The Health-Security Nexus and new media in an informal settlement in Cape Town

At the moment I am doing fieldwork in Overcome Heights an informal settlement in Cape Town of around 4.500 households. This builds on fieldwork from 2016/2017 where I examined health practices in relation to new media with a focus on maternal and infant health. A central finding was that women experience a close relation between health and security in poor and marginalized areas, but also that they experience these relations differently – and here ethnic backgrounds matter. I have teamed up with Steffen Jensen from DIGNITY institute in Denmark, and Capetonian anthropologist Shari Thanjan, to delve further into these matters. Together with community leaders in one of the few multiethnic informal settlements in Cape Town we are following 15 local families of diverse backgrounds over a period of 8 weeks. Three weeks into the project, some interesting links emerge between health, security and new media: Control of public space and crime prevention are central concerns for residents. The messaging platform WhatsApp has revolutionized how community policing and neighborhood watches organize themselves, and is further a resource to call on help in situations where residents do not expect the police to drive out.

New media plays a role in the social control of the area as well.  While a number of suburban areas near Overcome Heights have Facebook “community groups”, an old South African new media monster continues to rear its head. The public Russia-based chat website Ou Toilet started as a teen chat site in the Western Cape around 2008 and it became highly publicized, at times banned, and generally despised before it apparently vanished from view of mainstream society. But in the poor and marginalized areas of Cape Town’s southside, the site continues to be a place where the most vile – and sometimes true – accusations are made about sex, drugs, gangs and politics. 

For some new media can it themselves be compromising health-security concerns: having a phone makes one a target for robbery and theft. Being on social media, especially for young girls, makes one vulnerable and accessible to potentially predatory men and their seductive tactics in chats and Facebook.

While new media is often celebrated as catalysts and drivers of development, only hampered by lack of access and infrastructure, it is worth taking seriously how poor and marginalized urban residents experience new media as more complex phenomena, and looking at strategies of avoidance or experiences of harm.