WHAT DOES “TRANSFORMATION” MEAN? Reflections on the Cross-Cultural Glimpses of a Traveler

Cape Town at the Foot of Table Mountain

I had the privilege of spending time in both South Africa and Cuba this past spring.  I was on leave, time release they also call it, from my regular job teaching in a large public university in the southeastern region of the U.S.   I planned to spend the year catching up on my reading and writing projects, too often postponed indefinitely because of so many demands on my time from students, committee work, and the boards I’m on to serve my profession and community.  All of these tasks on top of my “life” as a wife and mother of three sons.  The break from my typical routine was a welcome respite and a time to renew my sense of what I want to accomplish at this mature and seasoned stage of my life and career. Things fell neatly into place to make the year a rewarding one. The opportunities to visit South Africa and Cuba arose after my leave was already in progress. Before these pleasant surprises presented themselves,  I’d expected to spend my time working at home with no travel plans beyond one or two conferences.

I’d been to both South African and Cuba twice already. Because of the richness of my earlier experiences, I was eager to spend more time in these settings so I could gain more nuanced perspectives on how, within both contexts, the multiple and potentially conflicting meanings and practices associated with the ideals and pragmatics of social transformation are being negotiated.  Both of these cases, for different reasons,  have  been the focus of a great deal of heated debate among scholars, activists, and politicians.  I am really grateful for having been able to be an ethnographic witness of sorts in such disparate settings.  My visits were timely, because I’m interested in thinking in multi-sited units of analysis about common themes and problems that play themselves out in different ways in varying parts of the world. These two countries on different sides of the Atlantic (but both integral to the history of the Atlantic World) are attempting to adapt to common global conditions in which more or less parallel dilemmas are being faced and, hopefully in time, resolved.

In this essay, I reflect upon my sojourn in Cape Town, one of the most culturally and genomically diverse cities in the world. It reminds me, in some respects, of San Francisco, one my favorite places to visit in the U.S.  In a subsequent blog entry, I will focus my reflections on the time I spent in Havana and Santa Clara, Cuba, nearly two months after I returned home from South Africa. (FYI, a June 13th blog entry on Cuba appears at https://ethnolust.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/afro-cuban-women-debating-cuba-today/.)  Hopefully, by writing a sequel to this essay on Cape Town, I’ll be able to answer the question one of my students asked me: “Is there a connection between your trips to South Africa and Cuba?”

Cape Town Rocks

Gender & Sexuality Seminar with Visiting Fellow

I was at UCT when it observed its inaugural Transformation Month in March.  The Office of Transformation, which operates much like many equity and diversity programs used to in American universities before the decline of affirmative action, coordinated the month-long series of public programs, many of which were organized largely around the theme of disability this year. The events that were the result of the Office of Transformation’s efforts did not exhaust the activities during Transformation Month.  For instance, forums were organized to address an ANC politician’s characterization of “the problem of” coloured people being overrepresented in the Western Cape.  But this is where they have historically been concentrated given the history of colonization and intergroup contact in South African.  Did the MP (member of parliament) really mean to say that there are too many coloureds (competing for jobs with blacks)? There was a lot of public debate on the signficance of his statement and on the larger context of white and coloured anxieties over the politics and policies of the ANC.

Campus Poster featuring image of ANC MP Trevor Manuel

Transformation Month – One Week’s Events

Some of these privately shared concerns were made explicit in student-led public forums where the sincerity of the administration’s commitment to African Studies was  questioned.  Students asked whether an Afropolitan university can exist without a relatively autonomous Centre for African Studies. They distrusted a strategy of reorganization that would subsume African Studies  in the proposed New School for Critical Inquiry in Africa.  Would this kind of configuration be able to support a continued development of African Studies as a paradigm, counterdiscourse, and alternative to conventional disciplinary-based modes of inquiry and representation?  In these largely Eurocentric, neocolonial, and masculinist modes of thought, Africa has been objectified as an inferiorized Other.

In the students’ view the history of social anthropology, especially in South Africa, is implicated in this problem.  While this may be true, social anthropology, especially today, is much more heterogeneous than what the students presume it to be as a present-day continuity of apartheid-era ethnology, particularly the streams that rationalized the political regime and segregated social order.  Even during that era, though, there were prominent anthropologists whose work went against the grain of apartheid  policies and the common sense about Africans, classified as “Bantu,” that prevailed among white South Africans.  Much of the research that UCT’s anthropologists are doing is critical and publicly engaged in progressive ways.  African Studies students and scholars would benefit from a sustained dialogue with them, for they, many of whom are Africanists, are committed to the remaking of anthropological inquiry.

Student advocates for maintaining the Centre have invoked UCT’s negative track record in its treatment of African studies and African scholars.  Most emblematic of that record is the “Mafeje Affair.”  Will its legacy unfold as an increased investment in the future of African Studies or as the dismantling of the Centre and with it the intellectual project itself?

Professor Arche Mafeje

The Late Archie Mafeje was a brilliant South African anthropologist who studied at UCT for his master’s degree and, subsequently, went on to Cambridge to complete his Ph.D.  The protegé of Monica Wilson, a UCT professor who at one time served as the chair of the department, Mafeje co-authored a book, Langa: A Study of Social Groups in an African Township(1963) with his mentor while still a master’s student. The department wanted to hire Mafeje after he completed his studies in England.   The government forced the university administration to rescind the decision that had been made to hire him, because he was black and also an anti-apartheid activist. When UCT students (who were predominatly white) found out about this, they rebelled in mass.

