Return to South Africa

You’ll see how it is – it’s still that kind of city – here where one thing leads, shades into another; where footpath becomes road, road a roadstead, where the stone of the mountain turns to street-stone, and you’d almost believe the one were the other, and that where it all leads, the sole place it could end, over refinery, cooling towers, a freeway in the sunset, is where it ends now – in that other freeway overhead: the skies of these evenings, and their clear foreheads.

Stephen Watson (1954-2011), Definitions of a City, from The Other City: Selected Poems, 2000.

In loving memory of and gratitude to K.M. (1918-2016).

Many anthropologists are found of re-counting experiences from their ethnographic fieldwork, and especially so from their first ethnographic fieldwork, which more often than not involved them taking their first uncertain and faltering steps towards becoming bona fide anthropologists. In my time as a graduate student in social anthropology student at my alma mater of the University of Bergen in Norway, there was limited practical guidance to be had from our teachers regarding ethnographic fieldwork. For sure, we read the classics of ethnographic literature, from Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer to Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments. Come to think of it, we also read an appalling number of poor ethnographic monographs, given that the post-structuralist ‘reflexive turn’ in modern anthropology which was then all the rage had by then generated any number of monographs dedicated to the exploration of the anthropologists’ own navels and self-consciousness in the ‘encounter’ with other people. And for sure, we understood from some of the male professors around that unless you had not halfway died from the most serious forms of malaria and despaired from lack of access to modern conveniences and human contact in some remote part of the world, you should not dream of conceiving of yourself as a proper anthropologist. But what we were able to gather from the teaching was that ethnographic fieldwork was the acid bath of social anthropology, that one learned ethnographic fieldwork by doing it, and that it was basically a matter of sinking or swimming. Unlike many of my fellow students, it was not really travelling the globe as a backpacker that had attracted me to the discipline of social anthropology in the first place, so my first supervisor, who clearly knew what she was doing, and to whom I have been much obliged for the advice in hindsight, basically told me that there was no acid bath in doing ethnographic fieldwork in Norway, and that I should basically get a ticket to a far-away destination. I had grown up in the context of the global media attention directed towards the struggle against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa; the images of the uprising in South Africa’s townships and informal settlements which followed in the wake of the establishment of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Cape Town in 1983, the exiled ANC’s calls for ‘making the country ungovernable’; the wagging fingers and thoroughly unpleasant and intimidating look of Die Groot Krokodil P. W. Botha. My heroes – at a time when Norwegian and European right-wingers made no pretense whatsoever of supporting the struggle for a free and democratic South Africa, as they would later pretend to have done all along – had been the imprisoned and then mythical Nelson R. Mandela and ‘The Arch’, Reverend Desmond R. Tutu. Aged seventeen, I had cried in front of the television at home when watching the live coverage of Nelson Mandelas release from Victor Versteer Prison in Paarl outside Cape Town in 1990. And so with a one-way ticket in hand, I headed for Cape Town, South Africa, with a vague idea about doing ethnographic research on newly integrated residential neighbourhoods in post-apartheid Cape Town in the early summer of 1998. This was at a time during which whatever Norwegian media coverage there was to be found about post-apartheid South Africa was by and large on crime. And so I vividly recall that having landed in Cape Town on a cloudy South African winter afternoon, I made my way from the so-called Tampax Towers at the lower campus of the University of Cape Town where I only stayed for a couple of days along the Main Road in Rondebosch to the nearest First National Bank branch to withdraw cash with my heart literally in my hands from fear about the violent crime I had read and heard so much about. I soon discovered, however, that my idea of doing ethnographic fieldwork on newly integrated residential neighbourhoods in post-apartheid Cape Town was ill-advised. For Cape Town was then – and to date very much remains – a profoundly segregated city with what to a young Norwegian coming from an historically social-democratic-dominated Norway where economic and social inequalities remained comparatively low were profoundly disturbing inequalities of ‘race’ and class. The truth of the matter was that the post-apartheid ANC’s rapid embrace of neo-liberalism, as Patrick Bond at UKZN was the first to warn about, had done precious little for ordinary South Africans used to a life of bowing and scraping and struggling to survive, and that socio-economic inequalities had expanded, rather than contracted, in post-apartheid Cape Town, as in most other places in post-apartheid South Africa.
And the happy-clappy newly integrated residential neighbourhoods of my vivid pre-ethnographic fieldwork imagination hardly existed outside in the real-life Cape Town I experienced, where I did not have to go further than the upper campus of the University of Cape Town to see white South African millionaires’ sons arriving at campus in the morning in the flashiest sports cars to demonstrably attend lectures with disadvantaged black and coloured South African students who had arrived to campus by means of the potentially lethal minibuses.
There were other facets of Cape Town which soon caught my attention: coming from Bergen, which though it counts as Norway’s second largest city in comparison to Cape Town with its then estimated 3 million residents is a relatively small university and town, I had at an early point been struck by the number and public visibility of Muslims in Cape Town. I learned from reading up in the university library at the University of Cape Town in the early days of my ethnographic fieldwork that Cape Town was the heartland of Islam in South Africa, and that the Muslim settlement in Cape Town dated back to the earliest years of Dutch colonialism at ‘the fairest Cape of them all’, when slaves and political exiles were brought by force from Dutch colonial settlements and outposts all over the Indian Ocean basin to the Cape by the Dutch VOC. One of the earliest guides to this part of South African history was the late historian Robert C. H. Shell (1949-2015), whose eminently readable and monumental study Children of Bondage I eagerly devoured during late evenings at a backpackers in the university suburb of Observatory in Cape Town. Reading the local newspapers, the Cape Times and the Cape Argus, which I usually bought on the street, and which were dirt cheap in comparison with what I was used to paying for newspapers in my native Norway, I soon noticed news items relating to a Muslim-dominated vigilante group, PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism And Drugs), which were at the time involved in a campaign of low-scale terror against the apparatuses of the post-apartheid state in Cape Town, targeting not only suspected drug-lords in the zones of exclusion in the townships and informal settlements of the Cape Flats, but also magistrates, prosecutors and police officers for assassination. PAGAD, which had been launched by the spectacular and televised killing of the Cape Flats gangster and druglord Rashaad Staggie (he was doused in petrol, and set alight in a public street, and South African television crews mysteriously got to the scene long before any police officers did) in a street in Salt River, Cape Town in 1996, had by then also descended the depths of low-scale urban terror, and was involved in planting pipe bombs at local shopping malls, gay bars, a Jewish synagogue and the Planet Hollywood in Cape Town.

