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Infrastructural Citizenship: Spaces of Urban Life in Cape Town, South Africa

Infrastructural Citizenship: Spaces of Urban Life in Cape Town, South Africa

This research project, funded by the Cambridge Humanities Research Group, explores the relationship between infrastructure and citizenship in cities of the global South. Empirically, research demonstrates the ways in which state-subsidised housing beneficiaries in Cape Town, South Africa physically alter their houses, and critically analyses how subsequent changes in access to infrastructure (sanitation, water, sewerage, solid waste management, electricity) relate to citizenship identity and practice.

The foundational premise of this research is that, while there has been widespread recognition that both infrastructure and citizenship are crucial for understanding the everyday spaces of life in the city, the connections between them are poorly understood and under-theorised. As a means to explore these connections this research deploys the phrase infrastructural citizenship to explain how citizens' everyday access to, and use of, infrastructure in the city affect, and are affected by, their citizenship identity and practice. Furthermore, the phrase provides the foundations for initiating critical connections between the two scholarly fields of urban infrastructure and citizenship.

Contemporary scholarship on citizenship recognises that citizenship is not just about the legalistic contract of rights between the state and its citizens, but includes the ways in which citizens demonstrate these rights, and consequently citizenship comprises a crucial space of everyday life in the contemporary city. Concurrently, contemporary urban scholarship has highlighted infrastructure as a crucial lens for understanding everyday life, conceptualising infrastructure as more than just the material means through which the urban is able to function, but also inherently social in the way it is both produced and used by urban dwellers. The connection between infrastructure and citizenship seems obvious, and indeed is often implicitly acknowledged in the literature. For example, there is widespread recognition that those with restricted citizenship rights (e.g. immigrants, homeless, slum-dwellers) often experience weak access to public infrastructure; that understanding infrastructure as a physical representation of broader socio-political processes implicitly includes citizenship practices and acts; and citizenship acts not only often focus on demanding improved access to infrastructure but frequently use infrastructure as a tool of protest (e.g. road blocks, gaining access to services illegally, self-built homes), such as Holston's insurgent citizenship.

However, despite these clear examples of the connections between infrastructure and citizenship, the relationship is rarely explicitly acknowledged or critically analysed. Consequently, this research uses the phrase infrastructural citizenship, focusing attention on the ways in which citizenship acts and practices are embodied in public infrastructure (and vice versa), in order to deepen understanding of the infrastructure-citizenship nexus in both theoretical and empirical terms. This is important because it explores potential connections between the infrastructural and civic nature of state-citizen relations

South Africa provides a particularly pertinent case study because universal citizenship is still relatively new, and has emerged in a context where post-apartheid urban politics have been framed around infrastructural provision. The post-apartheid government has prioritised housing as a major anti-poverty strategy, with low-income households eligible for homeownership of a newly brick-built fully-serviced house. On initial receipt of housing, beneficiaries express citizenship as embodied by their housing, with physical receipt of a house representing the start of a new identity as a South African citizen. However, there has been insufficient attention paid to the long-term materiality of state housing as a process of change (rather than a static provision), and the ways in which this intersects with beneficiaries' changing perceptions and practices of citizenship (both everyday and institutional). This research explores how state-housing beneficiaries have physically changed (or neglected) their house in the decade after receipt, and how this connects to citizenship identity (perceptions and practices) over the same time.


Primary fieldwork was undertaken in March/April 2016 in a single state subsidised housing settlement. A team of four fieldworkers (recruited and trained in South Africa) undertook a quantitative survey of the changes made to all houses in the settlement. Concurrently, Dr Lemanski undertook qualitative fieldwork: conducting in-depth interviews with housing beneficiaries, community leaders, community-based NGO, public officials, and other interested parties. The initial findings were communicated to all interviewees via a summary document produced and distributed on the final day of fieldwork.

Fieldworkers recording changes in the settlement

Fieldworkers recording changes in the settlement (March 2016)


The major empirical findings are related to the infrastructural consequences of the large number of households residing in the settlement. A housing community planned by the state to accommodate 650 households in 1999, now hosts at least three times that number. In terms of physical structures: one-third of houses have a brick-built extension, while the remaining two-thirds have populated backyards with informal structures.

Housing extensions Housing extensions Housing extensions

Housing extensions (formal and informal) - March 2016

The strain on infrastructure is severe: water, electricity, drainage, solid waste, sanitation. In different ways all of these services are unable to cope with the excess demand, and this has severe consequences on the community (e.g. fire, illegal dumping, blocked drains, sewerage in the streets). This is currently worsening because public authorities are disinterested in responding to this issue in a state-subsidised housing settlement, which are formally planned fully-serviced sites (ie. not 'slums'), and therefore further policy dissemination is vital.

Dumping   Informal toilet   Electricity overload

Infrastructural strain: dumping, informal toilet, electricity overload (March 2016)

Fieldwork revealed that urban dwellers are demonstrating their citizenship rights via infrastructure, but in ways that challenges the state's normative assumptions of 'good citizenship'. While the state expects housing beneficiaries to use their homes in very prescriptive ways, demographic demand result in different outcomes. The research begins to reveal the ways in which the legalities of citizenship practice, perceptions of citizenship identity, and expressions of citizenships acts are all embedded in the physicality of public infrastructure as a representation of the state at the local scale. In this specific case study, housing beneficiaries express citizenship as embodied by their housing, with physical receipt of a house representing the start of a new identity as a South African citizen, accompanied by the confidence to criticise the state via infrastructural change. This "ordinary" approach to citizenship (Staeheli et al 2012) allows the inclusion of a broad range of citizenship meanings, from everyday associational life to protest-based conceptualisation of citizenship, in all cases highlighting the role of public infrastructure as the physical means through which citizens demonstrate their citizenship identity, practice and acts.


In September 2016 this fieldwork was followed up with two separate dissemination workshops held in Cape Town with policymakers and community representatives. Dr Lemanski presented the research findings to the City of Cape Town planning department, where officials were interested in the research findings and provided useful feedback on positioning the research findings within the broader city policy framework. This workshop has also laid the foundations for future collaboration and Dr Lemanski is in the process of applying for an ESRC Impact Award to conduct further connections with Cape Town policymakers to ensure ongoing learning between policy and academic knowledge of infrastructural change in the City of Cape Town.

In addition, Dr Lemanski ran a workshop in the low-income community where fieldwork was undertaken in March/April 2016. Almost all community leaders attended, and provided constructive feedback on the empirical findings in terms of their own experiences as residents and leaders. This meeting has helped to develop Dr Lemanski's profile in the community, and provides a foundation for ongoing communication over the research.

Dissemination workshop

September 2016: Photo of dissemination workshop with community leaders and NGO workers