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Tania Katzschner: Building Care Initiative at the University of Cape Town

Tania Katzschner is a Senior Lecturer in City & Regional Planning at the University of Cape Town. The university offers fully RTPI accredited undergraduate and postgraduate planning degrees. 

The #RhodesMustFall student protests and grief laden struggles in 2015 that some of you might have heard about were a big rupture and crack - a crack re denialism that things had changed. It became clear that the ghosts from the past were haunting us…there existed just so much pain, so many wounds to heal and work of repair was and remains urgent.

It was pivotal moment in triggering more intense self-reflection and critical evaluation of our knowledge, or lack thereof, on issues relating to the ongoing inequalities and systems of oppression that remain prevalent within our society. Students found their ‘No’ and were not willing to be accommodated to the abnormality of the world and our Higher Education landscape in South Africa as it existed. The protests profoundly upset an imagined stability at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Also, the secure tethering to the ground of a predatory universality of the West came unfastened.

It was a profound and illuminating time of learning for me. It wrenched my mind and heart open…it certainly opened me to my own complacency and comfort. I learnt so much about the fight for decolonized education and interconnections to my own preoccupations and yearnings around environmental struggles, socio-ecological justice, decorporatised education and reclaiming the public commons.

I was hugely touched and inspired by some of what I witnessed the youth do, the fierce and rigorous intellectual activity and work in their organizing, meetings, and tactics. It was an immense and inspiring opening regarding ‘another university is possible’.I was touched by how the students were deliberating and engaging and how they were practicing being with each other. They really demonstrated in the early days how to what feminist author and philosopher Donna Haraway calls ‘stay with the trouble’ (Haraway, 2016), how to hold paradox, and deal with so many intersecting issues. There was space for plenty of multiplicity in the intersectional space and space to grapple with contradictions.

The protests made me deeply question how to live and work meaningfully and purposefully at this moment in time at UCT. How could I contribute to and help expand and create a “healing virus” of transformational dialogues.  I wrestled with my responsibility and response in this moment.

"There are no solutions; there is only the ongoing practice of being open and alive to each meeting, each intra-action, so that we might use our ability to respond, our responsibility, to help awaken, to breathe life into ever new possibilities for living justly." (Karen Barad)


One small gesture was that I initiated what we called the “Building Care” initiative within our postgraduate City & Regional Planning community. We felt it would be essential to centre the work of CARE. There were many initiatives and ideas at the university level, faculty level and departmental level as to how to engage transformation and change. For us transformation is ultimately about a different way of being together and it felt important to cultivate that. We were determined to amplify the principle of care.

The word ‘care’ means many different things to many different people but the description by feminist philosophers Joan Tronto and Bernice Fischer is one I find helpful: care is “everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair ‘our world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That would include ourselves, our bodies and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web”. (Tronto in Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017). More recently Tronto suggested that “we need now to stop being dazzled by neoliberal forms of resilience and, instead, have the courage ourselves to return to a forestalled alternative future, one in which care truly matters” (Tronto, 2017: 39).

How could we craft something new and take the work of care away from the margins, build the space for which we had been longing, and contribute to nourishing a more soulful way to be with each other. Community means strength - that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. The idea was founded on the concept of staying with and responding to the trouble (Donna Haraway 2016). For me that means staying with all of it, finding ways to be in the multifaceted landscapes of our work. It helps us see deeper into the flesh of the issues and the systemic complications. It was an intervention, really a mini gesture in the ordinary every day, with the wish or intention to infuse some everyday ordinary ‘magic’ and that it would have ripples going forward.

Together with my city planning colleagues and our students we have been working on this ‘Building Care’ initiative to nurture and literally grow ‘care’ and compassion since 2017. As part of the initiative, we host seminars recognising the significance of enquiry and engagement and creating deliberate spaces for deep and engaged learning. The aim is to create and offer the space for no answer, to offer a space for pausing. We want to also allow everyone in the room to ruminate with what matters to them emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and physically.

We strive to recognize and value the vital importance of the Commons in our lives and for our future. Together we want to explore collective capacities to do things, undo painful habits and nurture enabling ways of being together. We strive for an ethics of community engagement - commitment to building relationships that ad tangible value into our communities that we form part of. We aspire to put our knowledge and understanding to use in the service of our lives, our communities and the places in which we live – the idea of ‘talk-plus-walk’. The hope is to cultivate solidarity and make room for a kind of integrity and generosity

Simply put it felt like as a group and more intimate community we could be talking through some of the questions that lie in front of us, with honesty and depth – and this needed intent and insistence on delving deeper to provide and generate succour and meaning.

While in the initial years of the initiative, many of our dialogues focused on systemic issues, change, inclusivity and transformation, in the recent turbulent years and during the Covid pandemic many of the seminars turned to mental health and wellbeing as so many of us were battling with wellbeing, loss and grief.

This year the initiative has grown and students initiated a Monday morning Wellness moment, and nourishing pause. We have grown a community support initiative where we try and capture and express what needs and assets we have within our community and try see if we can meet some of the needs expressed. We look to help one another and also ask within our networks if somebody can support needs expressed.

While the work of building culture may seem less urgent than the many political and economic crises of our time, how we practice showing up and caring for one another day-to-day matters. We believe that the work of building culture is what will help us thrive—and survive—in the long run. Our hope is that this initiative will nurture seeds , inspire and ripple into many different environments.


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