Life under Lockdown: Connecting the COVID-19 Response in South Africa to the Trauma of Apartheid
How have people who were denied freedom of movement during apartheid experienced the COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa? This project asks about the impact of the government’s response to the pandemic on a population that endured the inhumane and violent policies of the apartheid era. Under apartheid, Black South Africans were the subject of constant police surveillance, harassment, abuse, and violence. Anti-apartheid youth activists were often confined to house arrest, jailed, tortured, or even killed. Fast-forward to March 2020, when the democratic government initiated a strict lockdown to curtail the spread of COVID-19. The lockdown included a ban on the sale of alcohol, dog-walking, and exercising outdoors. How do those traumatized during apartheid experience the temporary removal of their freedom once again? In partnership with a South African colleague, this study uses semi-structured interviews and surveys to better understand the experiences of 50 residents of a township outside the city of East London. Initial background interviews have already indicated that the presence of armed police and constant surveillance has triggered traumatic memories of apartheid. Further investigation into this topic will help us to better understand what the long term impacts of the lockdown might be and how we might need to differently address future public health crises in formerly oppressed communities, such as by minimizing the presence of armed police officers or finding alternative ways to ensure the safety of essential workers.
Suburban Fantasies of Consumption and the "Post-Racial" in South Africa
While apartheid saw constant movement of people for work in the extractive industries and controlled by the infamous pass laws, motivations for and patterns of flux between rural, suburban, and urban areas of the country in the 21st century are very different. Many families now aspire to suburban fantasies of consumption and security, as seen in Johannesburg’s rising “security chic” culture in affluent neighborhoods and an incredible array of mega-malls that insulate shoppers from perceived threat. Both political and social identification are changing with the migration to suburban life. Black South African youth today are striving for an “equality of space” in the suburbs, despite deeply entrenched racism and the persistence of apartheid-era racial ideologies. Participant observation with residents, real estate agents, and schools illuminate how space is marketed in a society that is simultaneously structured around race and ostensibly committed to equality and multiculturalism. While both the rural Eastern Cape and the suburban areas of East London provide spaces to understand post-apartheid black lives, digital media play a huge role in crafting suburban imaginaries and contributing to ideologies of race. For instance, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) aired a popular sitcom entitled “Suburban Bliss” in 1996, using humor to profile an upwardly mobile black couple struggling to inhabit neighborhoods still under de facto segregation. Thus, television and other visual media both construct and reflect fantasies of consumption and illusions of post-racialism in South Africa.
Nostalgia After Apartheid: Disillusionment, Youth, and Democracy in South Africa
Nostalgia of the Oppressed focuses on youth socialization through public school and non-governmental organization (NGO) programs to reveal problematic discrepancies between official state rhetoric and local negotiations of democracy. While educational programs espouse Western-oriented rhetoric of individual rights and cultural pluralism, local discourse in the rural Eastern Cape evidences strong opposition to the post-apartheid version of democracy. Perhaps surprisingly, many residents even express nostalgia for elements of the apartheid government that they feel more closely aligned with local cultural values they label as “African.” These essentialized identities reflect both resistance to colonial and postcolonial European hegemony as well as internalized racial categorizations of the apartheid state. While my participants universally reject the explicit racial separation under the former government, they fondly describe a time of greater stability and cultural autonomy. I focus on the influx of democratic ideologies through local practices, particularly in schools and in Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) programs, positioning youth as sites of both political agency and subjectivity and asking how intergenerational tensions act as filters for democracy and rights discourses. I use an interdisciplinary lens to make sense of these seeming discrepancies in political, cultural, and racial identification, paying close attention to the global transition to neoliberal capitalism and its role in furthering wealth inequality and preventing the economic transformation championed by the anti-apartheid movement. I use a broad theoretical approach, combining scholarship in political science, anthropology, critical race theory, and history. I incorporate a materialist perspective by examining the global turn towards neoliberal capitalism, which exacerbates wealth inequality and privatization in ways that research participants often conflate with the principles of democracy. I argue that nostalgia, largely influenced by economic disparities and cultural orientations, functions as a competing pedagogical and cultural practice that constructs political subjects/citizens.
Creating New Leaders: Youth Activism in Post-Apartheid South Africa
Two decades into a new democracy, South African black youth faced social, political,
and economic problems handed down to them by the oppressive Apartheid government. While
many youth participate in extracurricular activities through non-governmental organizations, this
research looked specifically at those youth that engage in projects that train them as community
activists and leaders. Using two activist organizations as windows into this topic, I ask if involving
youth in community activism can decrease their involvement in crime as well as increase their
self-identification as community leaders. Rather than focusing on solutions that simply keep
young people off the streets by providing childcare and vocational training, or reiterate HIV/AIDS
prevention techniques, I examine how some youth are actively becoming leaders themselves -
in the hopes that they will not just better their own lives but confront social problems at both the
local and national levels.