Vanessa Watson Tribute Letter by Professor Alan Mabin

Vanessa Watson : a life fully lived

Vanessa Watson, born on 12 October 1950, lost a bravely fought prolonged battle with cancer shortly before her 71st birthday at home in Cape Town on 15 September 2021.  Widely recognised for her contributions to scholarship, planning education and community commitment she is deeply mourned. Up until some months before her death, despite serious illness and often debilitating treatment, she had remained in a full time position as professor at UCT, a highly active scholar and participant in university life. She continued to be a mentor and generous friend to many.

Vanessa grew up in Durban, and was educated in that City and Pietermaritzburg after which she studied at the University of Natal as it then was  She took her honours in geography in 1971, in a in a small class of exceptional students that included John Butler-Adam who much later on became a DVC at the then University of Durban-Westville.  These were extraordinary times and the group with whom she studied were equally special people, all gaining a sense of the horrors of South African society at that time and a commitment to change.

These students had the great advantage of studying with – among others – Professor Ron Davies, who was a rare figure in those times in South African geography, having completed a doctorate in the late 50s in London and co-authored a book with two sociologists – one of them the very well-known Leo Kuper – the book remaining a highly valuable text titled Durban: a Study in Racial Ecology.  A consciousness of the oppressions of colonialism and segregation were built into the approaches that some colleagues took.  In this milieu Vanessa developed an enormous interest in cities, their societies, their inequities and their spatialities, as well as their planning. She developed an interest in possibilities for planning interventions to address spatial injustice.  But for some time before she extended her own studies towards planning, she taught high school in Amanzimtoti, after which she lived for a while in Salisbury (now Harare). In this period before she undertook formal studies in planning she was gaining insight into varied urban environments that she honed throughout subsequent decades.

In the mid 1970s Vanessa enrolled in the masters programme in city planning at UCT where she studied with influential planners and architects including Dave Dewar and Roelof Uytenbogaardt – an experience that shaped her views on cities and planning from then on. From there, she went to London and took the planning diploma at the Architectural Association in London, a programme that had its origins in post war reconstruction and remained one of the best places in the world to engage with contemporary cities and their futures.  Coming back to South Africa she settled in Cape Town, partly for personal reasons, where she took a position at the Urban Problems Research Unit (UPRU).  Together in particular with Dave Dewar she began to write extensively on cities and planning, including an early book in the field of ‘informal sector’ studies as well as on other subjects including regional planning questions. She came to some important conclusions about the nature of informality, which she was to bring to bear on analysing South African cases in the late apartheid period and subsequently to expand to thinking about southern as opposed to global northern urbanism.

When a group of us in Johannesburg set up Planact, an NGO working with communities mostly in townships, at the end of 1985, one of our very requests for support we received related to the threat of removal hanging over the heads of residents of an area between Langa township and Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape.  Planact retained Vanessa as progressive, professional consultant and working with members produced a remarkable report: Langa: the Case for Upgrade which came long before most others in planning circles had begun to grasp the permanence of ‘informality’. The report served as evidence in a Supreme (now High) Court case that secured the rights of people to remain in situ. This landmark decision was however quashed because of the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency in 1986: under cover of the permission given to police to take whatever action they wished, the people of the area were forcibly removed.  That blot remains on the landscape of Nelson Mandela Bay.  Vanessa’s work, however continued to be informed by the same prescient vision and empathy.  In that mid 1980s period she joined with colleagues and community based individuals to set up the Development Action Group, an NGO that like Planact and some others continued to pursue the ideal of ‘cities and towns for people.’ These NGOs have survived, in part due to the steadfast commitment of individuals like Vanessa working closely with communities, and they continue to adhere to the objectives for which they were founded.

After several years of work at UPRU, Vanessa secured a position lecturing in the post graduate city planning programme at UCT.  For almost the entire rest of her life, she played a pivotal role in the programme providing leadership and guidance to colleagues and building professional networks with global reach.   Several generations of students benefitted from her vision, unstinting dedication and mentorship and many went on to make their own mark on the world.  With some of them, Vanessa produced significant texts, like one with Roger Behrens: Making Urban Places : Principals and Guidelines for Layout Planning.  Others took up senior positions in the City of Cape Town, Western Cape Province and elsewhere. Messages of condolence on Vanessa’s passing from many of those who have gone on to work across Africa and on other continents express their gratitude for her teaching that they say helped them to ‘see the world of cities in completely different ways.’

In the turbulent and often very difficult and trying 1980s Vanessa also played a part in the local activities of the United Womens Organisation (UWO), which affiliated with the UDF, and provided in particular much personal support to people who suffered who suffered from apartheid’s inhumane restrictions and frequently from the brutality inflicted on those who transgressed its laws.  She retained a modesty about her knowledge of peoples’ lives in the oppressive circumstances of the city but shared that and conceptualized it into framing hopes for a different future for all.

Vanessa was singularly generous and selfless. She was known by her friends and colleagues for her unfailing warmth, sincerity, tasteful elegance and quiet, wry sense of humour.  In her personal life, she and Desmond Woolf who were to separate after a long-term relationship, but remained close friends, are the parents of twins Simon and Daniel born in 1989.  The two qualified professionally, and after graduation each moved to London where they secured positions and now reside, together with respective partners, and Daniel’s child and Vanessa’s grandchild Matteo.

