The researcher as the ball in a political game

Benit Gbaffou, Claire
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Carnets de géographes,
This research, undertaken by PLANACT (an NGO) and for which I am playing a role as research adviser, is about the place of residents’ participation in a hostel renovation projecti. The hostelii is located on former mining ground, close to the metropolitan fresh products market. It is not far from the city center in absolute terms (about 10 kilometers) and well connected to it through taxi routes: but in a no man’s land made up of industrial zones, mine dumps, and toxic waste. It is also a political enclave – an ANC stronghold in a DAiii ward, which mostly comprises (besides the hostel) former white working class suburbs. The hostel renovation is conducted by Joshco (Johannesburg Social Housing Company, an entity that is funded by the municipality and is accountable to it but has its own management structure), who also manages the rental units. The project is about converting a former male hostel (predominantly occupied by Xhosa residents, from the Eastern Cape) into family units, inviting the wife and children to join their long-gone husband. It is perceived by most residents as a radical change that has its own challenges (in particular when the migrant husband has established a relationship with another women; but even more generally because the coming of women challenges the former masculine environment and requires some reshuffling of traditional gender roles). In the process of conversion and renovation of the hostel, Joshco has been mainly interacting with the old Tenants Committee, composed of four men and often criticized by other stakeholders (including Joshco itself), for not being representative of all residents. Two other local organizations are powerful locally: the ANC and SANCO structures (partners in what is called the ‘Alliance Forum’) They are said to have a wider audience, and are extremely critical of (and sometimes violently oppositional to) Joshco’s project. It took a long time for us to identify who the leaders were and to organize a meeting, all the more that we were introduced in the hostel by Joshco’s caretaker, who was reluctant to put us in touch with people he perceived as ‘trouble makers’, and was also very wary that the research process could open conflict and even violence in City Deep Hostel, especially in electoral timesv. I had subsequently issued a poster and flyers in English and Xhosa to tell residents about the research and inform them that its purpose was to talk with all stakeholders and hear all voices, from an outsider’s, independent perspective. After several months of fieldwork in the area, and eventually individual interviews with the local ANC representative, and the SANCO chair, I asked the former if I could attend an Alliance Forum executive committee meeting (since there was no public meeting in the pipeline) and he invited me.
Political games, PlanAct, hostel renovation project, Johannesburg Social Housing Company
Benit Gbaffou,Claire. 2010. The researcher as the ball in a political game. no.1. Carnets de géographes, Rubrique: Carnet de terrain.