I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town on the research project Global Arenas of Knowledge, which is investigating ‘Southern Theory‘. You can see a review of a recent and related book, ‘Africa-centred Knowledges‘ co-authored by my research leader Robert Morrell here. I’ve been interviewing climate change researchers in the Energy Research Centre at UCT. The project runs across Brazil, South Africa and Australia. On 13 September 2015 I’ll be delivering a paper about my work on the project at the World Social Science Forum 2015 ‘Transforming Global Relations for a Just World’, in Durban, South Africa.

Most of the posts in this category of my website are from my postdoctoral fellowship with the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town (August 2012 – January 2014). The African Centre for Cities (ACC) ‘seeks to facilitate critical urban research and policy discourses for the promotion of vibrant, democratic and sustainable urban development in the global South from an African perspective’. I worked on issues around public art, design and culture, especially in the context of Cape Town as World Design Capital 2014. My position was the ‘Max-Planck/ACC Super-diversity Postdoctoral Research Fellowship’, funded by the Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Gottingen, Germany.

Below are posts from my Journal related to my postdoc work.

Princess Vlei on Etv

I was interviewed by an Etv news journalist about the campaign to save Princess Vlei from a shopping mall development, and the bid to have plans for a People’s Park on the vlei recognised as a World Design Capital project in 2014. There’s a short article and a video on the ENCA website at the link below:

Dispute halts World Design Capital event
Tuesday 7 January 2014 – 8:17am by Roderick MacLeod

CAPE TOWN – A small vlei on the Cape Flats is again at the centre of controversy.

Developers have been trying in vain for the past 15 years to build a shopping centre on the wetlands.

That dispute has now created another problem… It’s put a project for the prestigious World Design Capital event at risk…

Beyond High Walls and Broken Windows

I’ve been working with the Social Justice Coalition on this year’s Irene Grootboom Memorial Dialogues. This continues last year’s collaboration between the African Centre for Cities and the SJC, when the Grootboom series looked at design for social impact under the title ‘Design by the People‘. This year’s series looks at safety and security, under the heading ‘Beyond High Walls and Broken Windows – Safety and Security in a Divided City’. The series poster is at the bottom of this post, and the schedule of events (which is also the back of the fold-out poster/flier designed by Gaelen Pinnock) is downloadable here, or read about it below, or on the ACC or SJC websites.

Beyond High Walls and Broken Windows
Safety and Security in a Divided City

6th Irene Grootboom Memorial Dialogues

12 – 23 November 2013

Presented by the Social Justice Coalition & the African Centre for Cities

What does it mean to feel safe and secure in Cape Town, and how might experiences and perceptions of safety and security differ across this divided city? In an unequal society, how can we avoid reinforcing these divisions in the pursuit of safety – and achieve it not only for a few but for all?

This year’s Irene Grootboom Memorial Dialogues, presented by the Social Justice Coalition and the African Centre for Cities, engages with the theme of safety and security. The Social Justice Coalition, with its slogan ‘Safety and Security for All’, works for a safe and dignified life for poor residents of South Africa’s informal settlements, especially in Khayelitsha.

This year, the SJC won a landmark case in the Constitutional Court that has secured the future of the Commission of Inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha. Residents will be able to voice their concerns about the failures of the police, and other factors contributing to a lack of safety.

But safety and security goes beyond policing. Taking care of basic issues such as access to sanitation would go a long way towards improving safety in informal settlements. High profile projects such as VPUU (Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading) in Khayelitsha use urban design with an aim to improve citizen safety and reduce crime.

Fostering understanding and solidarity across racial and economic barriers in Cape Town might also work towards achieving meaningful safety for all. In an unequal society, some ways of addressing crime and security risk aligning along and reinforcing our divisions. What approaches would work specifically to transgress and heal these instead?

The Irene Grootboom Memorial Dialogues have been held every year since 2008, in memory of housing activist Irene Grootboom. Please join us for this year’s series of seminars and discussions, and add your voice to those of the activists, academics, community leaders and experts contributing to these debates.



Examining the historical landscape around safety and security, and the present-day impacts of insecurity on poor communities.

A history of (in)security – Lectures and discussion
Tuesday 12 November, 6pm – 8pm
Central Methodist Mission,
Greenmarket Square

Speakers: Sean Tait (African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum) and Zackie Achmat (Social Justice Coalition, Ndifuna Ukwazi)

South Africa’s transition to a democratic state has seen fundamental changes in policing and security, yet levels of crime and violence remain a serious challenge. The effectiveness and professionalism of the police and greater criminal justice system is often brought into question. Expert speakers provide an overview of this landscape post-1994.

