Photography by:
  • Amanda van der Walt & Keitumetse Segoati

Ethnographies of the state

Much of what we know about the state is through government reports, statistics and the media. However, these reports fall short of explaining what we experience as the state gets produced. As a result, we cannot fully comprehend why, despite all efforts, the South African state has not lived up to its 1994 vision on the service delivery front? Is there an alternative explanation for the increase in service delivery protests other than the stereotypical comments that state officials are ill-equipped, lazy and corrupt? Why are officials, who supposedly ‘know’ what they need to do, not doing it? How can the variations in performance across sectors and municipalities be explained? This provocation argues for an ethnographic inquiry into the daily practice of state bureaucracy. The argument advanced here is that a deeper analysis of the bureaucratic structure and the mundane practices of state officials is needed to understand the underlying factors that hinder successful service delivery. The provocation uses tales from the City of Johannesburg as an illustration.

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 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).

GCRO Project lead, Darlington Mushongera began his ethnographic fieldwork in June 2017. Part of the work has been presented at the RC21 Conference that was held in Leeds (UK) from 11-13 September 2017. The process of writing the provocation is currently underway and publication is expected by December 2021 or by the end of the 2021/22 financial year.

Last updated: 19 April 2021.

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