My name is Ralph Borland, and I’m an artist, designer and technologist based in Cape Town, South Africa. 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‘. Before that I was a postdoctoral fellow at the African Centre for Cities. This site houses my PhD thesis, and my continuing research into objects (and development) – for more information, please see the About page. This is my journal, where I keep track of articles of interest to my work. You can use the ‘Categories’ menu in the sidebar below to navigate through posts – ‘Objects‘ for example. Please feel free to send me links to examples of interesting objects or anything else related to my research – you can contact me here. Subscribe to this blog by clicking here. For my wider work please visit

The Jurisprudence Of Sonic Warfare

On the Australian Gertrude Contemporary gallery mailing list (still subscribed from visiting Australia in 2006 for my piece Sideshow) there’s mention of an interesting-sounding academic, Dr James Parker, who lectures in law with a special interest in sound – he also has a radio show and writes on music.

Shades of Steve Goodman, aka Kode 9, a London-based music producer, DJ and lecturer with a PhD in Philosophy, who wrote the book Sonic Warfare

Connection to my art-design piece Handy Ears through pre-radar military acoustic devices such as these below (from

Preradar acoustic device

Preradar acoustic device


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…

Public housing

I wrote a letter to the Cape Times in response to an article by Allister Sparks on the issue of housing in South Africa – unfortunately the Cape Times online is behind a pay wall, but here is my letter, published on Friday 22 November 2013.

ALLISTER SPARKS suggests that the DA should, in all provinces and municipalities that it controls, “hand over state land to those who work it in rural areas, and to those who live on it in urban areas.

“They, the people, shall be made the owners of those properties and shall be provided with the title deeds attesting to their legal ownership” (“Politics is not ideological purity,” Cape Times Insight, November 20).

The problem with this suggestion is that we, the people, should already be regarded as the owners of state land.

What Sparks is suggesting is transferring public property into individual ownership. This chimes with Patricia de Lille’s own views on private ownership. Also in the Cape Times, on October 30, she writes of her belief that “there is arguably no single intervention that holds the greater prospect of changing the lived reality of poor and marginalised citizens than the provision of ownership”.

But giving people security and a stake in their living places does not have to mean literally owning the title deeds to land or a house. The state could provide security of tenure, services and infrastructure, to land that remains publicly owned.

In that way the broader public, both now and in the future, can retain land and housing as public, preserving these resources from commercial exploitation and speculation for people that may need them and not have the means (or desire) to buy them.

In Britain in 1979, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher introduced the “Right to Buy” scheme, by which people living in social housing could buy their state-owned house.

This was popular with the public, speaking to people’s aspirations to home ownership, as I’m sure De Lille’s statements do now.

But the result is that today there is a crisis in the availability of social housing in Britain, with a growing waiting list.

In 2009 Caroline Davey, head of the charity Shelter, was quoted in the Guardian newspaper as saying “millions of homes have been taken out of the social sector without being replaced and two million households languish on waiting lists, more than one million children live in overcrowded housing and tens of thousands are trapped in temporary accommodation”.

There is value in keeping (and making) resources, including both land and housing, public, not privatising them.

We need to keep this longer term view in mind rather than rushing to dispose of publicly-owned assets that may never be recovered; and we need to explore alternative ways of helping people feel secure in their homes and in their stake in society, than solely through private ownership.

Ralph Borland

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

City walk

Today I led a group of students on a walking tour taking in examples of public art and design, and other sites of interest in Cape Town. We started the walk with a psychogeographic quote by Michel de Certeau from ‘Writing the City’ in ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’ (1984):

The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered.

The course the students were on is SIT’s IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics, which “examines the intentional and natural forces that guide the development of the world’s cities. It combines an innovative urban studies academic curriculum with fieldwork involving public agencies, planners, elected officials, NGOs, and grassroots groups in important world cities where exciting changes are taking place”.

This is a rough map of the course we took (still struggling with Google’s interface).

And these are some of the sites we visited:

Brett Murray's 'Africa' 2000

Brett Murray’s ‘Africa’ 2000

Cape Craft and Design Institute

Cape Craft and Design Institute curated artworks from the 2010 World Cup

Egon Tania

Egon Tania’s sculptures on Pier Place

Greenpoint Park

Greenpoint Park

John Skotnes

John Skotnes’s sculpture Mythological Landscape (1994) on Thibault Square

The Prestwich Memorial

The Prestwich Memorial

Ox Wagon

The iconic children’s jungle gym in the form of a Voortrekker Wagon, Sea Point

The SA National Gallery

The SA National Gallery


It’s really not that big!


Mark O’Donovan’s ‘Manenberg’ interactive street sculpture


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


The ADE651

I was struck reading this article in the Guardian yesterday by developments around a fraudulent bomb detector used by the Iraqi government, called the ADE 651 (along with the ADE 101 and ADE 650). I first read about the ADE 651 in 2009, in an article in the The New York Times which described how Iraqi officials swore by a device that “United States military and technical experts say is useless”. It’s inventor, British businessman James McCormick, built the devices around novelty golf-ball finders, selling them for up to $40,000 each, the Guardian reports. He has now been charged with three counts of fraud.

Ben Goldacre, Guardian writer and author of the book ‘Bad Science’, also blogged about it at the time. He pointed to an amusing anecdote in The New York Times piece:

General Jabiri, meanwhile, challenged an NYT reporter to test the ADE 651, placing a grenade and a machine pistol in plain view in his office. Every time a policeman used it, the wand pointed at the explosives. Every time the reporter used the device, it failed to detect anything. “You need more training,” said the general.

I captured the screenshot below of the website promoting the ADE 651 ( in 2009, which has since been taken down.

ADE 651 screenshot

ADE 651 screenshot