Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cities of Migration and Contradictions by Gcobani Qambela

Michael Keith's lecture in session at the BAT Center, Durban, South Africa

The past week travelling by the “Thought Bus” through Johannesburg, Swaziland, Durban and now the Eastern Cape has been incredibly enriching not only in terms of the scenic drives and views, but also the intellectual stimulation. Yet, it was hard to not notice the contradictions of these cities, starting with Johannesburg, ‘the city of gold,’ where only a few actually benefit from its riches. But then there is also Swaziland where some people feel censored by the government and Durban where poverty, deprivation and opulence often stand side by side.
Yet, despite many challenges that cities often face, for many people the city still represents some hope particularly in offering economic opportunity and ‘work’. It is in this fashion that Micheal Keith delivered his talk on the theme of ‘The Right to Have Rights in Cities of Migration’. The talk focused on five main themes:
1.     Austerity politics and historicisation of neoliberalism,
2.     City rights and property rights,
3.     The city commons, Insurgent informality and institutional forms,
4.     And, new forms of urban participation.
Keith notes that his works emerges our of a dissatisfaction with the ways in which race and class are looked at particularly as it relates to the right to the city. He is interested in looking at the ways in which “the empire strikes back” and particularly inspired by Raj Patel's work on shack dwellers (anti)evictions movements and other studies that illuminates the circuit of realizing the right to the city.

For Keith, it is important to ask: ‘who is displaced in the city?’ and ‘who belongs?’ To address this question, we need to take into account the tensions between the political economy and theory. He says in order to understand the neoliberal processes that result in so many people being excluded from the city, we need to understand neoliberalism (‘the beast’) as well as understand its genealogy.

I found Keith's idea that urban spaces should accommodate future planets particularly striking. It reminded of the old proverb:“We do not inherit the Earth from our parents; we borrow it from our children”. As Keith noted, the city (and planet I would argue) belongs not only to people who are alive now, but also those who will constitute the city in the future which will include those that are dislocated economically by surplus.

I was also taken by Keith’s idea of the ‘arrival’ (into the city), temporarility and the disorientating effect that this has on the (im)possibility of being able to dwell in the city. We need to ask and think about “where the neoliberal movement comes from” and the relationship between power, people and property for it is here that institutional rights play against race and class.

Yet, while in many ways illuminating, it was disappointing that the presentation was UK/East London focused for the most part especially since it was taking place in South Africa. South Africa is somewhat peculiar when it comes to land and property issue because the land (along with the economy) is owned by a white minority although the bill of rights in South Africa stipulates that everyone should have access to property, land and economic participation. This shows the limitations of legal rights without sufficient substantive application, that even property rights are not enough if they are not applied and reach people at the ground level.

On our way to Keith’s talk on the ‘Thought Bus,’ we passed a group of about five homeless people who were being removed by police for sleeping on the city center. This is what Keith called ‘the economization of everyday life’ and has a lot of implications for what we then understand to be the ‘non-racial’ and what rethinking and reshaping has to be done to get there.

But we also have to think about who will do this rethinking? Will it be an all-inclusive community-wide process or will it be a few policy makers? What will be the (re)gendering of social relations that the new cities will have to do? Ultimately I agree with Keith’s conclusion that we should not let economics continue to override the law. Our future cities will be shaped by the decisions we take now and those will also ultimately dictate which way the non-racialism project goes.

Images by Naadira Patel. 


About the Author: 
Gcobani Qambela is a graduate student in Anthropology at Rhodes University. He currently works on cultural masculinities, HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health.

Follow on Twitter: @GcobaniQambela

Instagram: GcobaniQambela

Race, Genomic Science, and the Meaning of Ancestry by Elliot James

If at one point it was clear that race is a social construction, this is no longer the case. As Dr. Ruha Benjamin explained in her presentation, “Can the Subaltern Genome Code?” genomics has brought back ethno-racial categories in a big way.
Benjamin clearly lays out the stakes in genomic scientific projects and shows how elites in India, Mexico, South Africa (once sites of colonization) are at the forefront of using science to determine what makes their populations unique biologically. As post-colonial scientists have argued, Genomics enables their nations, as opposed to the pharmaceutical giants in the North (i.e. the former colonizers), to exploit subaltern gene pools for profit.
Genomicists in the global south have now sought to develop medicines tailored to treat diseases specific to their local populations, rather than have outsiders make money doing that work for them.
What Benjamin puts on the table is the way post-colonial genomics needs race to be fixed and objective in order to serve capitalism and nationalism well.
But what else is it about the genome, as opposed to something else, that gives it the potential to reify the racial? And how might we begin to reframe the very categories genomics has deemed natural in order to advance an anti-racist politics?
It is useful to pose these questions in Africa, not just because it is the place where genomicists continue to locate “First Man,” but also because querying genomics here exposes the limit of the project of ancestry (africanancestry.com). As much as what the genome reveals about our great-great grandparents, it tells us nothing of the ancestors.
What elders, griots, and praise poets have taught us across the African diaspora, for example, is that past peoples need not be located and extracted through the scientific method or historical inquiry to be engaged or remembered. Rather, our ancestors are already amongst us—guiding and teaching us. So, how do we invoke the ancestors in the age of ancestry?
The ancestors made themselves present when Dr. Benjamin invited spoken word artist and fellow JWTC participant Roberta Estrela D’Alva to lead the group in song. We banged on chairs and desks, clapped and snapped, stomped our feet, and sang in response to the call of D’Alva’s voice.
I had no clue what the words we sang meant, and I sat amongst people who did not look like me, but drumming and singing in chorus with everyone in the room felt like church to me. It transported me to the Church of the New Vision, where I once communed every Sunday with folks I no longer see—some of whom have passed away.
Though our ancestries differed, Benjamin, D’Alva, and the people in the room that day invoked my ancestors, and I have no doubt that mine sang, drummed, and danced with theirs. We might very well need to continuously find ways to invoke the ancestors as we journey through the country and theorize the “non-racial” if only to contest the ways ancestry has reinscribed the racial in this post-genomic era.

The image is under a Creative Common License: (c) Victoria Pickering via Flickr


About the Author:
Elliot James is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota and studies the history of technology in Africa from a “queer of color” perspective. He is currently writing a thesis that retells the history of South Africa’s minibus taxi in order to que(e)ry the nature and consequences of transport reform.
Twitter @elliot_mpls