Photography by:
  • Amanda van der Walt & Keitumetse Segoati

Ethnographies of the state

Planning for service delivery is a critical function of the local state in South Africa. Since 1994, the state has shown, in all its spheres, the will to improve people’s living conditions. Within the domain of basic services, grand policies were crafted and supporting budgets allocated. However, more than 20 years on, widespread poverty and gross inequalities persist and protests over service delivery are escalating. This suggests ‘failure’ on the part of the state. Examples from elsewhere have demonstrated that the complexity of development can lead to the failure of programmes despite will and capacity (e.g. Li, 2006; Gupta, 1995).

This paradox calls for a better understanding of governance, politics and state practices at local level. Therefore, this research project proceeds from the premise that urban politics, governance and state practices can either enable or constrain effective planning and implementation of service delivery programmes. Building on earlier theoretical work on Understanding the “state” and “state function” in infrastructure planning and service delivery in the GCR (forthcoming GCRO Provocation), this project seeks to investigate the formulation and implementation of a water services plan in the City of Johannesburg. The aim is to understand how the interplay of rationalities of different actors within the city determines outcomes of water service delivery.

Such an undertaking requires an understanding of the city from within. The key questions we seek to answer are:

  1. How is water service delivery understood in the city and why?
  2. What tradeoffs are made between competing priorities and why?
  3. What role does politics play in planning for water and why?
  4. Is there such thing as bureaucratic rationality?

Increasingly, the rationality of state projects in South Africa is being questioned and there is no sufficient justification for service delivery failure based on budgets. Are governance, politics and state practices to blame, and if so how?

The project makes use of an ethnographic approach. The assumption is that the state (in this case the City of Johannesburg) is a “black box” and what outsiders get to know as city policy; programme outputs and outcomes are mainly effects of governance, politics, and state practices. By focusing on details of individuals’ everyday experiences in the city, ethnography can extract logics and meanings that these individuals attach to their actions. Hence, ethnographic detail helps to answer the “Why” questions. This means spending time in the City of Johannesburg, (approximately 5 weeks – a week in each of the key departments namely – the Mayor’s office, the City Manager’s Office, the Central Strategy Unit, the Budget Office, and the Department of Environment and Infrastructure).

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