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University of Basel

A participant observer.

Text: Christoph Dieffenbacher

Social anthropologist Rita Kesselring examines both the legacy of apartheid and mining in southern Africa. For her field research, she often travels alone to townships and inhospitable mining towns.

Portrait of Rita Kesselring
Rita Kesselring, Social anthropologist (Image: University of Basel, Andreas Zimmermann)

Housed in the labyrinthine old building next to the Museum der Kulturen Basel, her office is not easy to find – I climb a steep flight of wooden stairs, continue through low doorways and low-ceilinged rooms, and past a green-tiled stove before finally meeting her at the end of a side corridor: Just back from maternity leave, anthropologist Rita Kesselring is committed to delving into everyday life in southern Africa. Her postdoctoral thesis focuses on a very unique kind of working environment: copper extraction in the town of Solwezi in northwestern Zambia, one of the world’s poorest countries. This is the rough and rugged world of mining, where workers use heavy machinery to extract copper and gold from the ground.

Life in a copper town

“Of course it’s a typically male subject,” the researcher says with a laugh, “and that’s probably why it fascinates me.” She adds that mining in southern Africa, one of the most important regions for the supply of raw materials, has been a subject of anthropological research for almost a century. Kesselring is now investigating developments that have taken place in the industry since the most recent privatization wave of the late 1990s. She observes, for instance, that although Zambia has seen numerous new mines sunk and equipped with the latest technology, the local environment is still being heavily polluted and human rights are still being breached. She also says: “Even though the mines require fewer workers than they used to, people are still moving into town from the countryside in search of work.” The walls and desk of her small and somewhat dark office are covered with maps that show the urban settlement pattern and infrastructure. Kesselring points out that, for instance, whites – mostly senior managers – live in fenced-in houses whereas blacks live in mud huts with inadequate water supply and polluted air. Every day, blasting causes ground vibrations. “The urban structures that emerged after the latest commodity boom are reminiscent of segregated towns in apartheid South Africa,” she says. In addition to local daily life, she is examining the various stages of the copper supply chain, from mining to the customer via transport and trade.

She paid repeated visits to Solwezi, living in the settlements for a total of 14 months and visiting open-pit and underground mines. She spent hours talking to the people living and working in the town. This came to an abrupt halt when the mine management broke off all contact with her: “The moment I started asking questions about business links with Switzerland, that was the end of our conversations.” Such connections were not to be disclosed, and the anthropologist’s attention was no longer welcome. This did not, however, deter her from investigating the background and the reasons for the sudden reticence: “This is also part of the research question.”

Switzerland is the world’s largest trade hub for raw materials from southern Africa, with most metal traded in the country. “Far too little is known about Switzerland’s role in international commodity trade,” says Kesselring, adding that the sector is largely unregulated in Switzerland, although relevant proposals have been made in the meantime. Viewed from that perspective, she says, there is an obvious political component to her work on the Zambian copper town. She is involved in anti-globalization organizations, preferably the smaller kind, because she finds larger organizations lessconducive to fruitful discussion and exchange.

“Research brings responsibility”

For a previous research project, she lived in Cape Town for two years, visiting and interviewing black people in poverty-ridden housing areas on a daily basis. She wanted to learn, among other things, about their experiences of the apartheid era and about the long-term implications: How were people coping with their physical and mental suffering, such as the pain of losing loved ones? The researcher says that those affected remain deeply traumatized. Closely following the everyday lives of a particular group is a well-established method in social anthropology, known as “participant observation”. “I could learn more this way than if I had simply interviewed people,” Kesselring explains. “What was more of a problem was that many people found themselves reliving past events, which sometimes put emotional stress on me, too.”

Gaining insight, publishing findings and developing academic theories are important to this researcher, who remarks that being an academic, as opposed to a journalist, gives her the opportunity to stay with a subject over a longer period and take an in-depth look, for instance zeroing in on “everyday inequalities,” as she puts it. She says that she is always aware of the great debt she owes to the people she researches. And she adds: “As far as I’m concerned, research brings responsibility with it, for example a responsibility to ask myself how the object under study relates to the world I live in.”

Yoga on the golf course

Recalling her time in southern Africa, the anthropologist says that, as a young woman, she found it easy to establish a rapport with people. Asked whether it was dangerous for a woman on her own to venture into unfamiliar areas, she replies: “Not really, although there were a few difficult situations. For example, in South Africa, I was advised against living in black neighborhoods as a white person. And still, I was often given protection and support by women I was talking to, for example grandmothers looking after their grandchildren.” She practiced martial arts so that she could defend herself in an emergency. And she explains that doing yoga exercises on the fenced-in golf course in Solwezi prompted conversations with managers, which in turn led to some initial interviews.

Kesselring still keeps fit, jogging or hiking when she finds the time. After leaving school, she had originally wanted to study sports science, as a keen athlete, but this plan was sadly thwarted by an accident. Then an extended trip to Zimbabwe sparked her interest in anthropology: “At first, I really struggled to understand many aspects of local everyday life, which seemed mostly alien to me.” That experience was effectively her entry into the academic discipline she ended up choosing. She is already looking forward to her next research trips, accompanied this time by her husband and their young child.

Rita Kesselring was born in 1981 and grew up in Frauenfeld in the Swiss canton of Thurgau. She is a postdoctoral researcher and senior lecturer at the University of Basel’s Institute of Social Anthropology. She studied social anthropology, English studies and international law in Zurich and Cape Town, obtaining her doctorate from Basel in 2013. Having first undertaken research on apartheid victims and their demands for reparations, she is currently examining raw material extraction and commodity trading in southern Africa and Switzerland. Kesselring has been a visiting researcher at the University of Connecticut and Princeton University and has carried out extensive field studies in South Africa and Zambia. Based in Grenzach-Wyhlen, Germany, she is married to an anthropologist and is mother to a young daughter.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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