Off-grid cities: Elite infrastructural secession and social justice
The Off-Grid Cities project is an NRF-funded project that focuses on how urban elites are seceding from state-provided infrastructure networks in favour of private hybrid and off-grid technologies. These actions are transforming the provision and consumption of services in cities, with consequences for climate change and social justice. The project builds on the social justice literature and introduces it into climate change scholarship in the global South, recognising that the actions of one social group affect resource allocation in highly unequal cities, and that the infrastructures of elites tend to be absent from urban climate thinking.
Hence, the core objective of the project is to explore how elite infrastructure transitions need to be integrated into debates on, and practices of, producing cities that are environmentally sustainable and socially just. This will be done through a comparative analysis of electricity and water infrastructure in South Africa, focused on practices of elite households and businesses, as well as the policies and programmes of relevant government stakeholders responsible for this infrastructure.
The project team comprises a group of academics and students from a range of institutions including GCRO, the University of the Western Cape, the University of Cambridge, Cardiff University and the University of Sheffield.
The project website can be accessed here.
With the finalisation of fieldwork in mid-2023, the Off-grid Cities project team has presented at various conferences around the world in 2023, including the
- European Conference on African Studies (ECAS). Cologne, Germany (31 May - 3 June 2023)
- Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference 2023 (RGS-IBG). London, United Kingdom. (29 August – 1 September 2023)
- Gridding Equitable Urban Futures in Areas of Transition (GREAT). Lancaster, United Kingdom (21-22 September 2023).
The Off-grid Cities project hosted a session at the Annual International RGS-IBG Conference in London (30 August 2023), entitled Off-grid Cities: Infrastructure tensions between sustainability and (in)justice. The session was chaired by Prof. Charlotte Lemanski and included four presentations, two of which were from the project team (Prof. Fiona Anciano and Joanna Watterson). This session was sponsored by the Energy Geographies Research Group and the Urban Geography Research Group, and was well attended. Most of the project team attended and presented at the RGS-IBG conference.
In early September 2023, the Off-Grid Cities project hosted a team writing workshop at Newnham College at the University of Cambridge, England. This writing workshop was a strategic opportunity to build team capacity and to share experiences and methods around writing. The workshop was facilitated by Cambridge Professor and project team member, Charlotte Lemanski, and was designed to be a supportive space to help the team to make progress on written work towards publication.
In November 2023, the project hosted a municipal roundtable discussion on the impact on municipalities of private investments in renewable energy, and included inputs from the City of Cape Town, the City of Johannesburg and the City of Tshwane. This event was followed hybrid workshop to discuss the interim findings of the Cape Town portion of the Off-grid Cities project.
A project dissemination workshop will be a hybrid event, online and in-person in Johannesburg, in early 2024.
Students and postdocs
Together with the NRF, this project has funded two Postdoctoral Fellows, one PhD student and two Masters students:
- Temba Middelmann (Postdoctoral Fellow, UWC)
- Brian Murahwa (Postdoctoral Fellow, UJ/GCRO)
- Joanna Watterson (PhD student, Cambridge)
- Eyong Tarh (PhD student, UWC)
- Miguel Isaac (Masters student, UWC)
- Zackeen Thomas (Masters student, UWC)
Previous team members included: Simbarashe Nyuke and Sheliza Bhanjee.
Culwick Fatti, C. and Khanyile, S. (February 2023). 'Justice implications of household access to alternative water and electricity'. GCRO Vignette #43.
Middelmann, T. (2023). City sector profile: Water in the City of Cape Town. October 2023
Middelmann, T. (2023). City sector profile: Energy in the City of Cape Town. October 2023
Margot Rubin (September 2023) Substituting and supplementing the state? Juxtaposing the political impacts of diverse citizens’ practices of off-gridding and living beyond the state, GREAT Conference, Lancaster UK. 21 September 2023.
Brian Murahwa (August 2023) ‘The Energisation of Space and Uneven Development in South Africa’, Uneven Landscapes of the Energy Transition (in-person session), RGS-IBG Annual conference 2023, 30 August 2023.
Eyong M. Tarh (August 2023) ‘Social justice and the governance of solar energy: a study of Viking Business Park, Epping and Shoprite Distribution Centre, Brackenfell’, Greening at the margins: energy peripheries in climate changed geographies (hybrid session), RGS-IBG Annual conference 2023, 30 August 2023. Recording is available here.
