Sunday, July 22, 2012

Social ecologies

JWTC spoke to Elsemi Olwage, social anthropology student at the University of Cape Town, about her experience of the workshop this year.

You attended your first session of the JWTC. How did you hear about the JWTC and what are the reasons that led you to apply to the 2012 Session?

I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA) titled ‘Futures of Nature/Facts that Matter’ earlier this year in Cape Town, chaired by Sarah Nuttall. This panel was organized in collaboration with JWTC. After visiting the JWTC website and realising that this year’s programme was structured around a similar theme, I decided to apply as my own research interests’ lie very much within the debates of environmental anthropology and public culture in Africa.

The workshop was also recommended to me by another student and friend of mine working in a similar direction. The main reason that I applied for this 2012 Session was in the hope of developing a more critical and creative theoretical base to deal with questions about ‘nature’ – especially in relation to knowledge practices and politics within postcolonial settings. I was also fascinated by the ways in which the 2012 Session was planning to bring both the sciences and the arts into a space of engagement and conversation.

What are the events in this year's program that you enjoyed the most and why?

I really enjoyed the ways in which participants were enticed and encouraged to literally think through the historically layered and fragmented composition of Johannesburg in order to engage with the multiple ways in which ‘nature’ has been transformed, imagined and lived and to consider both the historicity and materiality of shifting political economies. For example the bus tour of the city on the first day consisted of going through various “invisible” spaces (such as those below the surface) and exploring those spaces at the edges and interstices of the city. Bettina Malcomess’ performative and installation piece on ‘Uitvalgrond’ or ‘surplus ground’ during this tour was one of my favourite events. It performed – in a very surreal and visceral way – the ways in which ‘natural’ spaces between the built environment are often seen as de-politicized and empty – where as in actuality, as Bettina pointed out, they can be seen to be “located at the intersection of several trajectories in the history of the city’s development”. Both the tour of the mine and Bettina’s piece really engaged with the tensions between the palimpsest nature of landscapes and modern commercial developments with their tendency towards erasure, spectacle and a kind of recycling or commoditization of temporalities.

I also appreciated and enjoyed the ways in which the workshop engaged with the arts - as a key conversant on complex issues such as climate change and the extractive and exploitative practices of the global capitalist-driven economy. The exhibition on the Niger Delta was very striking for its interesting commentary on authenticity. But it is hard to pin- point individual events – rather it was the careful crafting of putting together such a complementary and thought-provoking programme.

For my own research purposes, I enjoyed the events or talks that led to discussions on alternative epistemologies (Achille Mbembe) and what it means to ‘write from the South’ or rethinking the practice of the sciences in the so-called postcolony. I believe these kinds of arguments are crucial if we want to understand the kind of politics and knowledges needed to engage with global debates on climate change and to offer a more rooted critique of neoliberal economies as they take on different forms in different places.

Can you tell us about the interactions between South African participants and the other participants who came from abroad?

I think there is nothing better than to encounter scholars, activists, and artists from different parts of the world. It was really inspiring and productive to get to know the different projects people are involved with and in seeing the ways in which those projects resonate with your own. People were pretty open to each other and it wasn’t only theoretical arguments that animated conversations but also much joking and the sharing of stories and commentary.

The many times of eating great and varied food, going out for drinks, and dancing – I think – really encouraged a kind of atmosphere of conviviality and enabled us to really make connections in different ways. I did not really perceive much of a difference between participants from South Africa and other participants in terms of the interactions between everyone.

What, in your view, is the importance of 'theory' for young researchers?

As a student of anthropology I believe that there is much value in trying to theorize from within and through the kind of emerging socio-material and political realities in which your project of knowledge production is situated and to acknowledge the collective and political work that goes into doing that.

Theory for me is a way of imagining, of grappling and of coming to know that enables me to make connections that previously weren’t there before. It forces me to question anew those realities that I take for granted. It has implications for how I imagine the contours of difference that give form to the everyday and for the kind of political subjectivity I wish to nurture.

I think on the one hand theory for young researchers should be seen as bodies of knowledge that one needs to be in conversation with – but one should always remain reflexive and critical about the kind of epistemological traditions from which it has emerged and the kind of historical and social imaginings the theorist was working from. More importantly, I am convinced that young researchers should always work to theorize anew rather than just reworking existing ‘theory’ tirelessly or at least try to bring seemingly disparate bodies of theory into a possible and new creative tension. Unfortunately it is the case that much theory in the social sciences and the arts in southern African universities remains rooted in a Western epistemological framework and therefore I think that young researchers – everywhere - need to begin to imagine and practice different methodologies - of doing anthropology for instance. 

What are you currently working on and why?

Currently I am involved in doing research for a minor dissertation in Social Anthropology (MA) at the University of Cape Town in which I am exploring the ways in which the global discourse on ‘Biodiversity Conservation’ is being mapped onto particular places within the city of Cape Town and the kind of politics, poetics, and practices that are emerging from this. The particular place from which I am working is a small “nature reserve” that lies nestled between four different neighbourhoods in the area known as the Cape Flats. This piece of land was transformed into a conservation area during the late 1950s when a somewhat eccentric Botanist – who was often seen roaming around in the Cape Vleis, a lone white woman in gumboots and with a collection of vials around her neck, mapping ecologies – identified a small ancient fern as being completely endemic to this one particular site. She then went on to invest most of her savings and mortgage in order to buy this piece of land which she then donated to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

Over the years this piece of land has been made, unmade, contested, imagined, inhabited and managed in a multitude of different ways by both human and nonhuman actors and have been incorporated in different ways into overlapping regimes of governance and care. Thus, my research is looking at some of the historical entanglements and legacies that intersect at this particular place in order to trace some of the meanings of biodiversity conservation (as a discourse of interconnectedness and rooted in ecological thinking) within an fragmented urban landscape that have been characterized by forced removals, displacements, a huge housing shortage and a development trajectory strongly shaped by segregation and racial discrimination. Despite having worked from a so-called “nature reserve” – this particular space was being used for gang peace talks; educational outings; discussions over tendering processes; for skills workshops; as a space for entrepreneurial imaginings; and for the production of scientific knowledge of ecologies; and for contestations over what constitutes the heritage of the Cape Flats.

The above mentioned practices are partly a consequence of the work done through a partnership project between the South African Biodiversity Institute, the Local Government, and the Botanical Society called Cape Flats Nature that existed for about 10 years prior to being disbanded. Its legacy remains alive amongst the managerial practices at the reserve which is very much driven by a strong orientation towards building “community partners” and relationships and is also evident in the kind of imaginaries that are driving the politics of conservation within this particular context.

These imaginaries are mostly organized around a kind of conviction of the interconnectedness between people and nature and the need to counter forms of disconnection through finding ways to make social development and conservation work together. The reason I chose to pursue this project was because I was told of some of the “community partners” that this ‘nature reserve’ had made – in particular a few individuals who were seen to be ex-gangsters and who were now avid gardeners and spiritualists - and I was eager to meet them and to hear their stories. This led me to do research both at the reserve and with some individuals in the surrounding neighbourhoods. Another reason was that this project also seemed to present in some sense a counter-narrative to the dominant narrations about conservation and environmentalism in southern Africa; whilst at the same time being very much embedded within the racial and spatial legacies of colonial and apartheid management and planning of ‘nature’ and dominant people-centred development paradigms organized around forms of participatory planning.

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