A daily fear – Panel discussion
Thursday 14 November, 6pm – 8pm
Manenberg People’s Centre
2a Scheldt Road

Speakers: Patrick Burton (Executive Director at the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention), Amelia Mfiki (activist at the Treatment Action Campaign), Jon Yako (Clinical Psychologist at Red Cross Children’s Hospital), and Rushanda Pascoe (Manenberg Activist and member of Right2Know Campaign)

Everyone is affected by exposure to crime and violence. People from different parts of the city discuss their experiences and understanding of what it is to be safe. We explore the long-term effects of violence on individuals and society, and how achieving safety for some may marginalise others.


How can safety and security for all be achieved – both through the design of objects and environments, and through people’s perceptions and actions.

Safe by design – Panel discussion
Tuesday 19 November, 6pm – 8pm
Woodstock Town Hall
Plein Road, off Victoria Street

Speakers: Mercy Brown-Luthango (Urban Violence CityLab at the African Centre for Cities); Michael Kraus (VPUU); Melanie Manuel and Sizwe Mxobo (Informal Settlements Network); John Cartwright (Urban Security Project)

The upgrading and servicing of urban environments impacts both on perceptions of safety and vulnerability, and real security. Academics and practitioners discuss a number of innovative projects in Cape Town that attempt to address violence and crime through designed interventions in the built environment.

Active citizenship – Seminar
Thursday 21 November, 6pm – 8pm
Site C New Hall

Speakers: Sheldon Magardie (Legal Resources Centre); Martha Sithole (Ndifuna Ukwazi); Ralph Borland (African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town); Murray Ingram and Lukhanyo Mangona (Connect)

Legal and social frameworks offer avenues for us to progress our rights to safety and freedom from harm. Individuals, communities and civil society can use these systems to advance social relationships and assert their rights, putting pressure on the bodies responsible for the provision of safety and justice to fulfill their responsibilities.

Directions:From the N2, take the Mew Way turnoff to your left; at the stop street turn right onto Mew Way road; continue straight until you reach the traffic lights; turn right onto Jeff Masemola (previously Lansdowne); continue on Jeff Masemola and turn right just before the petrol station onto Solomon Tshuku. The venue is off this road, on the right hand side. Here is the approximate location on Google Maps.

Sea Point Days – Film screening
Saturday 23 November, 2pm – 5pm
Screen 1
Labia on Orange

Speaker: Shaun Shelly (Substance Use Program Manager at Hope House Counselling Centre)

An imagistic, gentle and elegiac documentary about Sea Point and the friction and friendliness that characterizes it as a public space. The movie shows the importance of open, shared multicultural public spaces, especially for people from insecure areas, and it asks uncomfortable questions around balancing the rights of all to the city, with the policing of public space. A film by Francois Verster.

Brought to you by the Social Justice Coalition and the African Centre for Cities.

Grootboom 2013 poster

Grootboom 2013 poster

Design Fiction

In September 2013 I delivered a lecture at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town titled ‘Design Fiction’, in which I explored design (especially designed objects) as a story-telling medium. From the festival programme: “Contemporary design projects are often a form of story-telling, used to communicate narratives to users and audiences. Ralph Borland explores examples of where design, for better or worse, acts as a form of fiction that is sometimes at odds with its intended purpose”.

I opened my presentation with a photograph of ‘Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive’ – the architect Carin Smut’s home in the upmarket area of Seapoint in Cape Town, which was graffitied with a disparaging message (since lovingly preserved by the architect) because of her use of corrugated iron in its design. ‘Blikkiesdorp’, literally ‘tin can town’, is a reference to a bleak shanty town on the outskirts of Cape Town. I used this anecdote as a talking point around how even simple materials can have strong communicative and symbolic properties, and particular connotations for viewers – here residents were unhappy about a ‘shanty town’ material used in an upmarket area.

Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive

Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive

I moved from there through a range of examples of objects which can be ‘read’ in particular ways – like our propensity for seeing faces in objects – through the role of objects in narratives (knives in Cormac McCarthy or Borge’s work for example) and objects deliberately designed to be characters in a wider story (such as critical designers Dunne & Raby). This set up a discussion of the role of ‘objects in development’, the subject of my PhD thesis, centred around the PlayPump.


