Local Officials and the Struggle to Transform Cities

A view from post-apartheid South Africa

Edited by Claire Bénit-Gbaffou


ISBN: 9781800085480

Publication: February 27, 2024

Why are even progressive local authorities with the ‘will to improve’ seldom able to change cities? Why does it seem almost impossible to redress spatial inequalities, deliver and maintain basic services, elevate impoverished areas and protect the marginalised communities? Why do municipalities in the Global South refuse to work with prevailing social informalities, and resort instead to interventions that are known to displace and aggravate the very issues they aim to address?

Local Officials and the Struggle to Transform Cities analyses these challenges in South African cities, where the brief post-apartheid moment opened a window for progressive city government and made research into state practices both possible and necessary. In debate with other ‘progressive moments’ in large cities in Brazil, the USA and India, the book interrogates City officials’ practices. It considers the instruments they invent and negotiate to implement urban policies, the agency they develop and the constraints they navigate in governing unequal cities. This focus on actual officials’ practices is captured through first-hand experience, state ethnographies and engaged research. These reveal day-to-day practice that question generalised explanations of state failure in complex urban societies as essential malevolence, contextual weakness, corruption and inefficiency. It is hoped that opening the black box of the workings of state opens paths for the construction of progressive policies in contemporary cities.

Claire Bénit-Gbaffou is an Associate Professor of Planning and Geography at Aix Marseille Université.

List of figures
List of tables
List of contributors
List of abbreviations

1 Introduction: seeing like a City
Claire Bénit-Gbaffou

Part I: Seeing the local state through City officials’ practices

2 ‘Welcome to Alcatraz’: a reflection on three years in a City bureaucracy
Phil Harrison

3 Activists in the State: City officials working behind the scenes for change in post-apartheid Johannesburg
Claire Bénit-Gbaffou

4 Bureaucratic activism for inclusionary development in the City of Johannesburg
Margot Rubin

5 Entering the state as a community activist: the Operation Khanyisa Movement in Johannesburg City Council
Nicolette Pingo and Claire Bénit-Gbaffou

Part II: Seeing the local state from its margins

6 Acting like the state? Leaders’ participation in street trade management in Gauteng municipalities
Mamokete Modiba

7 Crafting a xenophobic bureaucratic order after May 2008 pogroms in Cape Town Rodolphe Demeestère

8 The politics of formulating policy on housing evictions in post-apartheid Johannesburg
Neil Klug

Part III: Seeing the local state through its policy instruments

9 Identifying learners in Johannesburg schools: how state rationalities converge to construct institutional xenophobia Jeanne Bouyat

10 Seeing and unseeing: housing, poverty and privilege on Johannesburg’s Corridors of Freedom
Sarah Charlton

11 Deceptive lenses: officials’ and activists’ visions of water issues in eThekwini
Mary Galvin

12 Lost in translation: The elusive equity objective in Johannesburg water policy
Darlington Mushongera

13 ‘Doing things right’ or ‘doing the right thing’? Limits to evaluative thinking in Johannesburg
Laila Smith

Part IV: International perspectives on the art of progressive city government

14 Is there a 'left art' of City government? A view from post-apartheid South Africa)
Claire Bénit-Gbaffou

15 Preserving the progressive City: a North American perspective
Pierre Clavel

16 Porous bureaucracies, land and urban inclusion: a perspective from Indian Cities Varun Patil and Solomon Benjamin

17 Blurred boundaries and institutional activism: reflections from Brazil
Rebecca Naera Abers


Format: Hardback

Size: 234 × 156 × 27 mm

494 Pages

12 B&W tables and 23 figures

ISBN: 9781800085480

Publication: February 27, 2024

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