We’ve been trialling a new way to engage people in our research – using a clothes horse, a handful of pegs and some photographs of government buildings printed on cloth.
The idea is a bit like an in-depth vox-pop. My colleague Selemo Nkwe and I arrive in a busy city centre, shopping mall or bus station and set up. We unfold our clothes horse and peg on the cloths. People are busy on their lunch-break or shopping, but they stare; some hesitate. We invite them to come and see, explain the project and ask them how many of the buildings they recognise.
This hooks most people. We get into competitions between friends, and discussions about the merits of the photographs. And then we get onto what we’re really interested in – what do they know about the buildings? Which ones do they like? What goes on inside them? Which is the most important? Which ones aren’t there but should be?
It’s been a way to engage with a wider group of people, and it’s thrown up some interesting insights – an argument between a mother and daughter about whether the State Opening of Parliament is a wonderful spectacle or fat cats showing off; stories of protest, arrest and torture inside the Johannesburg Central Police Station in the 1970s and 80s; and the discussion among a group of homeless men about listening to music coming from a concert inside the Constitution Hill, a place where they don’t feel welcome.
Some people aren’t impressed. One student said: ‘I just pass by these buildings, but I don’t really care.’ Others speak angrily about them as: ‘Where they just talk,’ or ‘Where they control us.’
On their own these discussions do not amount to a profound insight into popular conceptions of statehood in South Africa. Instead, they give a snapshot of public consciousness of their state buildings and popular ideas about them.
We engage people who wouldn’t volunteer for the focus group discussions that are the basis of the research. Through them, we have encountered broader collective memories and more marginal or conflicting views of politics.