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.



#watercrisis and Day Zero in New South African politics

Cape Town is running out of water. The region of the Western Cape is experiencing the worst drought since 1933. Since I left Cape Town in June last year human and natural disaster has been looming on the all too bright and sunny horizon. They call it Day Zero. The day the dam levels in the city’s water reserves will be too low to provide safe water for the more than 5 million residents in the city.

Currently the city is at a Level 6 B water restriction scheme. This means that each resident can use 50 liters of water per day. A five minute shower uses just around 40 liters. Flushing the toilet somewhere between 6 and 12 liters. “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown flush it down,” are the new guidelines. In some areas of Cape Town the water has been intermittently shut off, for hours or days, without prior notification to residents, apart from the publication of the Level 6 B water restrictions. Commercial and agricultural properties must reduce water use with 45 percent and 60 percent respectively, compared with pre-drought usage.

The calls to defeat Day Zero is printed on posters, broadcasted on the radio and in television ads. Airb’n’b offers free cancellation to tourists who decide to stay at home rather than burden Cape Town with more water users. I like to listen to the Fine Music Radio, and here the messages to use less water seemed tailor made for a middle-class classical music loving audience: “A green lawn was a symbol of pride, now a sign of squander.” The ward councilor in my area posts on Facebook and twitter about sustainable solutions like collecting “grey” water (rain water, water from showers etc.) for recycling under the hashtag #ourresilience. On day Zero, the city government claims, 200 water collection points will be set up across the city, where residents can collect 25 liters per person. Observers argue that this scenario is completely unrealistic and will lead to war-like conditions around the taps. In the informal settlement where I do fieldwork, it doesn’t make much of a difference, though, says the community activist Mary. Most residents are picking up their water at communal taps anyway.


Political Day Zero

This kind of natural disaster by climate change is one that has been creeping in over many years. Rainfall has decreased in the region. Maybe in another time and place the prospect of a city of five million people running dry would warrant some sort of state of emergency, and international intervention. But in Cape Town life just seems to be going on as usual. Meanwhile, some of the decision makers that could have intervened with the #watercrisis have their own crises to worry about. In the City of Cape town the ruling party Democratic Alliance is trying to dethrone their own mayor Patricia De Lille with criminal charges of forgery and corruption. Word on the street is that the DA (typically attracting White and Coloured voters) want to replace her with a Black African front figure to broaden their base in a city receiving hundreds of mainly black south African migrant settlers every day. On a national level the country is facing a bizarre gridlock. The president Jacob Zuma (and other top ranking officials) are accused of state capture. Their party, ANC, Nelson Mandela’s party, a few weeks ago overthrew Zuma as president of the party, and elected his vice president Cyril Ramaphosa to lead the party. The obvious result would be for the president of the country to step down, as he officially lost his political legitimacy. This, however, did not happen. Last week the president of the country’s ruling party was set to deliver “the state of the union” but it was cancelled. Who should deliver the speech?  The president of the party or the president of the country who was elected as ANC’s leader? Negotiations have been going on within ANC to organize Zuma’s exit, but they seem gridlocked, At the charity shop yesterday me and the ladies complained that there are no credible parties left to vote for in this country. We hold our breath, waiting for the next disaster. Is South African politics headed towards a Day Zero as well?



Yesterday was eerie like that, everything seemed to hold its breath. Early in the evening the thunder started rumbling over the mountains, with white flashes dancing across the skies. Dennis and I had clothes hanging on the line outside. For them not to get wet, we rushed out to collect them in woven baskets. Then the downpour came. Heavy drops soon became a blanket of warm water. We made tea. Listened to the sound of the downpour on the roof of the old house. A sudden realization made us jump up and grab all buckets, containers and bowls: The water from the roof would be gathering in the drainpipes, flowing into the ground in the yard. The drain under the kitchen window had its last part amputated to make space for a large storage box underneath it. Laboring with great urgency our buckets and basins found new places under pipes and leaks. Drenched and happy we sat back at the kitchen table with our tea, and Dennis asked me to turn on the 6 o’clock news. “I think they recalled Zuma,” he said. ANC recalled Zuma’ appointment as president of South Africa. The grounds for the recall remain murky, and many other questions are left unanswered within and without the party. This morning Dennis says that Facebook says that the Guptas, the rich family involved in Zuma’s state capture case, were raided this morning and that several arrests have been made.

