Reflections on 10 years of the ACC: Four Vignettes

As one of the early members of the ACC team Jane Battersby reflects on the evolution and maturation of the unit. 

Sitting in the opening of the ACC Conference and listening to director Edgar reflect on our origin story, I found myself scanning across the packed venue and remembering snapshots of the proto-ACC. So, here are four brief stories about the how the ACC came to be.

Who are you?
In 2007, Vanessa Watson approached me, as a postdoc between funding, to travel around the country and interview all the research active urban researchers I could find. My mission: to tell people about the emerging unit, to find out what they were researching, who they worked with, what their policy connections were and so on. A few things stood out. Firstly, there was a sense of the need for something like the ACC. They may have just been saying that to be nice, until they heard who was involved. Secondly that there were real points of disconnect in urban work in South Africa. At one university, an interviewee argued that someone really needed to do work on X. I had to tell them that I had just interviewed one of their colleagues in the adjacent building doing just that! A good number of the people I met with, and had convivial lunches and gossipy interviews with have since become colleagues or collaborators.

What’s in a name?
The details of this vignette may be contested, but this is how I remember it. The Boardroom of the Environmental and Geographical Science Department was packed. We were meeting to discuss aspects of the vision and activities of the unit, but first the pressing question of what to call ourselves. We had been loosely going by the Cities in Africa Network (CIAN), but that wasn’t working anymore. And so came a series of problematic acronyms. CIA – Cities in Africa? Well… CIA was already taken and some of us still wanted to be able to get visas. It wasn’t enough for us to just be about Cities in Africa, we needed to be a unit working on African cities, as well as speaking beyond African cities – southern urbanists. ANC – African Network of Cities? Just no. And then, it came: The African Centre for Cities. The ACC. We were a Centre in Africa, of Africa, but not exclusively African in focus. We would write, think and do from our position in Africa and work for and with cities. It just worked.

Just what can you do?
Another meeting. This time in the bowels of the Centlivres building. This meeting had representatives from all potential ACC affiliates at University of Cape Town speaking. At the end of the meeting, a now senior member of ACC staff was asked by an engineer who will remain nameless: “But, what is it that a human geographer can possibly do that it useful for a city?”. Ten years on, the rich interdisciplinary conversations, practices, publications and policy advocacy that are the hallmark of the ACC thankfully have made such a question unthinkable today.

You were how small?
Panning around the conference venue over lunch, I tried to count the number of ACC researchers, past researchers, and affiliates standing by the multiple food tables. I remembered one last moment. We had a first strategic planning meeting around one small table at Little Streams in Constantia. The ACC had just appointed its first two research staff, Warren Smit and Mercy Brown-Luthango (who are still key members of the ACC family). We had just one plate of snacks and I don’t think we even emptied it.

Ten years on and I am intensely proud to be part of a globally acknowledged, southern centred, deeply interdisciplinary, deeply relevant, huge, but still personal African Centre for Cities.