This part of my past was all brought back to me earlier this summer upon learning the news that one of my key gatekeepers from time doing ethnographic fieldwork in Cape Town between 1998 and 2005 had passed away at the age of ninety-eight. Most anthropologists will have encountered some such extraordinary ordinary women or men in the course of their attempting to do ethnographic fieldwork: I still credit her and her family with opening my eyes to what was to become my ethnographic fieldwork site and community: namely the Muslim communities in Cape Town’s townships, suburbs and informal settlements. For it was this woman and her family who after my fourteen days of searching for a research site and a research topic invited me to their home and into the township community in which they lived. I had met them by chance when visiting an exhibition in commemoration of the forced removals under apartheid’s Group Areas Act from a small and idyllic naval town south of Cape Town, in the late 1960s. I imagine myself as having looked both lost and forlorn there and then, but the split seconds during which we made our acquaintance were seconds that literally opened up new worlds for me both personally and professionally. There had not been any Muslims around where I grew up in a sprawling suburb of Bergen, and hence my ideas about Islam and Muslims must have been quite stereotypical at that point; I remember being thoroughly and utterly surprised at the ease with which the Muslim females that I met in those early days related to me – especially given that I was a young single and unmarried non-Muslim and white male. But having settled in the small township I had been introduced to, courtesy of a small family which offered to take me in, I learned that I had been deemed reliable and trustworthy; to the extent that local males were comfortable leaving me alone in the company of their wives and daughters to do my interviews whilst they were working. This was a post-industrial working-class township community where women had for a long time been important as breadwinners and sustainers of families; the proverbial mater familiases were everywhere to be found, and they often dominated life both inside and outside the house. There was also a spirit of hospitality, openness, human warmth, generosity and trust in this small and religiously highly religiously mixed township community, which I still remember fondly. My initial gatekeepers in the township very much wanted me to focus on local residents memories of the forced removals. But I found that this topic had in the context of Cape Town in general been covered by the social geographer John Western’s classic Outcast Cape Town and by a smaller anthropological study by the Rhodes University anthropologist Michael G. Whisson on the aftermath of the forced removals from Simonstown. Besides, it seemed to me that though memories’ of the forced removals still constituted a fresh and raw wound for elderly local residents who had experienced it themselves, the forced removals constituted a past and a history which held limited relevance and interest among the younger generation of residents, and was also a research topic which would once more define local township residents as mere victims and rip up old wounds. I had noticed the studied deference some elderly township residents tended to treat me with as a white foreigner in a place in which whiteness had until recently signified absolute and exclusive power, privileges and status, and found that it profoundly disturbed me. Given the omnipresent media and public representations of post-apartheid coloured township communities as communities of gangsterism, drugs and violent crime, I was like many other anthropologists at the time tempted to do research on gangs in post-apartheid Cape Town. But this was after all a topic by then already well covered by my Danish anthropological colleague Steffen Jensen
and by one of South Africa’s best reporters turned academic and writer, namely Jonny Steinberg.
Besides, I did not think it would do much to improve anything for anyone I knew or cared about to let the media and public representations of coloured communities in Cape Town past or present provide the framing for my ethnographic fieldwork. And so it was that I instead set out to become an anthropologist of Islam – or rather – since it is humans and how they relate to their faith and tradition anthropologists within this field tend to study – an anthropologist of Muslims.
Since my friend’s passing this summer, I have had the occasion to pause and reflect upon what it was about her and the wider Cape Muslim communities of which she was a part, which for all its problems and challenges moved me so much at the time. For we are often told these days by the prophets of intolerance and hate of various faiths and political persuasions – Cass Sunstein’s proverbial ‘polarization entrepreneurs’