Among Capetonians the rain and the recall were linked specks of hope. On Facebook a photo of a man praying in the rain, surrounded by cars, circulated. Apparently, he had stopped his car in the middle of the hectic Cape Town evening traffic to pray and thank God for the rain. 

Searching for Innocence at AAA

At the 116th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington DC the resident postdoc of the MediAfrica project contributed a poster entitled Coming of Age in Cape Town – searching for innocence in difficult transitions. The poster shows how visual narratives of youthhood in my own ethnographic material in crucial ways coincide with the stories told in two recent movies about coming of age in cape town, made by local film companies, and that they challenge how we conceptualize “youth” as a social category of transition.

Youth is conventionally a transition from pure childhood to mature adulthood. But in the disillusioned New South Africa it is the other way around: coming of age is a search for innocence. During 9 months of fieldwork among poor black families in Cape Town I collected video diaries from 19 young parents. Here the diaries of Matt and Jess are juxtaposed with images from the local feature films Noem My Skollie and Tess. The pixelated intimacy of Matt and Jessica's diaries contrast with the professional and clean footage from the movies. But these stories of coming of age told by Capetonians in 2017 have a common telos. They depict childhood as ruined by abuse and violence and transitions to adulthood as a search for purity and new beginnings. Aspirations for respectable adulthood are shaped by the experience of transitions that do not offer the healing and transformation promised. 

Thanks goes out to, Matt, Jess, Meg Rickards and David Max Brown for sharing stories, photos and videos.


Dazed and Confused: International Population Conference 2017 from a newcomer’s perspective.

Guest post by Shari Thanjan

I have attended my first international conference as a researcher. The International Population Conference took place in Cape Town this year. The conference is hosted by the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) and happens every four years. The conference provides social scientists from all over the world the opportunity to come together and share their research on population trends and issues. One would think that this is every researcher’s dream - an international platform to share all the hard work, sweat and tears that often goes into research process. Sharing, learning and discussing brings up new networks and ideas. But it also left me doubtful about the point of doing research in the first place.

After doing six months of field work about maternal and child health and its relationship with new media, I decided to attend all the talks that I could find about the use of new media technologies in this field. There were some papers on social media and maternal and child health, mostly in local contexts from “the developed world”. There were no presentations about media and population issues or maternal health in the South Africa. Here  papers focused on maternal and child mortality. This was weird to me, after having been so focused on our own little research project for many months. The National Department of Health runs the first national mHealth program in Africa focused on maternal and child health, and fieldwork showed that media plays role in shaping the process of making new lives in South Africa. What seemed to me to be an obvious and important aspect of population issues was missing here.

A study done by Nzimande looked at family formations of the black South African population in the era of change. It found that “modernization” has led to growing acceptance of non-marital child-bearing. It also found that teenage mothers are unable to progress in South Africa. South Africa’s legislation is very protective over single mothers, but there is  a need for more policies that protect marriages, it was argued. In thinking about our own fieldwork among black pregnant women and new mothers in Cape Town, I wondered about what our interlocutors would say, if they where here. I thought of the grandmother whose only wish for her daughter was never to get married, to keep her financial and personal freedom. I thought of the teenage parents who stopped going to church or moved to a different neighbourhood when they started showing to avoid the moral judgement of their community. Sitting in a grand conference room in the centre of Cape Town, I felt a chasm between their world and the world of research, even though the people I studied lived only a few kilometers away.

Stats, stats and more stats. By the end of the week I couldn’t learn or know anymore. Looking around at my fellow conference attendees, it would seem they felt the same way. Verran (2012) argues that “In an era of evidence-based policy and governance through market mechanisms, measures and values speak to policy through designs that can be bought and sold.” This theory came to life where stats were the basis of each research problem. One really needs to walk away from these things and honestly think about how these papers effectively can affect policy change and improve lives. The research was all great with very interesting topics. But do the findings actually translate into action? The relationship between policy practise and knowledge practise is not a strong one at the moment. Belief in the bond between the two seems to have withered and reserachers are almost cynical about what their work “can do” in the world. Almost all papers revealed there is a gap in service delivery and somewhere, something is going wrong.

So then what?!

I left the conference feeling dazed and confused with too many numbers circulating in my head and can't even remember half of the findings.  The take home message for me is to always follow up on our findings and papers, try to get it into the right hands, so that all our sweat blood and tears move beyond conferences rooms and back into the lives of our participants.  This should be a promise we make to ourselves, and be more than just researchers, but rather agents of change in pretty trying times.






