Mzulungile Gaqa. Supplied by UWC.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world: extreme wealth coexists with desperate poverty. 

It has also been ranked among the top countries with the highest number of protests, especially in the townships and specifically in shack settlements. 

Curious about what led to these, student Mzulungile Gaqa decided to find out in his anthropological thesis “Life beyond protests: an ethnographic study of what it means to be an informal settlement resident in Kanana/ Gugulethu, Cape Town”. 

This has earned him a Master’s in Anthropology and Sociology from UWC. “My research is mainly about the lives of shack settlement residents. In my Master’s thesis I challenge and problematise two well-established positions about shack residence. 

“First, I argue that protests that take place in a shack settlement cannot be reduced to the notion of ‘service delivery’. 

“Second, I challenge the general criminalisation of protesting shack residents.” His interest in this topic grew out of what has become a perennial phenomenon in this country: the protests phenomenon. “Protests, it seems to me, point to a larger social and economic reality. Out of the study of protests I am ultimately and mainly interested in the question of the human condition, and the dicey notion of citizenship.” 

Gaqa’s fieldwork showed that shack residents predominantly live together and in harmony (as much as any group of neighbours can). On the other hand, the unsettling realities of conditions in informal settlements make them feel like lesser human beings. 

“This is the complexity of what it means to be a shack settlement resident. This has enabled me to sense the protests as informed by complex realities and as complex realities that need to be understood through the lives of protest participants when they are not protesting.” He said it’s about understanding shack residents as people, not just protesters.

 “My work should be read as moving from and against conceptualising protests emanating from the shacks as merely ‘service delivery’ and as just criminal. Through fieldwork I found that there is far more to the life of shack residents.” Gaqa said he was grateful for the many people who had played a role in his development including historic heroes such as Bantu Steve Biko, but especially his own mother and older brother. 

“I am graduating for the third time this year – but this one is very special to me. It marks a very significant turn in my intellectual life, and from here it’s on to the PhD path.” “My dream is to develop as an academic who researches and writes on the human condition of those located in the global South. I hope to help shed light on some of the big issues facing us all.”