In 1994 South Africa’s elections generated great excitement both nationally and internationally. The apartheid regime and its formal racial politics had been replaced. A constitution informed constitutional democracy and people’s hopes and ambitions.
Since then there has been much rhetoric about the “miracle” of democratic transition, the “vibrancy” of the “rainbow nation,” and “the new South Africa.” There has also been great despair over the lack of services like water and electricity, the continued presence of extreme poverty, and spiraling rates of interpersonal violence and crime. In these contexts, what does democracy mean in action? How do societies overcome the injustices of racism and poverty? Do democratic principles and human rights discourse extend beyond rhetoric into the everyday realities of ordinary citizens and, if so, how? What are the residues of historical inequalities and how do they endure and get reproduced in the present? What do former elites understand by transition and how do they see their roles in it?
These are some of the questions that Professor of Anthropology Catherine Besteman poses in Transforming Cape Town, her fascinating account of how people in this divided South African city engage with post-apartheid democracy, transformation, and the legacies and ongoing realities of radical inequalities.
Cape Town is a complex city, a city of enormous contradictions. It is simultaneously cosmopolitan and deeply divided. While the city center and elite suburbs are stunningly beautiful, they are surrounded by and founded on terrible poverty and squalor. The city’s class structure is firmly entrenched. Politicking is divisive. Racially defined divisions continue to structure the possibilities of everyday life for many. While some people struggle with the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, others live comfortable and often complacent lives.
Through a nuanced account of the experiences of some of the city’s residents, both rich and poor, Besteman explores the ways in which apartheid’s legacies continue to shape interactions both intimate and public. From her conversations with ordinary people going about their lives in the city, Besteman describes hurts and humiliations, hopes and fears, and the promises and difficulties of transformation. As a coloured (the South African designation for people of mixed race) man identified as Trevor says, questioning whites’ claims of ignorance of the cruelties of apartheid: “How could you not know? When you got into the train to go to school, you sat in the front of the train; why are all the other people sitting in the back? … When you went to the loo, you knew which loo to go to. When you went to the Post Office, you knew which door to go to. … And you’re telling me you didn’t know?”
Working in the city’s wealthy southern suburbs and impoverished Cape Flats, Besteman is able to consider the effects of political change on a wide sub-section of the population.
Despite the rhetoric of “the new South Africa,” the encounters she describes remain fraught, skirting around deeply emotional issues relating to the presence of the past. Besteman poses provocative questions about how ordinary people might overcome the historical legacies that have left Cape Town one of South Africa’s most divided cities. She traces out questions of inheritance—what future generations inherit from past injustices—and asks about forms of remedy: redistribution; memory work; reformulations of identity, family, and senses of belonging. In doing so, she restores a sense of faith in anthropology as a tool for understanding and critically analyzing social worlds.
The book does not shy away from the hard questions that South Africans must face about the persistence of racism, the ongoing effects of violence, and the complacencies of “getting on with life” and “leaving the past behind us,” as elites often say. Besteman puzzles over the popularity of crime talk at suburban dinner parties and the contradictions of wealth and poverty in close proximity.
A distinctive feature of the book is her insistence that individuals can make change. Besteman describes people who have committed themselves to transformative efforts—as volunteers, in service clubs, as educationalists and concerned citizens. She makes the important claim that democracy must be learned, and that it is learned through interpersonal encounters that challenge widely held stereotypes and may give rise to “networks of care and human interaction.”
Anthropology works through close attention to the realities of everyday lives, contradictions and complexities, and the encounters and friendships that form “in the field.” Transforming Cape Town is an excellent example of how close attention to everyday lives can reveal important facets of global processes.
Fiona Ross is a faculty member in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town.