Cape Town Urban Violence Workshop: Sept. 25th-27th, 2014
From September 25th – 27th, members of CORD’s Urban Violence working group met in Cape Town to collaborate on their on-going work to explore case studies of violence in urban areas around the world. In attendance at the workshop were:
- Shylashri Shankar, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi
- Andrew Charman, Sustainable Livelihood Foundation, Cape Town
- Laurence Piper, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town
- Joanna Wheeler, Participate, South Africa
- Karl von Holdt, University of Witswatersrand
- Taabo Mugume, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town
- Becky Hillyer, Institute of Development Studies, UK
The goal of the meeting was to look at the various ways in which communities utilise violence as a means of securing rights. In relation to some of CORD’s guiding research questions, the focus was on how different forms of violence influence citizen agency and democracy. One of the key assumptions of the group is that differing forms of democracy will largely shape the practices of violence that are most apt to occur.
In coming together to understand these themes, one of the main challenges that the group encountered was how to understand and draw comparisons between case studies of violence from differing global contexts. Shylashri Shankar, for instance, highlighted the usage of violence in protest politics in Hyderabad, India, with a specific focus on ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ identities amongst Hindu and Muslim citizens.
Andrew Charman and Laurence Piper, on the other hand, looked at how violence in the form of ‘vigilante justice’ has come to be normalized as a form of leadership in the Cape Town community of Sweet Home Farm, forming a “thugocracy” in the absence of state policing services or formal, elected leadership.
Working within the community of Imizamo Yethu (IY), located just outside of Cape Town, Joanna Wheeler presented her research on the relationship between endemic violence and a lack of legitimate political authority. In particular, she focused on the role of competing taxi companies in perpetuating community violence. Unlike Sweet Home Farm, where one individual was generally in charge of the systematic perpetuation of violent politics, IY presents a situation in which violence is a symptom of the struggle for political authority by competing power-seeking groups.
Karl van Holdt summarized the group’s discussion with a few key thoughts on how to understand violence in urban contexts:
- There is a need to understand the intent of violence – Is it being used as a means to change the rules or preserve the rules? Those who are participating in the violence are generally those for whom changing or preserving the rules are most important.
- Violence may take the form of social ordering. Looking at a strike, for instance, there is an understanding that if the majority of workers vote to strike, than everyone must also strike. To choose not to strike is a choice to legitimize the use of violence. Thus, violence has the tendency to divide “insiders” from “outsiders” in very definite ways.
- Violence is not chaos. It is often embedded in and bound by rules, which some outsiders may not understand. In vigilantism then, it is important to understand who is targeted and why.
- Violence can be a form of agency. For example, in poor communities where unemployment is high and service provision is low, there is a trend towards young men taking up violence as a means of securing rights for the community and gaining power and respect for themselves. In this way, the connection between violence and the development of “active citizens” becomes quite messy and morally inconvenient.
- Having a state of formal “democracy” does not necessarily entail a reduction of violence. In fact, democracies may work to perpetuate violence. While the transition into a “democracy” often entails the creation of a formal contract between citizens and the state, the state may not have the capacity to live up to its end of the contract for all individuals. This leads to a democratic deficit, which may further spur violence for communities living on the margins of state services.
All in all, the discussions and presentations were quite exciting. The group hopes to finalise their individual papers in the coming months and to present them in a research symposium by early next year.