in our societies that non-Muslims and Muslims cannot possibly co-exist and should not even try to do so; and that there is a 1400 year old ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West going on, and that racism, discrimination, fear and hatred are but ‘natural’ impulses to which we are as humans doomed ever to return. Those of us who have had the privilege of living with and among Muslims for months and years of our lives of course know better. We are also told through ever so many channels day in and day out that only high-minded and detested political and intellectual ‘elites’ can be cosmopolitans, able to reach out to the wider world in sympathy, solidarity and empathy with other human beings, regardless of faith, colour and social background, and to treasure and cherish the values of multi-cultural and multi-religious co-existence. Or what Paul Gilroy has referred to by the term ‘conviviality’.
It was not as if this form of conviviality was based on any romantic and high-minded theoretical ideas about what living together in spite of significant differences meant for local residents: this was conviviality as a form of grassroots solidarity born out of long practice and experience in a multicultural and multi-religious context. The township residents quarreled and fought one another; some local youth could be observed dealing drugs or pille in township streets in broad daylight; weekends saw drunken and drugged brawls in the flats or – die blokke – where the township’s most deprived residents lived, and where the local gangsters held their weekend court. There were shootings and stabbings leading to a recorded eighty deaths in a population estimated a thirty-thousand in the year that I lived there. One Friday evening I returned with my host family to the small semi-detached house where they lived, only to discover that a man in his twenties had slowly bled to death and laid in a pool of blood after a stabbing outside an adjacent block of flats. Local residents had called for an ambulance, but the ambulance never showed up in the two hours it took for the ambulance to get there; the residents attributed this to the continued stigma that the township and the residents themselves bore in the world outside. There were a high number of pre-marital and teenage pregnancies even among the local Muslim population. Yet local residents never argued, fought or killed one another over matters relating to their respective faiths. In my research on inter-religious marriages within the local Muslim community, I found a remarkably high percentage of local Muslims – both males and females in almost equal numbers – having married people who had a background as Christians. Though more prevalent among township residents from the lower social strata than among township residents who formed part of the working- and lower middle class elite in the township who strove for ‘respectability’, this appeared to be a consistent pattern with long historical roots. Most striking, however, was the fact that many non-Muslim marital partners – had not converted to Islam upon marriage.
“We are so wonderfully imperfect”, the Cape Town-born feminist poet and academic Gabeba Baderoon, who later went on to publish a fine study on representations of Cape Muslims, once exclaimed to me in conversation at a conference.
This ‘revelling in normative imperfections’ if one likes, was of course a double-edged sword for anyone concerned with aspirations to middle-class Muslim respectability and moral perfectionism. The family in control of the local mosque, with a background in the ultra-conservative Deobandi and Indo-Pakistanis proselytising Tabligh Jama’at (TJ) movement was at the time regarded with a great deal of ambiguity locally.
And I vividly recall a middle-aged man of working-class background from the township sitting with me in the local mosque and revelling in re-counting the story of a supposed official delegation of Saudi Arabian ‘ulama who had some years previously come to Cape Town, and apparently left in disgust at the sight of Muslim females wearing bikinis on local beaches. The veracity of this story could of course not be confirmed, but that is more or less beside the point. The man who told me this revelled in the idea of Cape Muslims ‘wonderful imperfection’ vis-a-vis representatives of a Saudi Salafism which saw itself as the embodiment of ‘moral perfection’ and an ‘authentic Islam’. In spite of Cape Town’s Muslim communities being then, and still very much remaining predominantly Sufi-oriented in its ideas about faith and practice, Salafism has certainly made inroads in Cape Muslim communities since the 1970s too.
But that is quite another story, and not part of the Cape Muslim spirit of conviviality that I want to remember and continue to cherish. What I will recall instead is sitting at the small kitchen in my old friend’s small township house, chatting for hours over cups of hot and milky sugared tea, my favourite koesisters on the table and the community radio station Voice of the Cape (VOC) playing in the background, about lives lived and lost in a world which to my old friend seemed increasingly deurmekaar or unhinged in all sorts of ways.

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