Mafeje Affair Sit-In

This was in the 1960s when students were mobilizing against racism, the War in Vietnam, and for a student voice in university governance in many parts of the world. For several days students held a sit-in at UCT’s main university administration building, but they were not successful in getting the administration to change in what appeared to be its complicity with the apartheid state.

There were also a couple later episodes in the early democratization period (1990s-early 2000s)  in which Mafeje was rejected as a candidate for posts at UCT. This occurred despite Mafeje having become internationally respected for his scholarly record and despite a shift from the earlier apartheid policies.  Eventually, after Mafeje was dead, the university issued an official apology to his family and a posthumous honorary degree.  However, there is still informal talk about what this resolution to the prolongued affair really meant.  Was it largely a ritual of impression management to reinforce the postapartheid university’s legitimacy, or  was it a sincere act of contrition with a commitment to correcting this history?  If the university is committed to its own transformation, what does that entail?  There are obviously conflicting ideas about what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for transformation at UCT and in South African society as a whole.

Graphic Advertising an NGO on UCT Campus

Postapartheid Society in Politics, Cultural Politics, & Media Representations

My principal responsibilities as a Visiting Fellow were based at the university where I explored new trends in research, teaching about research, and the reorganization of the research and teaching units affected by the controversial merger and formation of the new school being vigorously debated. These interrelated tasks were about transformation–or inhibitors to it–in epistemological and programmatic terms.  But I was also interested in contestations over transformation in South Africa’s political arena, cultural politics, and mass media representations. My thinking about these were stimulated by a rich array of extra-academic activities during the evenings and weekends.

I was able to see more of Cape Town’s sociocultural and linguistic landscape than had been possible when I visited the city twice before for much shorter stays. Accepting invitations to homes, going shsopping for necessities and gifts, meetings with independent scholars not associated with UCT in their chosen venues, and being a tourist in search of cultural heritage sites in the city and beyond it exposed me to interesting aspects of the present-day life and history of Cape Town and the Western Cape.  I didn’t rent a car (I am intimidated by the thought of driving on the left side of the road), so I walked to close destinations, took shuttle buses to UCT’s upper campus,  and rode in taxi cabs when going to more distant places when I didn’t have a ride from a colleague.

My conversations with taxi drivers are worthy of a separate essay.  So many of them were Zimbabwean immigrants or refugees who had interesting things to say about their lives in Cape Town.  The South African drivers were often Cape Coloureds. Some shared sketches of  their life stories with me. These narratives usually followed a basic chronology of before and after apartheid. Although they were struggling to make ends meet, their lives had taken a turn for the better in the postapartheid era.  Their new lives, however, were fraught with contradictions and disapointments about the government’s unfulfilled promises.

When I wasn’t out exploring Cape Town, I was at the guest house where I stayed.  I learned a lot about South Africa there as well.  I befriended the black African staff in the dining room and those who worked in housekeeping.  After a couple grew more comfortable with me, seeing that my stay there was a relatively protracted one compared to many guests who come and go after a week, they would talk more openly in response to questions I asked about where they were from, where they lived in Cape Town, what their work conditions were like at the inn, whether they had families, and so forth.  I found out things beyond what the eye can see.

I enjoyed reading the daily and weekend newpapers every morning and evening, in hardcopy as well as online.  I watched a lot of television–the daily news across several different channels in English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa.  Even when what I heard was incomprehensible, I enjoyed listening to the different cadences of the voices.

Political Cartoon of “Racist” Political Speech

The exposés and controversies reported gave me a glimpse into the public debate over political corruption, racism (allegedly directed against whites and coloureds), sexuality (both the hetero and homo varieties) and HIV/AIDS, crime,  and the prevalence of unrealized social and economic rights in townships. One demonstration organized by informal settlement (shanty town) residents underscored their view that that having access to enclosed or sheltered toilets was a human right. This was interesting to me because of my concern with when, how, and why the notion of human rights is invoked.

I also enjoyed watching South African soap operas.  Despite their melodrama, the cast of characters and the twists and turns of plots addressed, in their own way, a range of issues central to contemporary South African society.  I grew so engrossed with some of the characters and the crises they faced that when the time came for me to pack up and leave, I regretted the fact that I would miss seeing what would happen next week when, for instance, a character caught between a husband and a lover found out the results of the HIV/AIDS test taken at the doctor’s.  Television also taught me a great deal about South Africa’s cultural history and music. The music videos and concert performances had me dancing up a storm.  Of course, I needed the exercise.

Through my television viewing, I feasted on a cornucopia of images, sounds, and information.  For me it was as a complex puzzle I wanted to solve in order to make some coherent sense out of the mass-mediated representations I sampled as a cross-cultural consumer interested in the ways that South African society and history are projected upon the  popular imagination of the audience(s) in this particular postcolonial context in the throes of change and heated debates about it.

Concluding Remarks for Now

Overall, the time I spent in Cape Town and its environs was a wonderful experience, both personally affirming and intellectually stimulating.  I’ve only been able to scratch the surface here, but I’ve tried to sketch the basic contours and highlight some key moments.  I’ll be thinking for a long time about my sojourn and many of the details I haven’t delineated here,  for instance, the fascinating people I interacted with and the provocative conversations I had with them on a range of topics.  I hope I’ll be able to maintain some kind of contact with some of them despite the geographical distance between us.

One Response to “WHAT DOES “TRANSFORMATION” MEAN? Reflections on the Cross-Cultural Glimpses of a Traveler”
  1. William Conwill says:

    Thanks for skyping me while away. And for the great pics! Wonderful reflections on a changing city from my favorite urban anthropologist!

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