Rogue urban connections: an ethnography of trust and social relations in Observatory, Cape Town

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

It is important for present and future urban research to take into account the subtle dynamics and social relations at work in the city. There are alternative and beneficial forms of living together in the supposedly 'disordered' urban space, which are mobilised in order to function in a difficult, changing, and hopeful environment. It is especially pertinent to uncover the complex dynamics at work in everyday life in African cities, as they continue to undergo transformations. In the context of segregation, separation and uncertain futures people create and mobilise intricate ways of connecting to people and spaces in the city. In order to study the intricacies in a South African urban environment, this study examines how people use trust and distrust in a 'disorderly' urban space. I argue that beneficial social relations that are based on trust and distrust manifest in a liminal space, as is especially exemplified by 'strangers' in and of the environment (Simmel, [1908] 1971). Furthermore, I posit that there is a need to trust liminally and spatially in order to be able to function in an 'unruly', 'rogue' environment, specifically Observatory, Cape Town. This analysis focuses on five types of trust: personal, social, institutional, liminal, and spatial trust, and how they are mobilised in the suburb of Observatory, Cape Town. These forms of trust are paramount to functioning in a city, in which many people are unknown others with whom one needs to live alongside. In order to study this abstract concept, an endogenous anthropological methodology was used to observe how and why people use 'trust' in the 'unruly', liminal urban environment of Observatory. Ethnographic qualitative data-collection was vital to this project: namely participant-observation, interviews, open-ended discussions, and examination of what is said in popular media and discussion on the suburb. 'Walking' in the suburb provided a way to examine ethnographically how trust and distrust function on the everyday city streets. Furthermore, my positionality as a 'stranger' (Simmel, [1908] 1971) contributed positively in my study of liminality in Observatory, especially as an anthropological researcher. I conclude that there are beneficial forms and methods of trusting to be found in the liminal people, spaces, and situations in a city. Subtle and important forms of collectivity, agency, and autonomy are to be found in the 'disorder' of African cities.