Bard Features

Kerry Ryan Chance ’02: Shaping the New South Africa

Photo by Richard Renaldi
By William Stavru ’87
In the Bardian

For her social-anthropological research that offers a rare glimpse into a perilous, politically volatile South African community, Kerry Ryan Chance ’02 has been named a 2012 New Faculty Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). The esteemed fellowship provides funding for Chance’s two-year teaching position in the Anthropology Department at Harvard University, where she teaches courses on political violence, current African politics, and socioeconomics.

Founded in 1919, the ACLS is a nonprofit coalition of 71 scholarly organizations whose mission is to advance studies in the humanities and social sciences. Each of the member groups focuses on a distinct academic field, but all promote rigorous research, scholarly publication, and education. The organization has been pivotal in helping new Ph.D.s secure academic appointments where they can teach and conduct research. Since 2009, 146 emerging scholars have been awarded New Faculty Fellowships. In 2012 the ACLS awarded over $15 million to more than 320 scholars worldwide through its numerous fellowship programs.

Chance’s research to date has certainly been remarkable. During the last several years, she has been studying fire—not as a chemical reaction due to rapid oxidization, but as a symbol of political dissent. She spent two years in the notorious Kennedy Road shack settlement (shantytown) outside Durban, South Africa—the country’s third largest city, with more than 3.5 million people—observing the lives of the black underclass in the restless postapartheid nation.

City officials estimate that settlements around Durban experience five fires a day, some accidental, some intentional. In her dissertation, Chance offers a context for the fires, noting, “The appearance of fire . . . contains powerful political meanings amongst residents, and expresses a grammar of everyday interactions with state and party officials.” In conversation, she elaborates: “The use of fire by disenfranchised populations is quite common, and has a long history. In democratic South Africa, it is a way for the urban poor to shed light, almost literally, on the state’s failures. In many ways, economic liberalism has deepened disparities between ‘rich’ and ‘poor.’ Slum clearance and development projects are pushing poor people out of cities and into the urban periphery, where they often continue to live without basic services, such as electricity, public water, or health care.”

A native of Unionville, Pennsylvania, Chance first traveled to South Africa as a junior at Bard. She was awarded an internship with the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, where she worked as a research assistant for Susan Levine ’87. Levine was studying attitudes toward HIV among college-age students. “It was through Susan Levine that I was able to get out of the classroom and conduct research on the ground,” Chance says.

Returning to Bard, Chance wrote her Senior Project, “Today We All Became War Correspondents: Media, Memory, and Witnessing 9/11,” under the guidance of Michèle D. Dominy, professor of anthropology and vice president and dean of the College. For the project, Chance conducted fieldwork in Manhattan from September 2001 to May 2002, seeking testimonies from people who were at the World Trade Center during the attack. The thesis explored how trauma and the media influenced personal narratives and examined the implications of witnessing and participating in such a historic, violent event. She found that eyewitnesses—whose legal, political, and ethnographic authority derives from their “unmediated” experience—made sense of their own experience through media technologies.

After Chance graduated, South Africa beckoned again. “My interests in politics, memory, and political violence led me back to South Africa,” she says. Chance returned to the United States in 2004 to continue her education. She earned both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from the University of Chicago. “Bard prepared me extremely well for graduate school,” Chance says. “I went to Chicago having read a great deal of philosophy, social theory, and classic anthropology. I also was exposed to a lot of contemporary ethnography [a genre of writing about social and cultural life that relies upon long-term participant observation] and trained in ethnographic research methods, which were assets later on.”

Her dissertation examines political activity among the urban poor, who have little voice and virtually no political capital with local or national governments in South Africa. Her research demonstrates how readily they are cut off from democracy building. “In South Africa a lot of avenues for political participation have been taken up by the state, such that participation is confined to political parties, state agencies, and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations],” she says. “In some cases, NGOs can be seductive, but ultimately they may not be the best representatives for community-based organizing and political strategies. They also align themselves closely with the government. Now the poor are organizing outside of NGOs and party politics, but their political activity is being recast and portrayed as criminal activity.”

Chance’s next area of research takes the idea of criminalized political activity one step further, as she explores how development politics have become “judicialized.” She explains, “More and more, community action groups have turned to the legal system in their struggles for basic rights, services, and equity. The courtroom has become an even more crucial space of conflict, partly due to the increased criminalization of political action. It is where battles are fought over making life viable and secure.”

However, even as community organizations fight for recognition and social justice, Chance has found that activist groups the world over are finding common ground through the methods they employ to raise awareness and promote change. Chance says, “An anti-eviction campaign emerged in Chicago, in response to the foreclosure crisis, that was similar to the campaigns of people protesting resettlement and housing evictions in South Africa. In fact, South Africans visited Chicago to work with activists there, much the same way that Arab Spring participants flew to New York to work with Occupy Wall Street. Globalization has not only created interconnected economic markets, it’s also created strong connections among activist networks.”

In the Kennedy Road shack settlement at the edge of Durban, Chance tracked the daily interactions between residents and state officials. The settlement was the national headquarters of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a poor peoples’ movement founded in 2005. The presence of Abahlali made the settlement a political target: armed supporters of South Africa’s ruling party attacked Kennedy Road in 2009 and drove the group’s members underground. Chance was forced to complete her research in secret.

Asked about the inherent risks of fieldwork in the developing world, Chance says, “It can be extremely dangerous, but that’s because it’s extremely dangerous to be poor in South Africa. The residents of the Kennedy Road settlement, like the urban poor in other South African cities, are exposed daily to police harassment, surveillance, violence, forced evictions, and arrests.” Returning to the subject of fire, she adds, “In slums globally, shack fires are routine, injurious, and even deadly.”

South Africa since apartheid has yet to fulfill its promise as a fully democratic state. After the nation’s incredible transition—which gave black South Africans the right to vote, maintain citizenship, and seek a better education—further transformation has been stifled, Chance says. “After the initial euphoria of liberation and the honeymoon period of new democracy, there’s been a rise in ethnic politics, police repression, cronyism, and an unfortunate restriction on free speech. People can access rights of citizenship they couldn’t before, but massive inequalities between rich and poor persist. The South African government has built more than two million homes for the poor in the last decade to take them out of the shack settlements, but an overwhelming amount of housing is still needed.”

Given the topicality of her work, it is no wonder that Chance is receiving extensive recognition in her field. She has been invited to speak at Brandeis University, Williams College, and London School of Economics and Political Science, and in South Africa at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Rhodes University, and Stellenbosch University. She has presented papers at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting and at conferences at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

Even with the hectic pace of a professor’s life, Chance reserves time for other interests. “I’ve been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald lately—The Beautiful and Damned and his short stories for his insights on class politics. I also just finished Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities—more reading about uprisings,” she says with a laugh. “Fire has a large presence in the novel, and in light of present street activity and world politics, it’s worth reading, or rereading.”

Chance is also busy revising her dissertation for publication. Even though she is focused on a future in academia, she hopes that her work and ideas resonate with the general public. “I published an article in Slate and would like to write more for popular media outlets. In the United States, the academic world can easily find itself separate from the broader public sphere, so it’s important for academics and artists to make an effort to engage with the general public.”

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Post Date: 12-17-2012