Surfacing political values Narratives of justice in Cape Town, South Africa

Joanna Wheeler


Delft is a settlement that emerged after apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, and was one of the first townships in Cape Town to be explicitly ‘mixed-race’, in line with the historic racial categories of apartheid.1 Positioned on the sandy, wind-blown Cape Flats, thirty kilometres from the city centre, Delft reflects the complexity of transformation and social justice in South Africa: daily life in Delft is characterised by multiple forms of violence, an acute lack of jobs (especially for young people), the twinned rise of substance abuse and gangs, endemic corruption in the police and other state authorities, and local political leaders exploiting racialised histories for populist power (see Piper and Wheeler 2016 for similar examples from other settlements). Delft reflects not only the current challenges of social transformation in South Africa, but the global trends of urban hinterlands (Wacquant 2008) where the configurations of political authority and inclusion do not conform to Western conventions of democracy (Anciano and Piper 2019). Daily life reflects the intersections of multiple inequalities, as well as historic and contemporary trauma (Burns et al. 2013; Kabeer 2016). Within this context, understandings of social justice and injustice cannot be taken as given or known.

This chapter draws on participatory research conducted between 2015 and 2017 with a group of residents from Delft, Cape Town. This group included young people and older community activists, speaking a mixture of Afrikaans, isiXhosa and isiZulu.2 The group members joined the research process because they were all concerned with issues of safety and security in Delft. Some were involved in neighbourhood watches and the Community Policing Forum,3 and all were affected by the multiple forms of violence and lack of accountability within Delft. After an initial introduction via Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, a local NGO that had worked in Delft on several different projects, I held an all-day workshop at a civic hall to explore the possibility of taking the research process forward. Around thirty people attended this workshop. We watched some personal stories told through other research projects and had an extended discussion about the storytelling approach and what it entails. From this workshop, twelve people joined the research process and chose the name ‘Delft Safety Group’ for themselves during the course of the storytelling process.4

The research process involved personal storytelling about everyday experiences of insecurity and safety in Delft, leading to a process of collective analysis of their own stories. The research group then used this collective analysis to identify themes for filmmaking, moving the narrative outwards to speak to the wider community and political system. Finally, the research involved a series of public events, where participants engaged different representatives of the state in dialogue about their demands and obligations, attempting to assert claims for justice based on their understanding of the social contract.

Within this broader research process, this chapter focuses on personal and collective storytelling and how the storytelling process surfaced and articulated shared values within a group. In addition to exploring how shared values are formed and become known through storytelling, it also examines how these values shape the expectations and positioning between citizens and the state through particular understandings of subjectivity and justice. It uses the example of trauma to show how values emerge in relation to making claims for justice.

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