(Published - 11 April 2019)
South Africa is infamously one of of the most unequal countries in the world, where extreme wealth coexists with desperate poverty. It’s also been called the protest capital of the world, with thousands of protests every year all around the country - especially in the townships, and specifically in shack settlements.
But why is that?
Mzulungile Gaqa decided to find out in his anthropological thesis, Life beyond protests: an ethnographic study of what it means to be an informal settlement resident in Kanana/Gugulethu, Cape Town, earning him a Masters in Anthropology and Sociology from the University of the Western Cape at UWC’s April Graduation 2019.
“My research is mainly about the lives of shack settlement residents,” he explains. “In my Master’s thesis I challenge and problematise two well-established positions about shack residence. Firstly, I argue that protests that take place in a shack settlement cannot be reduced to the notion of ‘service delivery’. Secondly, I challenge the general criminalisation of protesting shack residents.”
Mzulungile’s interest in this topic grew out of what has become a perennial phenomenon in this country: the protests phenomenon.
“Protests, it seems to me, point to a larger social and economic reality,” he says. “Out of the study of protests I am ultimately and mainly interested in the question of the human condition, and the dicey notion of citizenship.”
Mzulungile’s fieldwork showed that shack residents predominantly live together and in harmony (as much as any group of neighbours can). On the other hand, the unsettling realities of conditions in informal settlements make them feel like lesser human beings.
“This is the complexity of what it means to be a shack settlement resident,” he notes. “This has enabled me to sense the protests as informed by complex realities and as complex realities that need to be understood through the lives of protest participants when they are not protesting.”
It’s about understanding shack residents as people, not just protesters.
“My work should be read as moving from and against conceptualising protests emanating from the shacks as merely “service delivery” and as just criminal,” he says. “Through fieldwork I found that there is far more to the life of shack residents.”
The Accidental Anthropologist
Mzulungile Gaqa was born in the former Transkei region in the Eastern Cape, in a small rural town called Cala (Xalanga), and grew up in Manzimahle village. After matric he went to Gauteng in search of further schooling - unsuccessfully, as it turned out, which led him to try his luck in the Western Cape.
“To be honest, I didn’t even know a university named the University of the Western Cape or a discipline named Anthropology existed when I passed matric,” he recalls. “But UWC opened its doors to me when I was exactly in the giving-up stage, and it quickly became my home.”
For whatever reason, registration assistants advised him to choose anthropology as one of his first-year courses - and it turned out to be great advice.
“It was only in my second year that I came to understand what anthropology is all about through a module on Medical Anthropology. Since then, anthropology has become my academic beacon - though this, of course, comes with having to be frank with the sometimes disturbing history of the field.”
Mzulungile is grateful for the many people who have played a role in his development - including historic heroes such as Bantu Steve Biko, but especially his own mother and older brother.
“I am graduating for the third time this year - but this one is very special to me,” says Mzulungile. “It marks a very significant turn in my intellectual life - and from here it’s on to the PhD path.”
That intellectual life doesn’t end with his degrees, though.
“I find myself studying most of the time,” Mzulungile says, “but it’s not always for my actual research purposes. Learning new things helps me unwind. And as an academic tutor, I also learn and unwind through conducting a tutorial class.”
Of course, that’s not all he does to relax.
“I play music, listen to radio, watch sport, visit friends and family - I’m just an ordinary person, really.”
His ambitions are anything but ordinary, though.
“My dream is to develop as an academic who researches and writes on the human condition of those located in the global South,” he says. “I hope to help shed light on some of the big issues facing us all.”