Verran,H. 2012. The changing lives of measures and values: From centre stage in the fading disciplinary society to pervasive background instrument in the emergent ‘control’ society. In The Sociological Review Monographs (eds) L. Adkins & C. Lury, 60-72. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
















Visiting Scholar at Harvard University

In the Center of Knowledge: Widener Library in Harvard Yard

In the Center of Knowledge: Widener Library in Harvard Yard

This fall semester the MediAfrica postdoc fellow is visiting scholar at the Department for African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

The purpose of the stay is to write up papers and articles based on the recent fieldwork in Cape Town by drawing inspiration from the vibrant research community in Cambridge.

The first ten days in Boston have included lectures by Webb Keane, Arthur Kleinman and Michael Hertzfeld, workshops on nature-culture relations and on cash-transfers and new concepts of work in Southern Africa, meetings with Africanists at Boston University - and a dinner with James Ferguson. As this shameless name-dropping reflects, I have been warmly welcomed to the new research environment, and it is more than a little humbling to be right here in the "Center of Knowledge.”

MediAfrica colleague, professor Jean Comaroff is sponsoring professor for the research stay, and the fellowship is generously funded by HiOAs overseas studies grant. 

Jean Comaroff in conversation with James Ferguson at the African Studies Workshop

Jean Comaroff in conversation with James Ferguson at the African Studies Workshop

Summer of Postdoc: conferences, workshops and inspirations

Summer Snap: Team Urban Orders hanging out at the roof of Moesgård Museum

Summer Snap: Team Urban Orders hanging out at the roof of Moesgård Museum

There’s a time after a long fieldwork, which has always to me been a sort of lost time. What goes on is neither “collection of data,” nor “publishing”. It is difficult to count and account for it, and it is important. There is an invisible processing that goes on, in which the fieldwork material takes on a shape begins to make sense in an academic context. What actually happened? What was important here? What kinds of writing might come of this? A time to seek out inspiration and perhaps return to old knowings in new light.

In August I attended the Mega Seminar, the biannual conference for Danish Anthropologists as a kind of exiled member of the tribe. The conference theme was The End, leading to discussions on both how the people we work with live through and understand different kinds of endings, as well as the seemingly always imminent End of Anthropology as a discipline.

The following week I returned to Moesgård in Århus to meet with the transdisciplinary and international research group around Urban Orders. The project has set out to develop new ways of working with complex urban problems with a focus on what we have called urban orders  - "a dynamic regularity in the relationship between social life in the city and its physical environment, which has emerged without overall coordination, control or use of force". The URO group has held four URO labs, and I was involved in organizing the first Lab in Århus, two years ago. Returning to URO sparks inspiration for my current work the MediAfrica project, both on how to understand the context of motherhood in one of the most unequal cities in the world, and on how to collaborate and write together with other researchers.

Thinking about past and future projects with colleagues opened new doors in my heart and my mind, igniting the desire to start writing about the stories and experiences I have taken with me from South Africa. 


Sindre Bangstad lectures on public anthropology and the media at Aarhus University

Sindre Bangstad lectures on public anthropology and the media at Aarhus University

South Africa Media Survey

Over the last few months the South Africa branch of the MediAfrica project has been running a small survey on everyday media use. The survey was promoted on Facebook and via other social networks, and we had 250 respondents as well as many interesting comments on the project’s Facebook page.

In the coming months we will be trying to learn from the fascinating answers, analyze the data and compare and discuss with colleagues. Results will be shared in articles and papers, as well as in posts here on the website.

All those who completed the survey entered the draw to win a brand new Samsung tablet. Our winner was Karl from Cape Town, who is posing here with his new gadget.

A big thanks go to all those who took time to fill out the survey and shared their stories and experiences with us. 


MediAfrica at ECAS7

At the recent European Conference on Africa Studies in Basel, Switzerland, the MediAfrica represented with a panel as well as two presentations of recent research by participants in the project. Nanna Schneidermann convened a panel together with Casper Andersen from Aarhus University on “Urban technologies and technologies of urbanity in Africa.” The panel invited investigations of the relationship between technology and cities in Africa from an interdisciplinary standpoint:

”New and important questions are been asked about "local" innovation, "creolization" of imported technologies, maintenance, reuse and sustainability and not least about the role of technologies in the making of urban identities and forms of expertise and entrepreneurship. The burgeoning interest and growing literature has been interdisciplinary from the outset spanning across history, anthropology, geography, urban studies, STS and beyond. The panel aims to contribute to establishing a solid platform for this important interdisciplinary debate and invites papers that address the theoretical as well as empirical questions about urbanity and technology in Africa.”

