Speed-dating for the brain: talking heads

On Saturday The Africa Centre, in partnership with the African Centre for Cities (ACC), hosted ‘Talking Heads’ at Cape Town’s City Hall in conjunction with the City Desired exhibition. The event could be described as an evening of speed-dating for the brain, whereby those that attend engage in four intimate 20-minute round table conversations with different thought leaders, experts and creatives from various fields.

As a first-time attendee, I had little idea of the diversity of scholars, activists, experts and intellectuals with whom I would share conversations that evening. Tailored to matters of the city, including land and housing, education, transport, density, and vulnerability, discussions were eclectic and engaged the problems and possibilities of critical issues within South African urban societies today.

The first session brought me to dialogue with Kirsten Wilkins, an ‘urban disruptor’ by occupation of sorts, who advocates the employment of ‘tactical urbanism’ in the appropriation of public space. Partaking in the conversation was Bonita Bennet, also a designated ‘Talking Head,’ who works as a cultural engineer at Cape Town’s District Six Museum, and a clinical eco-psychologist.

Recognising a need to shake up stagnant city planning processes that result in projects taking years to reach completion since the moment of their design, Wilkins compared the concept of ‘tactical urbanism’ to that of ‘DIY’ urban design, whereby ordinary citizens can actively engage with public space through short-term interventions with the prospect of influencing long-term policy change. Wilkins used an example of a car guard in Harare, Zimbabwe, who started fixing the potholes in the section of road and parking space he territorialised, earning money from the residents in the area for his services.

“Do you ride?” was the question that greeted me at the second session. Gail Jennings was the speaker, a bicycle planner who seeks to facilitate the strengthening of bicycle culture in Cape Town. Accompanying the explanation of her work was a bicycle map covering the central areas of the city, the Southern Suburbs and the South Peninsula.

Jennings brought to light the concern with adopting European transport models in South African cities. According to Jennings, such models are built with the assumption that people are already mobile and that differentiated transport systems are easily accessible. Through the example of her work in Ekurhuleni near Johannesburg, she also pointed to the desire of many people to use bicycles as a means of transport to get to work, but without the necessary infrastructure. Many thereby resort to the risk of using highways.

After a short interval of refreshments, a beat-boxing vocalist gave the signal over the microphone to begin the second half. Thulani Kuzwayo, sustainable building design and construction expert from the Green Building Council SA, was the ‘Talking Head’ at the third table I joined. He led a discussion on the potential opportunities for greening the built environment in the city.

Sharing their stories at the table were John Parker, a psychiatrist at Lentegeur Hospital, a state-run psychiatric hospital in Mitchell’s plain, and Ntombini Marrengane, an urban researcher at the ACC. Parker spoke of the “unbelievable” difficulties he experienced when requesting funding from the government to implement ‘greener’ building features at the state hospital, such as solar panels. According to Parker, unless a case can be made for green buildings as a clear economic imperative “the shutters come down” and nothing will be done.

Marrengane told of her work in Botswana, Tanzania and Ethiopia where centres of work are buildings made of glass. While the continuous drone of blasting air-conditioners alone prove the bad choice of material aesthetics, these buildings are perceived to be ‘modern’ buildings and appeal to those that work from them. For Kuzwayo, however, “the big goal” is that green building becomes the norm and is prioritised from the first stages of design.

Another rhythmic sequence of vocalised beats could be heard over the speakers, and it was time to move on to the fourth and final 20-minute session. It was not long before the last roundtable, led by Karen Thorne, television enthusiast and passionate driver of Cape Town TV (CTV), erupted in a heated debate about whether the community television channel would benefit from private investors in order to improve visual and audio quality, or whether this would jeopardise the extent to which the community-run channel would truly serve the citizens of greater Cape Town.

Thorne spoke of the numerous stalemates with government and legal institutions in the process of issuing licenses, a problem that had been raised in various forms throughout the evening’s discussions. The seeming lack of political will experienced consistently by numerous speakers, proclaimed thought leaders, and innovative project drivers that were sought for the purposes of the event, brings into question the logic behind urban governance and policy-making procedures.

The ‘Talking Heads’ event highlighted the diversity of experts, activists, thinkers, and passionate drivers for change in a range of fields exploring the problems and possibilities within the city. Yet these creative and intellectual individuals need to be further recognised by those in government decision-making institutions as potential implementers of change for the benefit of urban society. The possibilities for new ways of necessarily creating an inclusive, healthy and informed citizenship in a city such as Cape Town can only be fully harnessed once the bureaucratic red tape is lifted off citizen attempts to foster productive and collaborative citizen-government partnerships.


Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Christy Zinn is a postgraduate researcher and urban thinker striving to interrogate the social and spatial dynamics of cities. Believing that people make a city tick, she focuses on invoking a culture of active citizenship within urban communities​.

Image supplied by Talking Heads.

Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply