Matrix Podcast: Interview with Brittany Birberick

Brittany Birberick

In this episode, Professor Michael Watts interviews Brittany Birberick, an anthropology PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley — and a former Matrix Dissertation Fellow. Birberick’s dissertation project focuses on urban transformation in Johannesburg, South Africa. More broadly, she writes and thinks about economies, migration, temporality, and aesthetics within an urban context. Her dissertation, “Paved with Gold: Urban Transformation in Johannesburg,” situates the city of Johannesburg historically, considering the extractive economy of gold that initiated its development to understand the city’s contemporary tensions: a dilapidated post-apartheid city aiming to be a world-class global city. Her research takes place in Jeppestown, a neighborhood in Johannesburg, and focuses on the inhabitants and built environment of a single street. Today, Jeppestown is portrayed as either on its way to becoming a site of redevelopment by the Johannesburg Development Agency, artists, and private developers, or, if left unattended, a crime ridden area and hotbed of xenophobic violence. The dissertation posits that rather than transformation and development projects leading to an inherently new city or inherently new object, Jeppestown, like many urban areas around the world, is caught in a back and forth between being a successful or failed urban space—a “good” or “bad” city.

Birberick received the Association for Africanist Anthropology’s 2019 Bennetta Jules-Rosette Graduate Essay Award for her essay, “Dreaming Numbers,” which is an analysis of fafi, a street-based lottery game played by residents in Jeppestown. The piece investigates the ways in which dreams, gambling, and interpreting patterns become meaningful strategies for choosing the next winning number and reducing uncertainty in the city.

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Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley. Your host is Professor Michael Watts.

Michael Watts: Hello, and welcome to Matrix Podcast. We’re delighted today to have an anthropologist with us who is going to be talking about her research in South Africa. I’m delighted to have Brittany Birberick here. Brittany is a PhD student, completing her PhD in the Department of Anthropology here on campus, working with Mariane Ferme, Lawrence Cohen, and Sharad Chari.

She is a scholar of Africa and she went to South Africa to pursue her field work, looking at particularly focusing on the post-apartheid city. But today, we’re going to be talking about one particular piece of her research that I found to be absolutely fascinating. And we’re going to be talking about gambling and illegal street gambling in and around Johannesburg. So Brittany, welcome to Matrix, and thank you so much for coming and talking to us.

Brittany Birberick: Thank you so much for having me.

Watts: So let me start with a sort of personal question. How did you come to be interested in South Africa as a research site for your anthropological interests? How did that come about?

Birberick: I first went to South Africa as an undergrad when I was studying at the University of Chicago, and I did a study abroad program with Jean and John Comaroff in South Africa.

Watts: Major scholars of that part of the world?

Birberick: Yeah, the big wigs. And we were in Cape Town for a few months, and then in Johannesburg for just a few weeks and then spent some time in Kruger. And at that time, I was an undergrad also doing an anthropology degree, and I was working on peer-run mental health recovery centers–

Watts: I see, very different topic.

Birberick: –very different, in Chicago. But something about South Africa just sort of clicked for me. And when I decided to apply to grad school talking with Jean, I formulated this project that was about the contemporary South African art market. And I thought I was going to be thinking about high-end art and its relation to rebuilding the city and this project that’s very much situated in de-industrializing part of the city.

Watts: Why don’t you fill us in a little bit on the nature of the community itself before we get into the details of your gambling interests?

Birberick: Yeah. So Jeppestown is– in South Africa, they would call it a suburb. It’s a neighborhood just–

Watts: Of Johannesburg.

Birberick: Of Johannesburg, yeah. Just east of the inner city. It has a pretty interesting history. It was the first city or it was the first part of Johannesburg to be founded after the discovery of gold. And originally, it was meant to be a residential area.

Watts: Housing workers, you mean Black workers, migrant workers mostly?

Birberick: Migrant workers, both from Europe and from other parts of Africa. So before apartheid was institutionalized, segregation was a little blurry in the early days of Johannesburg. And so Jeppestown was actually meant to be– and even under apartheid was always designated as a white area.

In the ’30s, you get the development of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, and those become the residential areas for middle class white South Africans or folks moving to Johannesburg for the mining industry or for other industries. And Jeppestown, because it had been– because infrastructure had been built there, the railways and what became the highway, it very quickly morphed into the industrial part of the city.

Watts: So this happened in the ’30s and ’40s that it became less of a mining hostel town and more of a light manufacturing industrial town of some sort?

Birberick: Yeah, exactly.

Watts: And is that still the case now today?

Birberick: Well, and now you have a really interesting situation. So as apartheid was nearing its end, a lot of these factory workers– or factory owners abandoned the warehouses they had. So you had a huge influx of Black South Africans coming into the city for the first time. You have a phenomena of informally inhabited buildings in Johannesburg, all over South Africa really.

So you had influx of people coming in. And a lot of these factory spaces were taken over or hijacked, they call it. And so different people started living in these buildings as residential areas. So people were still paying rent, but there wasn’t too the formal legal owner who had abandoned the space. And so right now, there’s been a huge move by the city government to redevelop the area as a new kind of residential area again, part of this large Johannesburg 2040 Spatial Redevelopment plan.

Watts: This is to make Johannesburg another world class city, et cetera, et cetera.

Birberick: Yeah. And so Jeppestown is really pointed to as a place that’s going to alleviate the pressure of housing in the inner city by cleaning up or clearing out these buildings. At the same time, though, you still have factories that remain.

Watts: But is it in that sense, would you say a type of decaying sort of post-industrial city populated by working poor, or is it still some energy in it economically?

Birberick: There’s still definitely some energy. And there are factories that are still running. I think what’s unique about it is that these factories run a little bit more like artisanal workshops than they do the way we imagine sort of mass production factories.

They’re all making very specific custom-made things, be it like light fixtures, or metal washers, or the plastic sort of satchels that go in between magazine covers to hold perfume samples. It’s a wide-ranging kind of industrial sector of what it is that’s produced. At the same time, you have a lot of new migrants, African migrants to the area who are opening shops or restaurants.

Watts: Non-South African?

Birberick: Yeah.

Watts: I see.

Birberick: And the area also has a huge men’s work hostel that has about 10,000 men living there, somewhere between unemployed and sort of barely employed.

Watts: Understood. So you went there to study precisely these issues, something about its history, and its changing character in relationship to post-apartheid South Africa. But we’re here today to talk about something that sort of was not exactly an offshoot, but something that perhaps you didn’t expect to spend time studying. And that is illegal gambling, particularly associated with working poor Black families, in particular, which goes by the name of “fafi.”

So first of all, let me just ask you, how did you even get interested or stumble across this gambling enterprise and realized that it was something that was a central way of understanding what was going on in the city?

Birberick: Yeah. So the interesting thing about fafi or, you know, other names, “umshayina,” is that it all takes place outside on street corners.

Watts: But it’s illegal?

Birberick: But it’s illegal, yeah. But it’s very publicly performed. And so I noticed different people sort of coming together as I would be walking from where I was staying into Jeppestown to go and spend time in the factories and shops that I was doing my other ethnographic work at. And I have a wonderful friend, collaborator, Angel Khumalo, who’s a photographer and she’s also from the area and grew up in one of the informal buildings in Jeppestown.

And so we would stop and talk to the older women who were selling corn or sitting on these street corners. And they would be taking– this one woman, in particular, would be writing all of these receipts for people who were coming in. And they’d be saying these– I would hear fragments of dreams or fragments of bets they were placing. And there was no money exchanged, and she would just write down this– or there would be money exchanged, and then she would just write down a number and a few ticks on a piece of paper and hand it to them. And it was just like, what is this woman selling?

Watts: What is going on? What is going on?

Birberick: I mean, like a lot of cities, people congregate on street corners all the time, putting themselves into organizations that you’re like, well, I don’t know what that is and I’m just going to walk on by.

Watts: But these were at multiple locations, public locations in the city, and they were known as places where if you wanted to engage in this gambling, that was where you would go?

Birberick: Yeah. And twice a day, always the same location, a morning pull and an afternoon pull.

Watts: All right. Let’s talk a little bit then about what the pull refers to, and just sort of walk us through the process of if I’m standing on that street corner, how– in fact, what would happen and how would I essentially place a bet?

