Getting down to work

February 25, 2016

I am back in the botanical garden at the university, a magnificent green oasis in the middle of the city (even though, really, the rest of the city is quite lush and green). It is so much cooler in here, and even though you can still hear the traffic and the university girls giggling on the street, mainly the sounds are of leaves rustling and birds singing and water flowing. I have found a seat under some spectacular 40-foot palms and I feel very removed from the 401 and winter.

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The Botanical Garden

I had the great pleasure of meeting my local supervisor Edwin yesterday, who is delightful and I only regret that I did not arrive sooner in order to get to spend more time with him before he leaves on sabbatical (academics – do they ever work?). He showed me around our department at the university and introduced me to some of the people who may be able to help me out with my research, and he also showed me some of the key spots on campus. He then took me on a driving tour of the city, pointing out certain neighbourhoods and areas of interest. As he drove, he explained a lot of the historical and socio-political context of the university and of the city, which I think will be invaluable for me to at least have the outlines of. He told me so much, but I’ll try to draw out some of the key points that stuck in my mind.

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One of the buildings on campus

This university is still struggling with its ties to the apartheid movement and its segregationist past. There have been protests, sometimes violent, against the colonial legacies of universities – including using Africaans as a teaching language – throughout South Africa in recent months, and this university has been no exception. According to Edwin, the school is still struggling with its historical legacy and diversifying its population. When you look around campus, it is VERY white and Edwin says that there is a serious lack of Black people in positions of power as well. He took us through a part of campus that had once been a coloured* neighbourhood, but once apartheid came into effect all the residents were evicted and moved to the newly-established coloured neighbourhood (are these neighbourhoods known as Townships as well?  I have no idea) and the land was appropriated by the state, then given to the university. The former residents were never compensated.

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The Slave Houses on campus

Today there is a plaque commemorating that event in the entrance way of one of the buildings on campus, but it was done by the university administration, and Edwin speculates as to what the memorial might have looked like and represented had it been done in collaboration with the community. He pointed out some beautiful old houses in this part of campus, known as the ‘slave houses,’ that used to be home to the people who were relocated, and which are now quite posh and expensive addresses.

We drove through the coloured neighbourhood next, which appeared to me to be quite a lovely, if a little ramshackle, neighbourhood, like a 50s post-war community that’s just a titch rundown. There are little cottages with postage-stamp lawns, and none of the big electrified fences that characterize the neighbourhood that I am currently staying in in suburbia. Here, Edwin told me of a really interesting audio mapping project of the city that he had worked on. In this neighbourhood, for instance, the audio recordings would include the sounds of children playing, whereas in neighbourhoods like mine all you would hear would be the whir of the electric fences and the pop-up lawn sprinklers (although, to be fair, in my neighbourhood you would also hear the constant yapping of the dogs next door).

After this, we continued on towards Uluntu**. Edwin explained that when the Black people were moved out to this Township roads and other infrastructure were built, but the population outgrew these sections and soon expanded into areas that are unplanned and unserviced. Esme, one of the PhD students in the department and someone I am very much hoping to work closely with, is working on a community-based mapping project to start to document and legitimize some of these areas.

As Edwin drove, we crested a hill and I got my first glimpse of Uluntu. The Township is built high into the hillside, thousands of tiny little corrugated huts, that to my eyes look like the little dilapidated shacks where you would go to clean your fish in Northern Ontario, all crammed together pell-mell, all the way up the hillside. Many of the homes have been painted in bright colours, and the usual hornets’ nest of electrical wires and TV antennae crisscross the rooftops.

Edwin drove us into the neighbourhood, pointing out the soulless cinderblock and cement buildings that are the first we pass as we enter – government-built housing, built around the time of the end of apartheid, and sometimes guesthouses. Perhaps I could stay in one for a time. As depressing as they look, I think it would be invaluable for me to spend some time living in the community, rather than always helicoptering in and out.

I asked about the shortage of government houses – there were a few more that we passed, but not many, and they all looked shitty. Edwin explained that there was much excitement and hope for the future of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ at the end of apartheid, and throughout Mandela’s rule, but it soon became obvious that many wounds were too deeply entrenched to heal overnight. The deep-seated racial segregation and the mistrust between the artificially-constructed racial categorizations could not just be said to be over. At the same time, the high cost of improving living standards mixed with rampant government corrupting led to a stalling, if not a complete standstill, in efforts to improve living conditions here or desegregate the communities. So here we are.

The road we took through the community is still quite good, and despite the smallness of the buildings and their rudimentary construction materials, I did not see any evidence of squalor or misery. Poverty, yes. But I wonder what life is like down the side streets that I glimpsed, those parts of the community that are not accessible to any looky-loo who wishes to drive through. Maybe these buildings on the main thoroughfare are an act of resistance, with their brightly painted facades. I asked Edwin if people minded our driving through like this, just to take a look. He said he didn’t think so.

Edwin said, later over cappuccino, that Esme’s mapping project could potentially make the community more accessible to tourists, that they would be able to go in and explore Uluntu and its local art installations without having to rely on a local guide. I wondered at that, as most tourists who participate in these types of tours (to my understanding) justify it in the sense that the tours create local employment opportunities and give money back to the community. If you are not on a tour, are you just gawping at another person’s poverty? Edwin’s response was that there is value in the experience itself, that people learn from it and come away changed, that it is an experience that they will carry with them forever. While I agree with this perspective, I still have to wonder at the question which remains at the heart of my research: at what cost to the people in the community?

 

*The distinctions between Black, White, and Coloured citizens are a residue of apartheid and are still prevalent in people’s language. I struggle about when I ought and ought not to capitalize these words, and would welcome any guidance in this area. I do not mean to offend any sensibilities in using these words, and only present them in the ways in which they are used here, which strikes me as having no valuation attached.
**Uluntu is the Xhosa world for ‘community,’ which is what I am choosing to call this Township here.

One thought on “Getting down to work

  1. Pingback: Unrest on Campus | Mis Tourist

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