One of the more remarkable moments in the twins’ early years came on 11 February 1990.  Whilst the rest of us watched on TV, Nelson Mandela was released from his 27 year imprisonment: but seemed to vanish from sight before his appearance to address 100000 people on the Parade in the centre of Cape Town.  Where had he gone?  His drivers had managed to shake off the pursuing paparazzi, and parked in a quiet street below UCT in Rondebosch: it so happened that was right outside Vanessa’s house, and she emerged with the twins and family into the garden to find Mr Mandela at her gate. 

At the end of the 1990s Vanessa realised that in the university environment it would be advantageous to her to pursue a doctorate.  She chose as her research topic Change and Continuity in Spatial Planning in Cape Town  – and, characteristically committed herself to conducting thorough research. She did me the honour of asking me to take on the role of supervisor.  Since I had first met her in 1970 and continuously learnt from her over almost three decades by that time, the notion of  ‘supervision’ was a bit odd: and in the end she conveyed a sense of the nature of a reciprocal relationship by describing me as ‘adviser’ in the book version of the thesis.  I agreed to the supervision because I knew that despite her many responsibilities, her exceptional level of dedication, focus and commitment would enable her to complete the thesis.  She was awarded a doctorate by Wits, adding a fourth significant institution to her list of ‘alma maters’.  Her book based on her doctoral thesis, earned her the ‘Women in Science of the Year’ award from the Minister of Science and Technology. From this point, Vanessa’s career deservedly took off. Her exceptional teaching and the organisational and leadership roles she played in the University were duly recognised; she extended and built on international connections, produced a highly respected research output and was promoted to full professor.

During those years, one of Vanessa’s dreams began to be realized, in large measure due to her own determination, as well as the relationships she forged with others.  Her ambition was creation of a network, an active community of urban planning schools across Africa.  It took many years of perseverance to accomplish that goal: she persuaded many others, myself included, to undertake activities towards it.  In parallel she formed the notion of a significant urban research centre at UCT: she did not succeed in persuading the NRF to support a ‘centre of excellence’ but laid the groundwork that allowed – together with others, in particular colleagues Sue Parnell and Edgar Pieterse as well as the then dean of her faculty, to set up the African Centre for Cities.  One of its flagships, supported due to Vanessa’s efforts and Edgar’s diplomacy, by the Rockefeller Foundation, was the anchoring of the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS), which took off in part through Vanessa’s ability to identify and to bring on board individuals who would ‘make it happen’, in particular Nancy Odendaal and later, James Duminy. 

Along the way Vanessa became well known in almost every centre of planning education in Africa.  Her representation of our continent globally through AAPS led to her acquiring a significant reputation across the world.  Together with one of her key colleagues in another continental planning schools association, Bruce Stiftel of the north American ACSP, she co-edited a book series.  In recent years she wrote very widely cited articles often based on experience in Cape Town, but also other African cities, ranging across the continent from east to west.  I had the privilege of working with her on one project, together with anthropologists and geographers, on back yard shacks and subrenting in South African townships – years before that subject became the object of wider attention.  This is yet another illustration of how pioneering her work was.

Cape Town is a centre of attraction for many foreign scholars and among those to whom Vanessa gave support were Alain Dubresson and Sylvy Jaglin, French professors whose edited book on the city had origins in conversation with Vanessa.  It would be impossible to list all the members and visitors at the African Centre for Cities who benefited from Vanessa’s role.  And whilst to others it might have appeared effortless, her own publication continued: as she became increasingly concerned with questions of southern urbanism and planning, collaborating with – for example – Indian colleagues in producing texts that surveyed urban planning across the global south.

Vanessa’s ideas could be controversial, and she didn’t shy away from debate.  Her early passion in the field of planning for theory didn’t fade.  Some sharp exchanges with other leading scholars certainly occurred, but without rancour.  Vigorous intellectual engagement continued to be part of her life up to her last weeks.  Most of all Vanessa helped to stimulate passion for, and to nurture interest in planning for better cities.  She did that for me, and she did that for innumerable students.  She succeeded in shifting the nature of planning discourse for many and her legacies in these fields live on.

Once her two sons moved away from home, Vanessa fulfilled her ambition to have a house designed for herself on the slopes of the mountains above Hout Bay, a beautiful location in the Cape Town area, where she spent much time with friends from NGOs, university and wider circles.  Owen Crankshaw and Sue Parnell as well as other neighbours provided a community setting.  With Nicolas Bauman she made numerous visits to beautiful spots in the Western Cape once the restrictions of pandemic times lightened: around Citrusdal and the edge of the Cederberg, Franschhoek and more.  By that time she had reconciled herself to the probability that her cancer, diagnosed towards the end of 2018, might be terminal. Although she did not quite concede defeat, she spoke frankly but not self-indulgently, openly and courageously to about her situation.  In between often brutal chemotherapy treatments she continued her enjoyment of life as well as her hard work in the scholarly and planning fields – inter alia playing a major role as one of the editors of a leading international journal Urban Studies and adroitly assisting many authors to bring their work to the readership.  Once she made the decision to set that work aside, as she battled to combat the disease attacking her, we knew that she had prepared many of us for the awful inevitable.  And, most of all, she prepared herself, characteristic of Vanessa being considered, careful, and caring.

A sharing and kind person of sharp mind, with an ability to focus on projects way beyond the usual, the loss of Vanessa Watson is a very deep wound for many people on every continent.  Her life will however continue to be remembered and celebrated by those who were robbed of their mother, partner, dear colleague and friend, distressed by her passing but privileged and thrilled to have spent time with her over the years. 

Professor Alan Mabin