Birberick: Of course. So maybe I should back up a little more than that. So fafi is a pretty pure lottery game. There are 36 numbers. You only play 34 numbers at a time because you usually do not bet on the two previous winning numbers. Each of these numbers are associated with a kind of image.

Watts: Give us some examples.

Birberick: So eggs, white woman is number 9, birds flying, police is number I think 16. So each of them are attached to a kind of image.

Watts: A type of figure, or could it be a person, could it be– are they all live or are they– is it a vast array of different things that each number would have for?

Birberick: They’re not all alive. So they vary from mundane things like eggs or birds flying or many people to sometimes more sinister things like the police, police and dog are the same number. Drunk man.

Watts: I see.

Birberick: Dead woman.

Watts: I see.

Birberick: So it varies. And if you’re doing a– if you’re looking just at those figures, you can start to tell yourselves a bunch of stories about–

Watts: So 36 numbers. OK. So what then happens if I’m interested in gambling and selecting a number? How do I do it? What do I do?

Birberick: So if you are a casual gambler, you would go to someone, like this woman that I mentioned, and you would place a bet Say you had a good feeling about the number 9. So you would place a bet on number 9.

Watts: And how much would it cost me to place that bet?

Birberick: You can place– you can put as much money as you want?

Watts: I see. But a typical bet would be what? $0.10? $0.20?

Birberick: So, like a proper bet I think if you felt really good about it, you would put like 10 rand, which is about a little less than $1.

Watts: OK. OK.

Birberick: And that’s if you feel really good.

Watts: But there’s no limit on what you could pay, assuming you had the resources. I see.

Birberick: Yeah. There’s no limit. There’s no minimum. So you place your bet. This woman or person marks your bet on a sheet that’s given to them by the fafi man, the person who runs the gambling, which we’ll get to. They take that sheet, once that’s all calculated, they take your money and they put it in a little leather pouch that they’ve also been given by the fafi man. And this pouch has a number on it that correlates to them as a player. That person, or you maybe, go to the bank or the sort of designated meeting spaces that are outside.

Watts: So designated places are called banks? And then what happens? So they’ve gone there– I’ve gone there, I’ve placed my bet.

Birberick: So you’ve placed your bet. You’ve gone there. The pouch has been taken there. The pouch is then given to a runner, so someone who’s also a better but who’s kind of organizing the bank.

Watts: And what’s his or her role– the runner’s role? Their role is to organize the bank?

Birberick: They organize the bet. So everyone has their own little pouch with their number on it. Those pouches then get put into larger bags. And it’s not until the runners there with all of the bags collected that the fafi man, who is usually or always a Chinese immigrant or a Chinese South African pulls around in a large truck.

Watts: A large vehicle. I see.

Birberick: Yeah, always a truck.

Watts: Like an armored vehicle you mean or just–

Birberick: So I’ve heard and read different things. I think they used to be– they used to have bulletproof windows because of fear of robberies. But the trucks that I saw didn’t look quite as–

Watts: Fearsome as that might imply.

Birberick: –as securitized.

Watts: And it’s always– and the vehicle always has a or more than one person.

Birberick: Two.

Watts: Two Chinese South Africans in the vehicle.

Birberick: Yeah. Always.

Watts: And they pull up to the bank.

Birberick: They pull up to the bank.

Watts: And then what happens?

Birberick: The runner comes with the bag of bets, hands it directly to the fafi man. The fafi man then hands that runner a slip of paper with a number written on it, the winning number, the winning pull for that moment. And then the runner comes, stands in front of the view of all of the gamblers who’ve assembled and does a hand gesture. And that gesture also correlates to the image or number of the winning.

Watts: So when that gesture is made and it correlates to an image, let’s say, king, which is number 1, and I’d bet on number one, then I have won?

Birberick: Yeah. And then you go whoa.

Watts: And I’m very excited. And then I had put 10 rand, and what do I in return receive as my winnings?

Birberick: You would receive– for 10 rand, you would get 280 rand back.

Watts: And is any of that taken by the runner, is there a commission or the person who I placed the bet with?

Birberick: Yeah, that’s a good question. So if you have or if you’re playing in your own bag that you have yourself, you get 280 rand back. If you’ve played in someone else’s bag, which you have for this hypothetical example, you only get 140 rand back. So they take 50% just by putting in their bag. And so then everyone sort of stands around and waits or sort of congratulates one another.

The men in the car, the fafi men take out all of the money that’s been bet right there in that moment and take out all of the slips with the playing numbers on it and what everyone has bet and they allocate the winning bets right there. So if you’ve won, you get back–

Watts: I get my cash in hand?

Birberick: Yeah. You get back a nice, little pouch of money. It’s very exciting. The winners always get their bags back first. The losers always get empty bags back that usually they haven’t even bothered to zip back up. So it’s a little demoralizing to get a losing bag.

Watts: And then when that is complete, then the vehicle drives off and leaves?

Birberick: Yep, exactly.

Watts: And how many of that– at that bank, on that street corner, how many of these pulls, as you described it, will happen every day? Just one?

Birberick: Two.

Watts: Two every day?

Birberick: Yeah, one in the morning and one usually around lunchtime.

Watts: So let’s just put that in context a little bit. This is popular. Lots of people engage with this mostly, working class, Black South African poor, or the people who you might say are, if not middle class–

Birberick: Mostly working class, poor, Black South Africans. I mean, at the bank that I was at and where I did all my research, which was in Jeppestown, very close to the men’s hostel, a lot of the men from the hostel were runners or would come and bet in this. A lot of women from the informal buildings would come and bet.

But every once in a while, someone would drive in clearly from a suburb or from a wealthy part, maybe of a township in a very fancy car and a very fancy suit, and they just felt really good about one number and they would bet hundreds of rands.

Watts: And they would make a larger bet.

Birberick: Yeah.

Watts: Make a larger bet.

Birberick: Yeah. And the other thing to remember, too, is that people are there who have bags and who are betting, but most of the people who are coming with– are playing within their own bags are also betting like 10 other bags. So people really make a kind of– they pull together a livelihood from this, or it becomes sort of like their work in some cases.

Watts: That would be my question. Do people both lose in relative terms, local relative terms, significant amounts of money and gain significant amounts of money? And are there people, certain people, who would see this gambling as a mode of livelihood for them that sustains them or their family, or is this mostly something that’s happening, as it were in relatively small quanta of money that don’t necessarily end up people in debt or losing significant quantities of money?

Birberick: I think that’s a hard question because I think that the reality is people are not betting a ton of money and people are not necessarily losing or winning a ton of money. But it’s also true that playing fafi, in some cases, very much subsidizes people’s livelihoods.

Watts: I see. I see.

Birberick: And for men living in the hostel, they’re paying very, very little rent, if any. For people living in informal buildings, they’re also paying no rent, if any. So this really becomes sort of how grand one’s meal is going to be. For folks who are playing with children, it subsidizes certain grants from the government. It might pay for a new pair of shoes for kids.

So I think the– and I think this is the tough thing about fafi and a lot of these kind of informal gambling games is if you do the math around gambling games and the return, fafi has a really low return. Nobody is getting– so nobody is getting rich off of fafi.

Watts: Except presumably, perhaps the Chinese.

Birberick: Except perhaps the fafi men, yeah.

Watts: Fafi men themselves.

Birberick: Yeah, exactly. So in a kind of casino analogy, the house is definitely–

Watts: Is definitely winning.

Birberick: –winning in this scenario. And yet winning and playing fafi is very important to a lot of people who participate in it.

Watts: Understood. Let me just ask a question about the Chinese angle here. This is exclusively the fafi men themselves. Well, are there fafi women?

Birberick: There are fafi women, yeah.

Watts: But they are exclusively, to your knowledge, across South Africa, because this is not just a Jeppestown gambling syndicate. It is exclusively Chinese-controlled?

Birberick: Yes.

Watts: And why don’t you say a little bit then for our listeners who maybe are not aware that there’s a significant Chinese population in the country, what’s the history here, and what do we know about how the game began to both show up in South Africa? Did it build upon Indigenous traditions of gambling or something of that sort, or was it an import with the Chinese populations?

Birberick: Yeah. So originally around the turn of the century, Chinese men were brought over to work in the gold mines in South Africa. South Africa, even then already, had a very sort of– had a lot of anxiety about race and ethnicity. And so there was a huge push after these laborers tenure was up to send people back to China. Nevertheless, there seems to be a small population from that initial migration that stayed.

You then have another wave of economic migrants who are coming to South Africa around the 1930s. So I think my initial hunch was that fafi really became a sort of significant institution in South Africa. And I mean, it’s across South Africa, but it is in areas where Chinese migrants have settled.

Watts: Have settled I see.

Birberick: Cape Town doesn’t necessarily have a fafi ring. But then upon doing more research, I put it back to as early as 1909 that there are news reports or anxieties about this fafi gambling game that was run by the Chinese that’s going to potentially corrupt white South African miners.

Watts: So it’s at least a century old, and at one point, its clients, as it were, the gamblers, were likely to be– as likely to be white as Black?

Birberick: Yeah, I think it was a more heterogeneous mix of gamblers in its early days.

Watts: Since this, obviously, operated during the apartheid period and this was run by Chinese, how did the Chinese– how were they situated into these forms of racial classification which, of course, were central to grand apartheid? Were they seen as– what was their racial categorization? How were they classified?

Birberick: The Chinese situation in South Africa is interesting. I think the apartheid government didn’t quite know what to do. They were ranked very low on the racial hierarchy under apartheid. But then there was always a lot of anxiety because Japanese people were ranked honorary white under apartheid. And so there– and this, I think, is a larger story of apartheid South Africa, the kind of anxiety about being able to tell, being able to tell like who is who.

The Chinese population in South Africa was put in townships, lived in areas slotted as Asian or more specifically Chinese. And in some ways, in some working conditions, they were thought of as being even below certain Black South African ethnic groups. But again, that gets– you have all of these exceptions and things get quite weird. The fantasy apartheid tried to weave didn’t always play out in real life.

And so in the kind of later days of apartheid, the way that the game would work is these Chinese fafi men, who themselves were not necessarily– they were the ones taking the bets or driving the truck, but they weren’t necessarily the one making the money, like they were working for somebody else.

Would drive across townships, usually Black townships, to run the game. They would also drive through wealthy white suburbs and fafi, not so much the bank I was at, but more broadly is thought of as being a kind of female or it’s gendered female as a kind of gambling because a lot of women who were domestic workers. And I think this is where the morning and lunchtime pull schedule come from.

They would take their breaks or their tea breaks in the morning, go out to the corner of the white suburb–

Watts: And place a bet.

Birberick: –and place a bet.

Watts: But, for example, the bank that you were part of where you yourself gambled, was that pretty much equally in terms of gender now? Was that equally populated by–

Birberick: Yeah.

Watts: I see. I see.

Birberick: It was pretty equal, which it seems to be somewhat unique for a fafi game.

Watts: And what’s the perception, if you could generalize, among the members of the bank and the fafi men? Are they seen as being intimidating? Are they seen as being untrustworthy? Are they being seen as one might view a banker? Are they seen in more cultural or racialized terms? What’s their understanding?

Birberick: Yeah, that’s interesting. There isn’t a lot of mistrust because so much of it is public, so there’s never a sense that they’re being outright cheated. But the ways in which one comes up with the number that you bet. So you asked what are the kind of– is this [INAUDIBLE].

Watts: Well, maybe let’s pursue that, because that’s such a fascinating part, and we’ll maybe get back to the perception of the Chinese. But let’s just– walk us through then how someone might then come to choose a number, 8, let’s say. And how that likely comes about and the degree of confidence that they would have in that number.

Birberick: Yeah. So it is, on the one hand, fafi is uniquely Chinese South African. It’s very much part of that history. But on the other hand, the techniques or strategies for coming up with the number is very much tied to Zulu dream interpretation or Zulu divinatory practices. So I think in an earlier moment, one might go to a sangoma, a traditional healer, and ask for certain kinds of herbs to help them dream better, to help them dream winning numbers better. Or they would go to that same sangoma with a dream that they’ve had and ask them to help interpret.

