Seeing Through the Social Lens: Undertaking Research in Cape Town

by Jennifer Kandjii

With China discussing constitutional reform to remove the restriction on presidential terms, South Africa was undergoing a presidential transition, as my four months in Cape Town was drawing to an end in February 2018. Not only was I present in the city during the historic transition from state-capture-implicated former President Jacob Zuma to current President Cyril Ramaposa, but also during the water crisis and the imminent Day ZERO; the emerging controversial debate around land expropriation without compensation; and continuing concerns around migration and xenophobia. In this sense, Cape Town offered perspectives and layering to my research and time in South Africa that I did not anticipate.

While the city presents a multi-layering comparable with other large metropolitan areas, it has its unique idiosyncrasies. The city’s spaces and places are a sight to behold and experience. For a start, the majestic presence of Table Mountain flanked by Devil’s Peak and the Lion’s Head anchors the city’s geographical space while simultaneously overwhelming it. The mountains, coupled with the cold breeze from the Atlantic Ocean, creates an aura of peace and serenity that is hard to express in words without loss of content. However, the beauty of the mountains and oceans juxtapose the appalling poverty and other social challenges. Young women spend their days desperately seeking clients willing to exchange gold jewelry for hard currency, and beggars hoard traffic light intersections so that over time one realizes that there are regulars at specific traffic lights. It quickly became apparent that the city carries a diverse range of contradictions in its belly, from wealth and tourism to security and criminality, as well as social disparities, unemployment, and the appalling poverty. So, the city’s scenery, its historical and contemporary architecture, and the social layering in the city space presented a story that I was excited to uncover.

The concern around safety and security in South Africa is common knowledge, but experiencing it presents a unique heaviness. One learns very quickly how to be street conscious and mind your whereabouts and how you utilize the space in which you find yourself. What was peculiar about Cape Town is the way in which the security apparatus is deployed depending on the locale and vicinity. In the Waterfront, Longstreet and similar areas popular as tourist attractions, it is not uncommon to see security personnel constantly perusing the area and ensuring its safety and that of its occupants. In other areas that are not popular touristically, you are, in a sense, left to your own devices. Other than security, the social disparity and other social ills were elements that I immediately noticed about the city. As always these disparities intersect with security and criminality, as in in other major metropolises in South Africa. However, what was more disheartening was my visit to the Cape Flats and townships, and the stories I learned about the intersection of drugs, criminality, taxi mafias, gangs, poverty, school drop-outs and teenage pregnancy. Although conversations about social challenges cannot be divorced from discussions around race relations, the country’s apartheid history, its contemporary politics and the emerging black bourgeoisie, it was interesting to observe the stark social inequality as it plays out in the city’s space.

Despite the social concerns, the conversation of the hour was the water crisis. With two years of no substantial rain, the city was affected by a drought that quickly translated into a water crisis. The imminent Day ZERO, on which the city taps were to run dry, captivated most conversations and stringent measures to conserve water became a daily reality. These included using hand sanitizer after visiting the washroom, restricting the amount of water per household, and a substantial increase in water utility fees. I quickly learned to change my water-use habits, and my social-mindful thinking pondered how the water crisis exacerbates the vulnerability and food security needs of the poor and refugees in the community, and what the situation will look like after Day ZERO.

From a research perspective, my links at both the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities (ACC) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) facilitated access to research participants that would otherwise not have been easily possible. Despite student protests that hindered university activities during my time at the ACC, I had the opportunity to network with and build relations with urban planners and food security scholars at the University, while drawing on their extensive research. During this period, I also had the opportunity to participate in “the supermarket revolution and food security in Namibia” workshop in Windhoek, Namibia. What was illuminating at this workshop was the extent to which South African supermarkets penetrate the economies of other countries in Southern Africa, and in some countries like Namibia monopolize the market. UNHCR provided useful access to participants, particularly governance actors within the city ranging from government stakeholders, NGO heads, and refugee representatives. The office offered a succinct reminder and awareness of the bureaucracies inherent in multilateral institutions and the prioritization the organization engages in to stretch limited resources.

The opportunity to research Cape Town was illuminating and fulfilling. Participants were receptive to the process, and in some cases actively sort out participation. Engaging with refugee women and men to understand the particularities of their experiences in the city and the country as it relates to food security and other areas of existence exposed the multi-layering complexity of asylum in South Africa. It was inspiring to observe and understand the various ways of maneuver and strategies that refugee participants espouse in their day to day existence. At a governance level, engaging with key actors in the field yielded evidence of the intersections of governance, precarity, and food security that South Africa and Cape Town present. Conversations with locals on the bus, in taxis, at cafes, and other spaces provided individual perspectives on the city, the country’s history, politics, race relations, economics, and migration among other broader discussions.

On a more personal level, being in the mother city (Cape Town) in the motherland (Africa) for the South African premiere of Black Panther was one of those remarkable moments in the city. The South African premiere, like in the US, drew huge crowds and packed cinemas. Viewers were jubilant (outside and during the movie) and dressed in uniquely African attire. The movie, I believe, emphasized the importance of representation and how people from diverse backgrounds deserve to see themselves on the big screen, particularly in stories and narratives that do not objectify or tell single-story narratives of Africa. Although fictional, the movie’s storyline, cast, and message resonated deeply with my thinking and the direction in which, I believe, the continent is destined to go. Therefore, watching it in Cape Town was in itself personally historic. Despite the social and security ills that the research lens provided, I will probably continue my pro-Cape Town rant, albeit with nuance.