Fiona Anciano, Charlotte Lemanski, Christina Culwick Fatti and Margot Rubin (August 2023) ‘Substituting and supplementing the state? Juxtaposing the political impacts of diverse citizens’ practices of off-gridding and living beyond the state’, Off-grid Cities: Infrastructure tensions between sustainability and (in)justice (in-person session), RGS-IBG Annual conference 2023, 30 August 2023.
Joanna Watterson and Laurence Piper (August 2023) ‘Towards a framework of ‘off-gridding’: Citizenship amid off-grid practices and processes in urban South Africa’, Off-grid Cities: Infrastructure tensions between sustainability and (in)justice (in-person session), RGS-IBG Annual conference 2023, 30 August 2023.
Samkelisiwe Khanyile and Christina Culwick Fatti (August 2023) ‘Examining the extent and distributional equity of solar in Gauteng’, Understanding the geographies of clean energy (in-person session), RGS-IBG Annual conference 2023, 30 August 2023.
Temba Middelmann (August 2023) ‘Multi-scalar analysis of the energy transition as a lens into uneven development in Cape Town’s energy and water sectors’, Understanding the geographies of clean energy (in-person session), RGS-IBG Annual conference 2023, 30 August 2023.
Christina Culwick Fatti and Margot Rubin (September 2023) ‘Examining elite grid secession in South Africa’, The role of energy social science and humanities insights (virtual session), RGS-IBG Annual conference 2023, 31 August 2023. Recording is available here.
Fiona Anciano, Mercy Brown-Luthango, Christina Culwick Fatti, Charlotte Lemanski and Margot Rubin (February 2023). 'Off-grid Cities: Considerations for sustainability and justice'. Panel discussion, 5th National Global Change Conference, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein. 1 February 2023.
Temba Middelmann (February 2023). 'Multi-scalar analysis of the drivers and impacts of household and business adoption of hybrid infrastructure'. 5th National Global Change Conference, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein. 1 February 2023.
Christina Culwick Fatti (November 2022). 'Impacts of off-grid investments in Gauteng, South Africa'. City profiles: tackling climate change governance in Johannesburg, Mumbai, Karachi and Jakarta, virtual. 29 November 2022.
Christina Culwick (November 2022). 'Building data to support sustainable infrastructure policy and planning'. ACC African Infrastructure Futures Policy Conference, Cape Town. 23 November 2022.
Blog posts & Op-eds
Middelmann, T. (2023, October 3). 'RGS and IGB conference and Cambridge Off-Grid Cities Workshop'. Available online.
Cooper-Knock, SJ. (2023, April 24). 'Subsidising Life in South Africa'. Available online.
Nyuke, S. (2023, March 8). 'Cleaning up fossil fuel divestment'. Available online.
Isaaq, M. (2023, March 8). 'Struggles ahead for a just energy transition'. Available online.
Thomas, Z. (2023, March 8). 'The risk of water apartheid: lessons from the Cape Town drought'. Available online.
Culwick Fatti, C. and Khanyile, S. (2023, February 22). 'South Africa’s power crisis: going off the grid works for the wealthy – but could deepen injustice for the poor. The Conversation Africa. Available online.
Middelmann, T. (2022, October 12). 'What is the private sector’s role in South Africa’s public energy infrastructure?'. Available online.
Watterson, J. (2022, September 14). 'South Africa’s transition to renewables: The business of off-grid energy'. Available online.
Tarh, E.M. (2022, May 6). 'Energy Justice in Africa: What role can renewable energy play?'. Available online.
Project workshops and events
Cape Town stakeholder workshop: Interim project findings, Cape Town. November 2023.
Municipal roundtable discussion, online. November 2023
Writing workshop, Cambridge, UK. September 2023.
Writing workshop, Johannesburg. November 2022
Fieldwork workshop, Cape Town. June 2022
Design and methodology workshop, virtual. September & October 2021
Project inception workshop, virtual. March 2021
Off-grid Cities writing workshop in Cambridge, 2 October 2023.
Postdoctoral Researcher joins the GCRO Off-Grid Cities Project, 24 February 2023
GCRO co-hosts seminar on governing climate change in Southern cities, 16 January 2023
Last updated: 23 November 2023.