New book by Lydie Cabane explores how the South African state bureaucracy reacts to disasters
Lydie Cabane, Assistant Professor in Governance of Crises at the Institute for Security and Global Affairs, recently published the book 'The Government of Disasters'. In this book Lydie explores how the South African state bureaucracy reacts to disasters.
What is your book about?
Lydie: 'The book provides a history of disaster management in South Africa. It looks at how experts, professionals and policymakers shaped and implemented disaster policy from the twentieth century to the present, thereby contributing to state formation. It theorises the politics of protection, showing how objects of protection shift depending on politics and institutions – as attention shifted from critical infrastructures and white people during the Apartheid to environment and (Black) vulnerable populations in democratic times. The book also highlights the often-unrecognised role of experts from Africa, Latin America and Asia in shaping global disaster policies.'
'As a researcher, I want to understand how institutions protect populations against disruptions, threats, and crises.' - Lydie Cabane
What were your motivations for doing research on the history of disaster management in South Africa?
Lydie: 'As a researcher, I want to understand how institutions protect populations against disruptions, threats, and crises. This has been a leading question in all my research projects since and is still relevant as the climate disrupts planet Earth and crises accumulate.
Research on crises and disasters is still divided between crisis research (as in the Netherlands) and disaster research (in the US and the global South), even though governance is now global, and there is much to learn from cross-fertilisation. Working in South Africa taught me about the different possible foci in disaster politics: securitisation but also protection, and how countries of the South were actively engaged in the transnational politics of disasters – both aspects were little discussed in the disaster and crisis literature.'
Why is it important to do research on this topic?
Lydie: 'Obviously, understanding disaster policies is an important topic given how disasters have the potential to disrupt societies. But when I started my research it felt like a marginal topic. My take on this remains the same: it’s essential to understand how institutions and organisations behave in times of disruptions. They provide a litmus test of institutional order: when things collapse, what holds? What and who does the state protect? They reveal what is of value to society and strip bare the nature of the state and governance mechanisms.
Yet little research gives a historical perspective to the management of emergencies and analyses how notions of security and protection are formed. And, more practically, disasters create serious threats to what is of value to human societies and individuals, so we need to understand how we respond to them to improve our policies.'
Can you name a surprising outcome of your research?
Lydie: 'The whole research project was a surprise to me! I had not planned to research disaster management. My initial project was about migration policies. But that year (2008), there was a humanitarian crisis following a spate of xenophobic violence, and my fieldwork got caught up in that. What I found most astonishing was seeing white guys doing disaster management to protect Black African foreigners in camps and talking about them as vulnerable people to be protected. In post-apartheid South Africa, where racism and xenophobia were quite high, that was really surprising. And that raised fascinating questions about institutional changes, who gets to be protected, and how discourses and policies about risk and vulnerability came to replace the Apartheid emergency thinking. I was lucky to have a supportive supervisor and a flexible funding that allowed me to embark on a journey of unplanned discoveries.'
What do you want to achieve with your readers?
Lydie: 'I hope that they can read a good story and learn a couple of things. Some empirical analyses in the book are genuinely original, as there are barely any other publications on those topics, such as the history of civil defence or the analysis of disaster science. Secondly, I want to bring more light on South Africa and push forward an analysis on ‘the politics of protection’, a topic I am still developing through papers, workshops and projects.'
Who should definitely read your book?
Lydie: 'Hopefully, the book can interest different people. It should appeal to scholars interested in disaster and crisis management, but also colleagues from (South) African studies or those interested in state and governance. And hopefully, it can also speak to practitioners.'
Text by: Lydie Cabane and Benedicte Dobbinga