With elections on the horizon, communal venues across Cape Town have been hosting events put on by organisers who are trying to raise awareness of the country’s political, social and economic challenges, drawbacks and scandals.
Last week saw two such talks happen in the city. The first drew on the sentiments of five political experts in a cozy bookstore on Roeland Street. The second, held in a provincial heritage site on Salt River Road, with the backdrop of Imam Abdullah Haron painted on a sidewall in an otherwise plain classroom setting, involved an equally informative session.
Both events addressed the same issues and, in many ways, drew the same conclusions. It was commonly understood that dominant parties were internalising the fears and insecurities of respective demographics, and the mobilisation of all citizens is required to ensure that justice and dignity is restored to all. Both audiences were left with a sense of urgent and shared responsibility to demand from government the respect of which so many, if not all, have been deprived in the city and its surrounds. Yet after reflecting on each meeting as I left the last, I was not convinced that these sentiments would truly be sustained by members of both audiences, who largely hailed from different parts of the city.
‘Public Protector’s Nkandla Report and 2014 Elections,’ hosted by The Book Lounge, had young academics in attendance along with middle-aged and older folk concerned with what has become of their tax money diligently paid to a government endowed with the responsibility to fund an effective social upliftment agenda. Among the speakers were Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, Daily Maverick Associate Editor Ranjeni Munusamy, and human rights activist Zackie Achmat. Despite the general consensus amongst speakers that the achievements of a more engaged electorate can be commended, the audience did not seem to be expecting to be told that, in reality, their votes, without an additional commitment to ongoing political engagement, had little power to influence the country’s future.
Aside from advocating for impeaching the president, Achmat appealed to the audience to participate in gatherings within lower-income communities “to hear what happens between elections.”
Just over 24 hours later another meeting was held, but this time at Community House, Salt River. The topic under discussion was “ANC and DA – What’s the difference?” Speaker William Blake put the historical and political contexts surrounding the genesis of these parties into perspective. He was not immune to several interjections by audience members who had questions about the practicalities of political activism amongst urban citizens, particularly when the decisions made by the municipality affect the daily personal lives of so many.
There was a coziness in the room, not as a result of warm lighting or wooden finishes, but due to the palpable sense of solidarity among the audience whose members understood the others’ political experiences. While Blake outlined the themes of his presentation on a flipchart in green the attentiveness of those present was disturbed only briefly and sporadically by the odd flyer being passed from one hand to the next. The evolving discussion attempted to question what the working class must work towards to arm itself politically so that it can face the big battles still to come.
Unlike the light familiar conversation that followed the talk at The Book Lounge, once the meeting at Community House had drawn to a close, discussion remained heated in the quantum taxis provided to transport participants home. The everyday political complacency that was brought to light, acknowledged and realised by those who had gathered the night before in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD, was not apparent in Salt River the following evening. Instead, in a meeting where participants were worried about the poverty of their suburbs and not the wealth of Nkandla, where blue was the colour of work uniforms and not political affiliation, and where a beanie was worn for the late walk home and not as a fashion accessory, it was clear that there was more at stake for those attending such events.
Although the attendance of those at Wednesday’s gathering was certainly accompanied by a sense of concern born from the hope that an informed vote can make a difference, perhaps I was not the only one who left feeling that the audience did not view the event as anything more than an information session to stimulate near-future dinner table conversations. It was the self-acclaimed working class of Community House’s meeting that reassured me of the willingness amongst urban citizens to readily engage with national politics due to a persistent desire to make real change.
How is it that political indifference and ignorance of the realities of fellow city residents seems to increase the closer one is to the city centre, a ‘public sphere’ that ironically boasts recognition as the hub of political and economic activity? Can the moneyed city dwellers, a stratum of society with economic leverage, not deliver more than a one-stop vote every five years? To break down the social inequalities that glare at us every day in Cape Town, it will take mass involvement from all citizens, to hold our leaders to account and realize the aspirations for a just city.
image credit: Damien du Toit (flickr)
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.
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