These themes were explored in four papers presented on a Friday afternoon. Here Katrien Pype presented a recent chapter on ”Smartness from Below” calling for a closer attention to local vernaculars about technology and ”being smart” - and their relation to fantasies of development and ”smart cities”-  in Kinshasa.

These considerations neatly set the stage for the other papers in the panel; on repair and maintenance of electricity meters in Maputo, by Idalina Baptista, urban finances and mobile money in Eastern African cities, by Daivi Rodima-Taylor and William Grimes, and the politics and contestation of sanitation infrastructure in South African former townships by Steven Robins and Peter Redfield.

In a panel on women’s roles in negotiating health and healing in Africa, Nanna Schneidermann presented a paper on ”technologies of motherhood” based on recent fieldwork in Cape Town.

Overall the papers engendered discussions about the need for more “use-centric” studies and approaches to technology in Africa cities, and how these in turn might refine the concept of technology itself, as it is placed both in histories and in specific contexts of use. 

Me, My Phone and I? - guest post by Shari Thanjan

Shari Thanjan holds a BA Hons in anthropology from UCT and is a specialist in maternal and child health interventions. For the past six months she has been working as a field assistant with the MediAfrica project.

A cellphone always becomes some sort of a fictional companion in your life. It’s so easy to grow attached to material things, holding you to all your networks and traits of your personality. Your phone becomes a friend in times of need. This piece is about a heartbreaking journey between me, my phone and I. And it leads me to reflect on the research we have been doing on mobile phones and motherhood in Cape Town.

The whole debacle started when I took it to a music festival a few months back. Music festivals are always a risk for all your belongings. You can always lose your most important valuable items, which usually include a bankcard, your favourite items of clothing and of course, your cellphone. On event pages on Facebook, there are always posts of people looking for missing items after the party. Being a “joller” (in South African terms a person who goes out dancing a lot), I have mastered the art of not losing my most important belongings despite partying hard. So, off I go to a music festival with my “I’m a responsible joller who doesn’t lose her things attitude”. Putting my phone in a safe place, keeping my bags closed tightly and always on my back to avoid losing my phone. Coming home on the Friday night, I was extremely chuffed with myself for not losing anything. The next morning I went for a breakfast with my friend, happy as a hummingbird. This happiness was cut short, as my phone suddenly fell on the ground whilst getting out of the car to come home. In shock I quickly picked it up to check if the screen cracked. A sigh of relief, not one crack! Then, as I turned it on, the screen remained blank, black, dead. I immediately started thinking of things I could do to fix it, thinking maybe I could put it on the charger and then it will come back to life. My mind started racing with all sorts of silly ideas. I felt so stupid, as all my “responsible” actions, the night before, putting my phone in a safe place, keeping my bags closed tightly and always on my back to avoid losing my phone, were apparently for nothing. So, there I was in an ironic situation, annoyed with myself and the universe.

Firstly, and most importantly,the phone held the ties to my boyfriends. My one boyfriend, who is sort of an ex but still a friend ( its complicated) asked me to behave while I was at the music festival and report to him, where I was and how I was doing, as he needed to know(apparently) that I was safe. Then, a boy I had been crushing on for years, was at the festival and I had drunk-texted him at three am confessing my dear feelings and was still awaiting his response that Saturday morning, but alas, my dear phone broke .Until today, I don’t know what his reply was! I always wonder if a potential and blossoming romance was cut short, by my broken phone. Obviously, it was not meant to be, but a girl can dream sometimes.

Secondly, my broken relationship with my phone affected my friendships. Of course at a festival in a city where you have many friends, you want to meet with them for pre-festival fun. Now I could not contact any of my buddies, getting some disappointed moans from friends when I saw them later that evening.

Further, without my phone I worried about my safety, potentially getting lost, and not having the ability to contact my people, or uber home. So my whole social circle and interactions, which are particularly important in the light of a music festival weekend, was all lost within that moment of my phone breaking.

