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PhD student studies extreme African slums

Klára Brožovičová worked a year in one of the most dangerous places on earth. 

Even Brožovičová herself, despite following safety measures, was robbed in a car and was for a while unable to leave the country even if she wanted to.

There are a number of Czech cities that struggle with areas that are excluded from broader society. However, the situation in Cape Town, South Africa, is far beyond anything that can be found in the Czech Republic. According to unofficial estimates, up to a million people live in the local slums or “townships”, as they are called. Last year, they became the focal research point for Klára Brožovičová, a PhD student from the Faculty of Law.

Based on the number of crimes recorded in police statistics, the South African metropolis is one of the most dangerous places on earth. “I don’t think that the extremes you find in Africa can be found anywhere else,” says Brožovičová. “It is a place where you can find absolutely stunning scenery as well as huge gaps between the rich and poor, and deep social problems. It pushes the limits of what you are able to cope with.”

As a postdoctoral fellow, she did fieldwork right in the slums and studied the locally available sources of information. She was interested in the life and growth of townships as well as in the legal aspect of the whole issue. She gained first-hand experience with almost everything that is an everyday reality for the inhabitants of the city.

At one point, for example, she had to move out of the university campus to rented accommodation outside the premises. This was when student unrest caused by study fees turned into violent riots with gunfire and armed police had to be called in.

The Czech researcher could not simply walk into the maze of narrow slum streets alone; it is too dangerous for a white female to do so. However, she was able to partner with a local NGO that establishes day-care centres for the poor, and its manager Jenny Houston.

“I never realised how important it might be for a local woman to have a place where her child can be taken care of for a few hours a day,” says Brožovičová, citing a specific example of the help that is given. “It allows her to work and that, in turn, drastically improves her social standing.”

In general, she says, the work of NGOs is indispensable, even though it is a very long process and results are often only seen in the generation that comes after the one that received intervention.

The South African government obviously attempts to restrict the growth of townships as well, but building a fence around them makes no difference. The locals dismantle it overnight and use the material to build new homes, mostly tin-roofed shacks. New people keep coming to these localities, mostly from the countryside, in search of a better life in the city. However, overcrowding and low skill levels mean that the hopes that they had of a new life only rarely come true.

Instead, they have to share a few square meters in a tiny house with several other people with very bad jobs or none at all. This results in a high level of criminality, which turns the townships into areas with their own rules and laws and instils fear even in people who live in more economically prosperous parts of the city.

“As we worked on the study, sometimes a fight would break out between the local gangs, which meant that nobody was allowed to enter the area and nobody knew how long it would take before you could go there again. The community deals with its problems – often caused by drug producers and dealers – on its own,” says Brožovičová, who also gained more detailed information about the local situation. A common way of killing someone is “necklacing”, when the “accused” is tied up and a burning tire is placed around their neck.

Even Brožovičová herself, despite following safety measures, was robbed in a car and was for a while unable to leave the country even if she wanted to: besides her technical equipment, she also lost all her documents and passport.

“My first reaction was to go home, but I calmed down while I was waiting for new documents. The stay was so interesting that my professional interests finally won out,” she says, adding that she is grateful to Associate Professor Tomáš Pospíšil and her colleagues from the Department of Legal Theory for letting her go to such a dangerous area.