Watts: Seek an interpretation.

Birberick: Yeah. Today, there are fewer formal consultations like that happening. And you would usually discuss with your fellow fafi gamblers, or say you’re going to someone to place a bet with in their bag. They become the kind of de facto or informal dream interpreter.

Watts: So maybe just give us an example, if you could, or maybe from your bank where you participated of a dream, and the type of discussion or the type of ways in which that dream would be interpreted, by a friend or by a fellow gambler, that would allow one to alight upon a number.

Birberick: Yeah. So the fafi gamblers were very curious about me once I started hanging out, and once I started gambling especially. And they would always say to me that, oh, you’ve got good numbers or you’re close, but you’re not– you’re not quite there.

Watts: Because you weren’t winning, you mean, typically or–

Birberick: I would win every once in a while, but I wasn’t winning like enough.

Watts: I see.

Birberick: And so they decided that they needed to hear my dreams, and that they would interpret them better than I was doing.

Watts: To allow you to get the good numbers?

Birberick: Yeah. So one particular– one particular day I went to the fafi bank, I was filling out my sheet. And one of the older women was like, OK, what was your dream? Tell us your dream. And on that particular day, or the night before– I have very bad eyesight. I’ve always had bad eyesight. And I had a dream about my eye turning into this mechanical machine. And this very elaborate– this very elaborate dream that was very hard to speak in my mixture of English and Zulu and explain correctly. And so the women were like, uh, eye numbers. It’s all about eye numbers.

Watts: And is there more than one eye number or is there a number that refers to eye?

Birberick: There is a number that refers to eyes, but along with this sort of– along with each number having a specific image to it, each number has a kind of relationship to the body as well. There’s one specifically for the eye, but there’s also a set of numbers that are the head, or the upper cheeks, or there’s a whole slew of them.

Watts: But would they be classified as that upper cheek number as a type of potentially an eye number in relationship to your dream?

Birberick: Yeah. The numbers get– this is the thing– this is the thing about fafi is that the numbers get ambiguous, or these are just tools to interpret. So when they become slippery– when you pick a number that’s not quite there, but it’s close, it doesn’t ever dissuade from the divinatory practice. It almost adds to it. Like, even the failure is a kind of positive reaffirming the practices. And that people are like, ooh, you were close, but you just missed something or you didn’t interpret the dream right, or you must have forgotten something from the dream.

But anyways, on this particular day, the eye number won, and the women were very, very excited about this. And for the next three days, numbers around the eye or the partner number, all of these numbers also have relationships to one another, or the partner number of the eye number would win. And that really this sort of this three-day period where eye numbers and my dream just kept being repeated over and over again to everyone, and people were winning and making money, that really solidified.

Watts: But would people then select numbers your friends on the basis of your dream, but you yourself chose the specific number for yourself? It wouldn’t be as if your friend– your friends, after having identified eye numbers, said, well, Brittany, number 4.

Birberick: Yeah, no, they would. Yeah.

Watts: So they would give you strong suggestions.

Birberick: Yeah. That’s the thing about fafi that perhaps is different than a lot of other gambling games in that people are very communal. I mean, not everybody, but if you are– you tell your friends your numbers, people will take out their– this is perhaps a little bit illicit, even within this illicit game. But say you’re taking bets for a lot of people, you might look at your list of bets, see where everyone is, move them around, compare to your friend’s bag in case, just to strategize or increase your odds.

Watts: Your odds of winning.

Birberick: So there is a kind of it’s collaborative and the real– and I think– and this gets back to the relationship between gamblers and the fafi men. No one is hurt by someone else winning. Really the only one or the only person you’re trying to beat is the fafi man, is the bank. And along with the sort of beliefs about dreams and divination, there are different charts that show the kind of relationships between numbers.

Along with all that, there is a sense that the fafi man is kind of on the other side of this doing the exact same thing. That the fafi men by taking down these betting sheets is also tracking dreams, is also interpreting, is also trying in some way to commune with or pick the next winning number that no one is going to bet. And so there’s a kind of almost a competition of, I don’t know, divinatory strategies or cosmology.

