- Respectable Mothers, Tough Men and Good Daughters: producing persons in Manenberg township South Africa by Elaine R. Salo
When Elaine Salo died from cancer, at the age of fifty-four, in August 2016 her long-awaited ethnography of lives, hopes, alienation and the making of [End Page 977] personhood on the Cape Flats remained unfinished. It is thanks to some of her close colleagues and friends that this important monograph, based on her doctoral thesis, has been published posthumously.
Elaine Salo’s work is important in two interconnected ways: as both an extra-ordinary contribution to how we ought to understand the situated production of knowledge, and as an ethnography of working-class coloured (‘mixed-race’) people in Cape Town.
To begin with the latter, Salo’s portrayal of how gendered and racialized personhood is produced vividly brings to the fore the lived experience of residents of Manenberg, a township on the sprawling Cape Flats, in the 1990s. In a richly detailed narrative, Salo shows how women, men and adolescents go about their everyday lives during weekdays; she then draws attention to the long-awaited week-ends that start on Friday afternoons when schools are dismissed early so that Muslim students can attend Friday Jumuʿah prayers. While Muslims, a substantial minority among the local residents, scurry to mosque, other residents ease into the weekend pace, which releases them temporarily from the pressures of performing identities as industrious workers, housewives or students. Salo takes the reader along to the hokke, small informal house shops and hangouts in the backyards of the densely built ‘courts’ (blocks on housing estates), and imaginatively into the shadows of a narrow backyard alley where lovers find a modicum of privacy.
Salo thus sets the scene for her discussion of the expectations of gendered personhood of ‘mothers’ (mature women), mature and younger men, and, especially, younger women (‘daughters’). In two key chapters she portrays the contradictory ideologies and practices of respectable young womanhood and the more glamorous and ambitious desires of reconfigured new femininities in the early post-apartheid years.
While the dynamics of producing persons in a post-apartheid township are at the heart of the richly detailed ethnography, Salo opens up an exploration of the racialized and gendered production of persons with conceptual reflections on personhood, agency and power. This is followed by an extended historical narrative of racial stratification and urban space in Cape Town. Through this she points out the dynamics that have located ‘coloureds’ in South African history as an ambiguous social category with multiple meanings. While this history reaches back to slavery and the Cape Colony of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the mid-twentieth century delivered the decisive turn in the form of apartheid legislation through which ‘race, bodies and space became even more intimately intertwined’ (pp. 56–7). The massive forced removals of coloured and black (‘African’) Cape Town residents reshaped the city’s spatial design. Salo’s central argument is that this reflects social relationships of dominance and subordination, and particularly ‘the manner in which space was used to enforce the beliefs and policies about race and personhood’ (p. 57).
Salo’s ethnography is remarkable for its rich detail and perceptive observation. It is outstanding too in its profoundly respectful engagement with the people she worked with in Manenberg, where she homes in on their communal understanding. This was not easy in the 1990s, and may not be easy in the 2010s because life in the Cape Flats townships has been marred by extreme levels of gangsterism, drug abuse and violence; often, the residents are subjected to a pathologizing gaze by the media and in research reports.
Salo’s work, in contrast, is remarkable for compassion and sensitive relationships with the people of Manenberg. This follows from her extensive reflection on her fieldwork as the ‘native anthropologist’, as she terms it. This was a significant epistemological breakthrough in South African anthropology at the time: Salo lived fieldwork in ways...