Four Months in Cape Town Begin: Questions of race, xenophobia and positionality

Jessica KennedyJessica Kennedy image

It can be hard to explain a ‘work-based learning placement’. Usually people equate it with ‘research’ or an ‘internship’. Then come the questions: if it is research, where are your questionnaires and why is your question so vague? If it is an internship, why do you keep asking so very many questions and making so very many notes?

I am one of those ‘mappers’ that Rosalind referred to in her post about MA in Participation, Power and Social Change, or ‘MAP’. For the last few weeks I have been working with a number of NGOs and social movements in Cape Town, experiencing life here and generally absorbing what is going on around me. I hope to learn more about democratic mediation: the process of individuals and organisations mediating between the people with power, and those without. I want to find out more about how mediators work, what drives them, and the complex dynamics of accountability in which this action takes place.

One of the first things I noticed about this place is how, to a large extent, everything is about race. Standing, sitting, talking and interacting with other people I am acutely aware of my race in a way I haven’t been before.

The pervasive nature of issues of racial differentiation is most obvious in physical spaces. Space here is racialised. Most days I travel into the office by train. Trains have two classes at different prices. Given the intersection of class, race and wealth here, the people that sit in each class of carriage look very different. Gasps of horror from foreign interns when I explain I have got a third class ‘metro’ ticket and querulous looks from Metrorail staff when I say I do not want a first class ‘metro plus’ ticket suggest that, as a foreign white person, I have been crossing some invisible boundary by taking the low class of carriage. Even platforms become segregated: ‘metro’ and ‘metro plus’ carriages are at different ends of the train, so where you stand on the platform says a lot about who you are. If you looked up and down the platform each morning, not knowing about the different classes, you would ask why all the white people were standing together.

’Those are white people buses‘, someone told me about new MyCiti buses brought in for the World Cup. ’Still, it is a good a thing. This way when the buses break down black people don’t have to toyi-toyi[i], a white person just calls up to complain and it’s fixed straight away’.

The different experiences of life hinted at by that comment are evident if you move between spaces in Cape Town. Coloured, white and black people are physically separated in different areas: townships and suburbs. It can be difficult and dangerous to travel between these areas. Recent protests around poor sanitation in some townships caused uproar by physically bringing the stink of broken toilets into the white domain.

It feels like there can be no better place to learn what ‘positionality’ really means.

June 4 Home Affairs Huddle small

Queuing in the rain at Home Affairs office in Cape Town © Jessica Kennedy

This week I spent time at the Home Affairs Regional Office, which processes applications for asylum. Last week, huge queues led to chaos and violence, so as part of a refugee rights organisation I went down to monitor the situation. With me was one other person, a man who happens to be black. Our races underlay all our interactions: this man could strike up conversations with migrants from other African countries, who would ignore me or stop talking when I approached. In contrast, people from Pakistan and Afghanistan would approach me for conversation, then rapidly move away when my colleague approached.

 Our conversations hinged on South Africa’s ongoing problem of xenophobic violence. Issues of race have been complicated by migration. Hostile attitudes towards foreigners seeking refuge in South Africa make questions of nationality as valid as questions of race. This country’s history feels all around you: police practices of stopping ‘foreign-looking’ people on the streets, demanding to see papers and arresting anyone that is not carrying valid documents are often compared to apartheid-era pass laws. Having to run from a police check as I had forgotten to carry my passport added a new dimension to learning about what it means to be a migrant in South Africa!

Of course, race is not all there is to this country, or this city, and there already seems to be a dangerous tendency to bring everything down to questions of race, limiting political conversation. ‘You are from England, aren’t you? You should have stayed there‘. This conversation opening automatically makes me tense. ’Why?’, I ask anxiously. ’Because of the weather of course‘, comes the cheery reply. ’Isn’t it just getting sunny over there? It’s only going to get colder here!

[i] Toyi-toyi is a South African dance strongly associated with public protests.

Jessica Kennedy is a student at IDS, currently doing a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change. A core component of the MAP course is the 4 month period of work based learning during the summer term. In the next couple of month, she and other MAP students will be blogging about their experiences during their field placements.

Read other recent blogs about the MA Participation, Power and Social Change:

One Response to Four Months in Cape Town Begin: Questions of race, xenophobia and positionality

  1. […] Four Months in Cape Town begin: questions of race, xenophobia and positionality […]

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