão/Pavãozinho, Vidigal). The map of Cape Town shows similar results: whites, merely 9 percent of the population, almost exclusively dominate the beach regions while black and coloured populations, who make up 77 percent and 9 percent, respectively are pushed inland into the Cape Flats region. This image is jarring not necessarily because of the density of whites, but the relative spatial concentration of blacks.

Source: South Zone of Rio de Janiero, 2010. Source: Hugo Micolau Barbosa de Gusmao.
Racial self-identification in Cape Town, 2011. Source: Adrian Firth (https://adrianfrith.com/dot-maps/)

The interrelations between policy, policing and people that exist at the beach are, at times, microcosmic of a larger, flawed system that consequently controls the space and movement of the black population. Black containment and concentration at this scale are maintained dually by expropriation and policing. I would predict that when the dynamics of race and beach occupation in Cape Town are further analyzed, or even extended to land ownership and wealth, the results would be starkly similar to Rio. The title of this piece Apraitheid is the amalgam of “apartheid”, translated from Afrikaans as “separateness” and “praia” meaning beach in Portuguese, a term I’ve concocted to describe the symptomatic racism that manifests on Rio’s beaches.

At the time of these events, Rio’s security chief, Jose Mariano Beltrame, defended the “preventative” action, which Educafro noted effected overwhelmingly those from poorer regions. Later, the security chief admitted that there was, in fact, nothing to prove that the arrested youths had planned to commit an offense, deflecting to the fact that many of them had taken buses into the city without paying the fares or without ways (and therefore, intention) to return. This state-sanctioned surveillance of black and brown youth in the country was nothing new. According to the National Public Safety Department statistics captured in an Amnesty International report, people aged 16–18 committed 0.9 percent of crimes in the country, while homicide data shows that of 56,000 killings recorded, 30,000 victims were young people aged 15–29 years, and 77 percent were black. This figure is likely to be less than actual numbers due to unrecorded cases. Also in that year, there was a failed attempt to lower the criminal age of responsibility from 18 to 16, which was again, met with widespread public outrage and Amnesty International supported the position of then-President Dilma Rousseff who came out against the proposed change. Sociologist Ignacio Cano from the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro opined on the issue, saying that “An arrastao is the ultimate nightmare for the higher classes of Rio. It’s a deep-rooted fear that social exclusion will explode into political violence.”

Fumaça na Cidade

It is no wonder that this kind of racial disparity has incited paranoia within the upper class. In Rio, over 1,000 favelas house around 25 percent of the population or 1.5 million people. Congruously, the Rio Times reported in December 2017 that a study found that more than 50 million Brazilians are living below the poverty line, nearly 25 percent of the population. The lowest levels of the poverty index are found in the South region of the nation (which includes the Rio de Janeiro State) at 12.3 percent, the highest figures are found in the North. Inequality, unsurprisingly, trickles down at a granular level, as well. Among the Bottom Ten Percent of the lowest income in the country, 78.5 percent are black or mixed race, while only 20.8 percent are white; this analysis becomes particularly egregious in context of the Oxfam International report that stated in Brazil, the 100 million poorest Brazilians have the same wealth and equity as the six largest billionaires.

Fast-forward two and some odd years and over-policing has reappeared again in the state of Rio with the current military occupation of the favelas. In February of 2018, incumbent president Michel Temer signed a decree enforcing his claim that “circumstances demanded” he hand over the control of Rio’s police forces to the military in order to implement the “hard and firm responses” to the city’s criminal violence/organized crime problem, particularly during Carnival season. Researchers at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Nicholas Barnes and Stephanie Savell have called the move “short-sighted and reactionary, with the potential to threaten the state of Brazil’s democracy.” While many inhabitants of the favelas have previously invited periodic military intervention for places that sometimes can be overrun with organized crime, the lack of privacy and ownership over their personal possessions, homes and bodies, that are requisite for a military occupation of indeterminate length is fit to get old fast. The group most disadvantaged by this system is familiarly black men, who are unilaterally suspected by the military of being involved in the drug trade. Studies have shown that time and time again, while criminal activity is statistically suppressed under military force, when the military exits, crime levels have a tendency to return to the status quo. If the long-term effect of short-term policing is simple returns to the status quo, what does the repetitive use of this tactic look like into the future? Barnes argues that the continued empowerment of the military over civilian life, has the effect of normalizing authoritarianism and authoritarian suppression tactics in a supposed democracy. This is a slippery slope for a country whose leadership has dwindling public legitimacy.