Watts: Strategies or interpreted acts. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Birberick: Yeah. In which that’s where the kind of antagonism comes in is like, who is going– who’s going to be able to get ahead? Is the fafi man going to get ahead and pick the number that no one else is betting on, or is it the sort of community of gamblers that’s going to get ahead of the fafi man?

And there are all of these phrases about being caught by the fafi man or you catching the fafi man or anxiety about being seen by the fafi man. If you’ve been winning a lot, then like something about him seeing you is going to enable him to catch up in some capacity with whatever divinatory strategy you’re using.

Watts: And so how did you perform in the sense of your own engagement or involvement in the gambling? Was it that first serious dream interpretation that in some sense allowed you to break through a series of, if you like, poor numbers?

Birberick: Yeah. I mean, I did– this feels like a brag now, but I did quite well at my gambling. But the other gamblers I would gamble with were always really frustrated with me because I never gambled enough.

Watts: You put a low bet on the number that came up.

Birberick: So I would win, I’d get excited, and they’d be like, arrgh, how much did you bet this time? 1 rand? And I’d be, like, 2 And they were really unimpressed. And I think a little– yeah, I mean, unimpressed, but also annoyed that they were like, we’re teaching you to do this and you’re not even– you’re not even making the most of it.

Watts: Of course. Of course. So let me ask a couple of final questions. How then did you come to see this game in relationship to the broad topic that you went there to study, namely post-apartheid South Africa? And so you’ve made the point that perhaps seeing it solely or exclusively in terms of money made or money lost, it may not be that significant even in these marginal communities. So what’s the alternative, if you like, interpretation, or what did you see that game opening up for you as a type of lens on post-apartheid Jeppestown?

Birberick: Yeah. When I started gambling fafi, I thought it was going to be a sort of escape from the rest of my field work. I was like, OK, I’m going to take a break from the factories. I’m going to take a break from the hostel, from these predominantly male spaces. I’m going to go gamble with the ladies for a little bit, then I’ll go back to work.

But as I continued to play, particularly the language around the future and getting ahead of the future and these strategies in which people were reading their dreams, but they were reading their daily lives as well. And I’d run into these folks I was gambling with on the streets and they would grab me and point to something and be like, many people, this number.

They were reading the world through this kind set of patterns, and it occurred to me that these kinds of speculative strategies are not really that different than a lot of the speculative strategies that are used by these larger developers or these government officials who are–

Watts: Or Wall Street.

Birberick: Or Wall Street. Exactly. Or the gamblers that shape our everyday lives that are looking at the city and really not understanding exactly what’s going on. And using these, at times, I don’t want to say illogical, but these kind of incomplete schemas in order to try to figure out what’s the next best place to invest in, or what’s the next building to redevelop, or what’s going to happen here?

And so fafi for me ended up being a way that allowed me to consider the temporalities of these projects and their future orientation and the sort of I think post-apartheid and that moment of transition or revolution or transformation. All of these kind of coming up on a horizon that never quite took off for South Africa the way it was perhaps expected to in an earlier moment.

Fafi became a way for me to think about how our folks on the ground trying to orient them to a future. And what it’s– and the way I’m thinking about it now is that fafi is– I think it’s less about predicting exactly what’s going to happen, but more that sense of getting ahead of the future. Being able to see what’s on the horizon rather than being surprised every time.

Watts: And if you did indeed pull a good number, and if indeed you did then have the appropriate and sophisticated understanding of that dream interpretation, that would be an indication that indeed you are ahead of the curve. In some sense–

Birberick: You’re on it, you’re reading it correctly.

Watts: And an insecure, uncertain future that in some sense you had some type of knowledge, if not prophetic knowledge, at least a knowledge and some understanding of what this future might hold for you.

Birberick: Yes, exactly. And there’s a lot of respect for people who are able to win or get ahead of the fafi man.

Watts: Brittany, absolutely fascinating. We could talk more about this. I’m delighted that you didn’t blow most of your research funding on the gambling and that you at least seemingly made a few good– pulled a few good numbers at a certain point. Absolutely fascinating. And I just wanted to thank you for coming along and talking to us and wishing you well in completion of your dissertation work here at Berkeley. Thank you so much.

Birberick: Thank you.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.




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