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What to expect as a visiting researcher at the Centre of Criminology of UCT

4 Feb 2016 - 09:45
Studying at UCT Criminology

Let’s start with a disclaimer: this is a modest personal account reflecting my own experience. No quantitative approach here, just one testimony that might or might not reflect other visiting researchers’ opinions and experiences.

My experience with the Centre of Criminology has been nothing but favourable. Nothing naïve about this statement - I’ve been fortunate to study in a few world-recognised universities, so my overall very positive comments are not the result of a lack of comparison. I consider UCT and my experience here very high in my personal international ranking!

In a nutshell here are just a few reasons why I would recommend visiting the Centre of Criminology as a visiting post-graduate student or academic.

A welcoming multidisciplinary research centre

The staff and the students of the Centre have very different backgrounds, from Criminology and Legal Studies to Sociology, Philosophy and even Psychology. Individuals interact in the convivial environment of the centre, where academics, administrative staff and students have created a welcoming community. This is a perfect set-up for thought-provoking debates and innovative research projects.

A common interest: understanding crime (its multiple forms, its evolution, its actors from the local to the international level) in order to tailor better strategies to address it. So if your research interests are related to criminality in one way or another, you will find that the Centre of Criminology is a unique place to broaden your horizons, debate and learn from others.

Criminology was new to me and discovering this field has been a great learning experience. It has allowed me to take part in new projects (especially on transnational environmental crime) while continuing my PhD research in Law at the Sorbonne Law School of Paris. The focus of my work lies in analysing international courts and how they approach fair trial standards in criminal proceedings.

A flourishing research centre focussing on South Africa and much beyond

Through conferences, seminars, PhD workshops and informal conversations (the coffee breaks on the stunning terrace of the Centre are legendary!) I’ve learnt about the fascinating projects that are led by the academic staff and the dynamic group of PhD, and Masters students on a wide range of topics. To name a few, there are various projects on organised crime from local gangs to transnational networks, drugs illegal markets, victims and the design of safer public space or the challenges faced by police forces.

South Africa is certainly a unique and complex country where addressing crime adequately is a major challenge. Many on-going projects at the Centre contribute to analysing complex national matters, and paving the way to needed solutions. In addition, various projects look beyond South-African borders to analyse regional and global issues. I believe this as remarkable since there are only few research centres in the world with the willingness and capacity to conduct high quality research on crime at the level of the African continent, and even fewer of those centres are actually located in Africa. In that sense, the Centre of Criminology is a pioneer. And there is so much innovative work to be done!

The comparative analysis can also be extended beyond Africa. When I first arrived in South Africa it struck me to find so many similarities with challenges South American countries are facing (e.g. Colombian struggle with drugs and violence which I’m aware of, being a French and Colombian dual citizen). So I’m convinced that the Centre’s current goal to extend its research collaborations and projects to the “Global South” will be extremely interesting and fruitful.

The unique environment offered by the campus and the city of Cape Town

Now that I introduced the Centre itself, it might be helpful to comment on the life on campus and in the city, since there are material concerns any visiting student or academic might have, such as finding a safe and adequate environment to conduct his/her research.

Let’s start with the postcard: experiencing Cape Town, between mountains and sea, and the leafy campus located on the slopes of the mountains, is in itself worth the visit and stunning! The campus includes all the facilities you need - great libraries, multiple cafeterias, and sport fields to name a few. There is a broad offer of conferences organised at the Faculty of Law and other parts of the campus. There are also many cultural activities on offer, including great plays at the Baxter theatre.

I especially enjoyed taking the classes of Xhosa that are offered to students and staff who want to get the basics of this beautiful language (one of the 11 official South African languages, it is largely spoken in the south of the country). I think these classes are important to mention because they are part of the humble, but vital responses to the scars of division left by the apartheid era. The challenges of effective social and economic transformation in the young post-apartheid democracy are central issues for the society at large, and also on campus.

A few months ago a social movement led mainly by students reflecting on colonial and apartheid symbols in public spaces obtained the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes (who led the British colonisation in Southern Africa) at UCT. It inspired other groups of students around the country and from there the next debate became the decolonisation of education (reflecting on the way courses are taught). Then it turned to the broader issue of access to tertiary education for everyone as students were contesting the annual raise of tuition fees (turning the successful social media hash tag #RhodesMustFall into #FeesMustFall). Many commentators pointed out that it was an historical turn: the first time after the end of apartheid that a national youth movement emerged. It was also a unique in that it gathered a relatively large part of society beyond the old racial divides. To sum up, in 2015 the campus became an epicentre of political and social change, and 2016 has the potential to be another very interesting year!

Finally regarding safety concerns visitors may have, I don’t want to make any generalisations here, especially for experts in criminology! It must be said that a few cases of rapes and sexual assaults have been reported not far from campus recently, raising serious concerns among the campus community. However, such events are not common: the campus and the City of Cape Town are rather safe, while safety concerns are a dire reality in the townships, affecting the poorest communities. In that sense the geography of crime is another lingering mark of apartheid.

On that note, I will conclude by saying that South Africa is both complex and fascinating, especially for researchers focusing on crime. The challenges are colossal, but there are also amazing individuals and groups doing incredible work to support change in this country and beyond.

The Centre of Criminology is certainly a vibrant microcosm were academics and students are eager to engage in intricate contemporary debates by conducing innovative research.

- Amanda Cabrejo Le Roux, 3 February 2016