The year of 2018 is already looking to be a trying year for Brazil’s democracy as it has come under attack, yet again. On March 14th, it becomes front-page news that the Afro-Brazilian councilwoman of the Municipal Chamber of Rio de Janeiro for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), Marielle Franco, had been killed in Rio de Janeiro. She was an outspoken critic of the police violence against black people in the favelas and was assassinated after leaving from a round table discussion, aptly titled Jovens Negras Movendo Estruturas or “Black Youth Moving [Power] Structures” when nine bullets were fired into her car. Her press secretary, who was riding in the car with her, survived sustaining injuries. The immediate days following, there were a number of organized actions including marches, parades and protests throughout Rio, Salvador and around the nation, calling for justice and demanding that some accountability is taken for the execution-style killing. Her untimely death has led to an outpouring of support on the national and international stage beginning with the hashtag #MariellePresente yet another tragedy with the effect of unifying the diaspora in the global fight for black lives.

As I was writing in the US (and fit to complete and publish) this piece, another related bombshell in Brazilian news and politics came when the ex-president, “leftist” and populist champion of the people, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s bid to avoid jail was rejected by the Brazilian Supreme Court. Admittedly, I was not too familiar with him before I had visited Brazil, but the polarizing nature of his popularity was more than enough to implore me to learn more. He was convicted in July of 2017 of corruption charges that landed him a ten-year sentence; this move by the Courts effectively ending any possibility of success in his bid for reelection. His conviction was praised by wealthy conservatives who viewed the action as symbolic of Brazil’s forward-looking stance against corruption in the government. However, the left and many moderate groups believe that its part of a larger effort to undermine the political efforts against wealth inequality and for the empowerment of Brazil’s poor that his campaign and election foregrounded. The consensus among many in Salvador, even those who did not consider themselves pundits or supporters of Lula or his policy seemed to be: there exists more and worse examples of corruption, in much higher places, who aren’t being as harshly punished. The judicial hammer does need to come down on corruption in business and politics, but few believed he should have been the first to bear the blow. In the three days between the court ruling and Lula turning himself in to the police, the decision sent an emotional current throughout Brazil, namely among his impassioned supporters who defended his defense of his innocence and doubled down on the assertion that this was to assure the impossibility of his reelection, thereby fracturing and “orphaning” his electorate. When trying to leave metalworkers factory where he spent his days in limbo, hordes of his supporters blocked the door through which he would exit. According to a tweet by New York Times reporter covering Brazil, Shannon Sims, in his final speech before leaving with the authorities on April 7, Lula mentions two presidential candidates from other leftist parties: Manuela Davila of Communist Party and Guilherme Boulos of PSOL (the party of the late Marielle Franco). It may be too early to tell, but his arrest only will aggrandize his image, his impact and as all things do in hindsight, it will blur his rough edges and moral pitfalls, and as he says himself in the last lines of his departing monologue: “Lula is no longer a human being, but an idea.”

A Falácia da Magia

I’ve often heard the word magical thrown around by people who are traveling to describe a place or a people and over time, it’s gotten around to annoying me. It’s not that magic does not inhabit certain places; apraitheid aside, I have seen few combinations of colors so spectacular as an Ipanema sunset, few blues so blue as the ones luminescent on a sunny day at Barra. It is fact: much of Brazil does emanate magic.

Much of magic, however spectacular, can be reduced to illusion, the magician’s manipulation of the unseen. In the places we call magical then, the places we look for magic, how closely are we paying attention? And more importantly, what can’t we see?