I’ve been working with the Princess Vlei Forum as part of my postdoc and wider work. The PVF is running a campaign to save a lake and wetland in the Cape Flats from a shopping mall development – they want to keep it public land, and develop it as a ‘people’s park’. As one of the strings to their bow in their campaign to save the Princess, the PVF entered their plans for alternative development on the site to World Design Capital 2014 for recognition – you can download their WDC2014 submission, which has been shortlisted.

As a contribution to imagining what shape some of the elements of the park could take, I worked with design company ThingKing on an entry to the competition PlayScapes in August 2013, commissioned by the Princess Vlei Forum. We developed the idea of four interrelated installations on the site, playing on the idea of the archetypal ‘4 elements’ (air, water, earth, fire). For fire we designed a communal story-telling fire site; for earth a playground incorporating planting; for air a wind-activated sound sculpture and climbing frame; and for water we suggested options from a floating bird habitat island to baptism facilities (church groups use the lake for ceremonies).


WindScape – the element of air

You can download a low res version of our competition entry (11 MB).

And you could like our entry on the PlayScapes Facebook page.

Open City

On Saturday 24 August I gave a short presentation at the Open City mini-conference, responding to the prompt ‘ideas for making Cape Town a more Open City’.

Titled ‘Open Accountability’, my presentation looked at some of the work the Social Justice Coalition and its affiliates are doing to make data around municipal budgets and service delivery more available to the public, and to hold municipalities and private contractors accountable for their delivery of basic services.

Here are some references to material I showed in my presentation:

The Social Justice Coalition

Ndifuna Ukwazi

Imali Yethu

SJC report on the Khayelitsha Mshengu Toilet Social Audit

Analysis of Cape Town’s 2013/2014 Draft Budget for the Imali Yethu project by Ndifuna Ukwazi and the Social Justice Coalition.

Lungisa by Cell-Life

Also see these articles:

Shaun Russell on data-driven activism and the Khayelitsha social audit, ‘The Power of Data as evidence‘, 16 August 2013, on the Ndifuna Ukwazi website.

On the International Budget Partnership site, The Social Justice Coalition Uses Social Audit to Clean Up Sanitation Issues in Cape Town.

Service Charge Revenue

Service Charge Revenue depicted in the Imali Yethu analysis of the City of Cape Town’s Draft Budget for 2013/2014


District Six on the Fringe

District 6 on the Fringe

The District Six Homecoming Centre, while we were still setting up. By the time we started it was standing room only – thanks everyone who attended!

The PublicCulture CityLab at the African Centre for Cities hosted a public event last Wednesday night with the District Six Museum, titled ‘District Six on the Fringe: The absence of memory in design-led urban regeneration‘. A series of presentations, followed by Q + A with the audience, looked at issues around the development of the East City as the ‘The Fringe Innovation District‘. My colleague at the ACC, Ismail Farouk, and the District Six Museum delivered the keynote addresses, and I chaired the event. Opening presentations were made by the artist Andrew Putter and visiting Cologne International School of Design student Kai Berthold.

From our invitation to the event:

The area designated as ‘The Fringe’ is intertwined with District Six and yet that history of the space, with its memory of forced removals, has not figured significantly in the ‘cultural regeneration’ plans for the East City. What place is there for memory and history within culture-led urban development? What risk is there that contemporary stylizations of Cape Town might serve to obliterate local histories and entrench the status quo? What of District Six, not only as symbol and museum, but as marker of the pasts that haunt the present?

The event was informed in part by a public document authored by the District Six Museum as a critique of the Fringe Innovation District draft framework, which they spoke to on the night, and you can download here: The Fringe: Draft Framework – District Six Museum comments 4 March 2013. The text of Ismail Farouk’s presentation can be downloaded here: Conflicting rationalities – Post-apartheid spatial legacies and the Creative City.

This is the full programme of speakers and presentations on the night:

Kai Berthold  Exploring gentrification in cities around the world

Kai Berthold is a visiting student from Koln International School of Design (KISD) in Germany. He is part of a project called The Gentrification Relay that worked with Cape Town students to investigate and address issues around gentrification and the East City.

Andrew Putter Harrington Square for the neighbourhood

The artist Andrew Putter is working for the Cape Town Partnership to facilitate the public involvement in the unfolding of Harrington Square as a public place.

Bonita Bennett  District Six Museum Statement: Erasure of memory in the remaking of the East City

The District Six Museum as a cultural institution promotes innovative curatorial practices in addressing issues of memory and dislocation. In considering the place-making strategies for developing the East City, what place is there for understanding the politics of erasure?