Part of going for a good party these days is capturing all of the music, videos, pictures, the venue and gorgeous selfies on your cellphone. Just for keeps or to share on Instagram, WhatsApp or Facebook, to show the world what a marvellous time you had . I worked hard on the Friday night taking as many cute selfies and beautiful pictures as I could, only to have it all lost. It tried to borrow my friends phone, which is difficult as their cameras work differently and sometimes their memory gets full and stuff. Eee, I guess one should just live in the moment, right? Well, now I didn’t have a choice!

Without my phone my personal life seemed to be in shambles. But worse, my job as a research assistant was set back. All of my research participants contact details were saved on my phone as well, and now I wondered how to even get in touch with them. Believe me, some of them were hard to come by. And what about doing interviews? All my recordings of interviews were done on my phone. We had also collected something we called media diaries from participants, which is a documentary of their everyday lives recorded on their phones. Though we had wisely made backups, I could not view this material on my phone any longer. How could I do my work with no phone?

It was so heart breaking. I was so upset and there and then, with my broken phone. A material object I owned had the ability to break my heart. There wasn’t much sentiment attached to my phone as an artefact, but more emotion attached to the services it could provide me with- ranging from the camera to the social ties and work - it was all gone.

Yet, in the midst of all this agony there was a light. Through doing many interviews in poverty stricken areas in Cape Town, I soon came to realize that my agony was shallow, and honestly quite silly and I should not have been so upset. Many of the mothers we spoke to did not have smartphones, or even phones. Their reason for this was its unaffordability as the prices of data in South Africa are unaffordable to most, but also more disconcerting was: Some were afraid to be robbed, if they had a (nice) phone, and some did not have a phone because it had already been stolen. While I fret and worry about Facebook posts, many people had access to Facebook as part of a data saving network plan, whereby one couldn’t see pictures and videos, only writing. Many of our research participants hardly went on social networks. Some avoided it purposefully, to avoid all the social drama attached to networks.

The moms we worked with who did have a phone often bought a WhatsApp bundle for R12.50, which lasted them the whole month, and did not include downloading of pictures and videos. Many survived with just this as their main form of communication with partners, family and friends.  While sitting in the clinics, trying to get moms to register on MomConnect, many of the moms were not even interested in their phones, or had any idea how to use it. This happened with moms of all ages.  I had to assist most people I met with the whole procedure.

My time in the field and comparison with my own phone really made me realize, that even though statistic screams that South Africa has 100% mobile penetration, it is not even so. South Africa is a majority poor country. Yet, although there are many mobile interventions deriving from policy, pushed into South African programmes, it seems that end user was not considered, basically, the people of South Africa. In almost every interview I did, or people I met throughout fieldwork could not afford the phones imagined for the mobile interventions.

Going back to my drama, my fieldwork really showed me that a phone is not everything, and one can actually live a happy content life without it. The participants in the research showed me this, and helped me, well, get over my self and my phone.


Shari and a participant working on their phones

Shari and a participant working on their phones

Birthing Knowledge: the reluctant midwife

Birthing Knowledge: the reluctant midwife

“If you feel like you need to push, then you should push” I say. And she immediately starts pushing, her sister holding her halfway up behind her. “I don’t wanna do this,” I exclaim in panic, and I get up, walking a few steps away. Like, my whole being just wants to leave the room. “I can’t do this, I don’t wanna be here! I don’t want to be a midwife!” 

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Visiting Scholar at Harvard University

The PI of the project, Prof. Jo Helle-Valle, has recently moved to Harvard University as a Visiting Scholar. The affilation will last until August 2017. Apart from working on data analysis of fieldwork material from Botswana, and manuscripts of various kinds, he will also be able to benefit from the exciting and vibrant academic mileu of Department of African and African American Studies at the African Studies Center.

Jean Comaroff, Alfred North Whitehead Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology, Oppenheimer Fellow in African Studies, is affiliated to mediafrica. Her extraordinary competence on Southern Africa, and South Africa in particular, is an invaluable asset for the project.

Harvard in fall.jpg

Arrivals: the less innocent anthropologist

Arrivals: the less innocent anthropologist

Arrival at a new field site is for the ethnographer often characterized by an overwhelming amount of practical activities towards answering questions like these: Where am I? Do I live here? How do I protect my body and my equipment (and in the long term my mind) from the weather/wild animals/destruction by ritual sacrifice/theft? Can I sleep safely? Do I need to get around? How do I get around? Who do I talk to? How do I address them? How do I respond without facing sanctions? What is dangerous? What is safe? What is good?

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