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. A PhD by the lead researcher has been completed (2022) on this project and a book chapter has also been published by the lead researcher in an edited PSUG book by Prof. Claire Benit-Gbaffou in 2024. Work on the provocation has veered toward either an occasional paper or a journal article on the author's experiences in the City.


Mushongera, D. (2024) Lost in translation. The elusive equity objective in Johannesburg's water policy. In Bénit-Gbaffou, C. (2024) Local Officials and the Struggle to Transform Cities - A view from post-apartheid South Africa. UCL Press.

Mushongera, D. (2022) Who governs Johannesburg Water? An Actor-Network reading of water services governance in the City of Johannesburg (2000-2018). PhD thesis Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Last updated: 5 March 2024.


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