Of Home and History: Life Stories, Race and Place-Making in Observatory, Cape Town

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 08:30
Oral Presentation
Talia MEER, University of Cape Town, South Africa
The recent upsurge of interest in urban migration, place-making and identity has focused largely on issues of international and regional refugees and immigrants, and integration. There is however less focus on how people move through spaces in individual cities, and how ‘small movements’ (Arnaut, 2012) shape both life stories and understandings of a place.

In Cape Town, Observatory is often seen as an inclusive neighbourhood in the segregated city, accepting of race and class mixing, and described historically as a ‘grey area’ – neither black nor white, or both during apartheid (Unneberg 2005; Peck & Banda 2014).

The life stories of 20 feminine residents of Observatory, elicited through in-depth interviews, reveal that individuals’ movements in and out of Observatory have frequently had a profound impact on their life courses. Observatory’s status as a diverse space allowed residents to reshape their biographies: white residents have shed their racist or conservative homes and histories to create new post-apartheid identities in Observatory; black residents have achieved class-mobility, and access to the (white) urban centre, to construct lives tenuously outside of the oppressive effects of segregation. Frequently however, the experiences of black residents, whose biographies include dispossession or discrimination within Observatory, remain ‘unreal’; while those of white residents that affirm Observatory as diverse or inclusive, are seen as 'real' (Skeggs et al. 2004).

I argue that, in the example of Observatory, biographical research demonstrates the significance of small movements in and out of the neighbourhood in shaping both individual lives and collective understandings of place, and also challenges the pervasive perspective of Observatory as unwaveringly inclusive and diverse. Thus, participant biographies can help unpack or trouble dominant understandings of place and history, and can contribute to a more robust account.