Ismail Farouk Conflicting rationalities: Post-apartheid spatial legacies and the Creative City

Ismail Farouk presents some of the results of his long-term investigation into understanding the precinct development in the East City. His work explores the tensions and challenges in redressing historical inequalities in Cape Town through ‘design’.

(UPDATE 17/6/2013 – an article about the event on Africa is a Country)

Thinking the City

Thinking the City

Oddveig Nicole Sarmiento and Rike Sitas, Jenny Fatou-Mbaye (chairing) during their presentation at ‘Thinking the City’

Last week, from Tues 12 – Fri 15 March, the Public Culture City Lab at ACC, of which I am a part, staged a series of panel discussions around notions of art and culture in public space, and the ‘creative city’. The series, ‘Thinking the City’, was intended to complement the annual event series ‘Infecting the City‘, which hosts creative projects in public space in Cape Town over a week.

Cape Town has a long history of public art and culture, and has more recently embraced the notion of a ‘creative city’. This is an exciting prospect for creative practitioners, yet the question of ‘creative city for whom?’ keeps bubbling to the surface of public debate, as different interest groups lay claim to the creative expression in, and of, public space. Thinking the City will contribute to the Infecting the City programme by unpacking a series of examples and contested territories related to cultural practice in the city, in order to foster a more critical dialogue about creative practice in public space. It will comprise four presentation and discussion sessions.

The panel I contributed to, alongside Jenny Fatou-Mbaye, with Ismail Farouk chairing, was titled ‘Design and the Creative City: the creative city for whom?’. I looked at a number of creative art/design interventions in Cape Town, asking who they catered to, and raised the idea that the terms ‘public’ and ‘community’ can sometimes be in tension with each other in such projects.

GIPCA has uploaded video documentation of the panel, below. Unfortunately my presentation slides are not included in the video, but you could download my presentation as a pdf and view the images along with the video – design and the creative city.pdf

Thinking the City 2013 – Design and the creative city: the creative city for whom? – 13 March 2013 from GIPCA@UCT on Vimeo.

Things that Talk

I’m at the Max-Planck Institute in Gottingen, who fund my postdoc position, using their excellent little library. Looking for books on objects and object studies, I find the book ‘Things that Talk – Object lessons from art and science’, edited by Lorraine Daston (Zone Books, 2004). In the introduction, Daston refers to ‘things, those nodes at which matter and meaning intersect’ (p.16), which is rather a nice way of describing my interest in objects as both functional and communicative. I’ve also read the whole of Kingsley Amis’ 1950s novel ‘Lucky Jim’ over the past few days while travelling, which I think is affecting my writing style (rather).

I’m also interested in her description of things used as evidence – in relation to an idea I’ve been trying to capture about the apparently self-evident truth (or ‘truthiness‘ perhaps) of objects; the way a designed object seems to act in itself as a powerful argument to onlookers, an ‘object argument’ which appears stronger than a proposal or concept. The fact of its materiality and function (thinking here of the realm of design for social impact especially) seems to persuade audiences of its value. Here Dalston writes about objects as evidence (p.12 – 13):

Historically, things have been said to talk for themselves in two ways, which, from an epistemological point of view, are diametrically opposed to one another. One the one hand, there are idols: false gods made of gold or bronze or stone that make portentous pronouncements to the devout who consult them… On the other hand, there is self-evidence: res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself. It does so in mathematics, law and religion… within Christianity, miracles were almost always worked in things, be it the body of a cripple suddenly made whole or the water turned to wine at the wedding feast, and constituted an immediate and irrefragable token of God’s will. In all these cases, the talking thing spoke the truth, the purest, most indubitable truth conceivable. The chief reason why the truth was so pure was that it had been uttered by things themselves, without the distorting filter of human interpretation.

Design by the people

In May of 2012 the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) launched the forum ‘Ukuyila Ngabantu/ Design by the people/ Ontwerp deur die Mense’ in Khayelitsha. In November 2012, in my position as postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Cities (ACC), I helped the SJC produce the 5th Annual Irene Grootboom Memorial Series with ‘Design by the People’ as the theme. The series looked provided a forum for leading activists, designers, community leaders, academics and experts to critically engage the concept of design, looking at whether design can be used as an instrument for advancing social justice and reducing urban inequality (especially in regard to Cape Town as World Design Capital 2014). See the schedule for the series on the SJC site, and in short form on the poster below (designed by Michael MacGarry).

Grootboom 2012

Grootboom 2012