Housed at the most elevated part of the mountainous University of Cape Town upper campus, the African Centre for Cities (ACC) runs an exciting MPhil in Urban Studies programme to develop urban scholars that can take on the complex challenges of rapidly urbanising cities of the global south. From its vantage point, the ACC’s call for MPhil applications reverberated across the landscape of the global south, attracting applications from far afield, including the desert dunes of the Kalahari in Botswana to the sub-tropical Malawi, where both authors of this piece come from respectively.
True to ACC’s spirit of bringing plurality to the urbanisation discourse, our group of nine students is made of a good mix of experience, youth, gender, nationalities and professional disciplines. Urban planners, architects, designers, engineers, geographers and a heritage specialist have been brought together by a common purpose – to acquire carefully structured knowledge that equips us with skills to think and work across a diversity of urban development contexts using a variety of research practices for the benefit of our communities.
Cape Town itself is an excellent location for an upcoming urbanist who would like to think for and from the south. The housing challenge facing the city, informal settlements in Philippi, gentrification in Woodstock, and exclusion in the prime areas of the city all offer an amazing experience for a boots-on-the-ground type of scholarship.
In the first semester, we studied collaboratively with the Masters in Critical Urbanisms students from the University of Basel. Through intense readings and seminars, we started to attain theoretical grounding in the urban field. We chipped away at the many layers that make up the urban experience in the global south cities and focused our lens on the urban everyday experience of urbanites who make do under circumstances hardly researched in the field of urban studies. Being part of this intermixing of the two programmes was a very fulfilling experience on many levels: Not only was it an opportunity to learn from different geographical and cultural perspectives but working together on research projects also provided an opportunity to jointly develop possible urban solutions to our shared future cities. We recognised that although we come from different continents and different sets of urban challenges, requiring different solutions, we are bound by the common creed that our cities should be places of opportunity for all who live in them.
The programme is complemented by a compulsory City Research Studio with the main aim to introduce students to diverse research techniques, beyond the ordinary classroom context, that can be employed in trying to make sense of the city. The first six weeks of the semester were spent on a project in Hazeldean, Philippi, with Peoples Environmental Planning (PEP), an NGO that works in the housing sector. We were introduced to a range of housing delivery contexts and tasked to make sense of the ordinary strategies and tactics that people use to secure homes and rights in the city. This involved one-on-one interviews to get a sense of the lived experiences of the people mainly in areas of housing policy and delivery. The results were overwhelming as we came to understand how the city and its policies are perceived by the ordinary citizen, contrary to what is imagined in a classroom set up. In the final six weeks of the semester, we were in the hands of artists from A4 Arts Foundation, who, using different projects and cases, threw us into a deep ocean of arts-based methods of sensing the city. We were greatly challenged and exposed to the myriad methodologies that can be drawn into the urbanisation discourse.
One semester into the programme, we cannot wait to uncover what the rest of the course has in store for us. The programme has already instilled the hunger, desire and confidence to lead and influence urbanisation debates in our communities. And lead we will.
This blog was co-authored by Kagiso Tshukudu and Wilfred Jana, both Urban Planners, from Botswana and Malawi respectively and are currently enrolled in the MPhil Southern Urbanism programme.