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Building bridges between planning and urban politics

- By Wits University

Professor Claire Benit-Gbaffou received an NRF C1 rating at the end of 2013. It’s an exceptional achievement that is rare in her field.

“The recognition and, of course, the financial support that this rating brings, allows me far greater autonomy in terms of organising my time and developing longer-term research projects. This is key to the construction of original and innovative academic knowledge,” she says.

Benit-Gbaffou adds that she enjoyed the process of applying for the rating. “It encouraged me to pause and reflect on my research trajectory; construct a narrative, bring together all the threads and develop a more solid sense of what I have been – and still am – building.

“This directly relates to the positioning of my research, my educational endeavours and my activist experience, to build bridges between urban studies and political studies, where I see too big a disconnect in literature and in education.”

Her current research project – which is a collective project in the Centre for Urbanism and the Built Environment Studies (CUBES) – is around better understanding state practices in urban governance, their fragmentation, their contradiction and “almost schizophrenic character”, and how these relate to urban change.

This consolidates a number of areas she has been researching: on local government, ward councillors, community participation, party politics, clientelism and political leadership. 

As part of this, in 2013 she facilitated a masters research project based on interviewing community activists across Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni – around their reflections on the difference they have made to their community or their city. “We gathered incredible material here, which we published and analysed in a research report that was launched together with the activists we interviewed,” says Benit-Gbaffou.

“It talks of the challenges of local leadership; the difficult interface with the state and its violence; the omnipresence of the ANC and the difficulty of disentangling oneself from it as a community leader; the temporary and uncertain nature of achievements and changes; and the shifting repertoires of collective action from struggle to post-apartheid times.”

The community activists reacted very enthusiastically to the report and Benit-Gbaffou and her team are thinking of ways of involving them further in the publication process.

In 2013 she also started a new research project with Rashid Seedat, the former advisor to the City of Johannesburg’s former mayor from 2001 to 2011, Amos Masondo. “This project is a reflection by former City of Johannesburg officials on their actions during their time of office,” she explains.

During 10 in-depth interviews, key officials shared their views on urban reconstruction and transformation, and what they tried to achieve when working for the city.

“The aim is to document their transition from the liberation movement to a government position, i.e. what happens to an activist when assuming a governmental position of power; to understand the challenges of constructing and driving a complex institution such as a metropolitan government in neoliberalising times; and to address broader questions about leadership and change.

“I am quite excited by a paper I co-wrote with my colleague, Dr Obvious Katsaura, that proposes a new theoretical framework to understand informal political leadership, titled: Community leadership and the construction of political legitimacy – Unpacking Bourdieu's ‘political capital’ in post-apartheid Johannesburg.

“I think we managed to find a good balance between theory and grounded evidence in this paper. It really talks to multiple experiences of community activism and solves what has remained a puzzle for me for a long time: why do community leaders have a ‘dark side’, how to understand their Janus-face nature, and what is the importance of excelling at petty politics when one is mobilising for a broader cause?”

The paper has been accepted for publication in 2014 in the International journal of Urban and Regional Research, a prominent international journal in urban studies. 

In 2013 she also finalised the edition of a collective book, The Politics of Community Participation in South African Cities, to be published by HSRC Press in September 2014.

As the Director of CUBES, Benit-Gbaffou contributed her considerable energy into consolidating this research centre within the School of Architecture and Planning.

“Like many research centres, it is under-resourced, but it is a unique and precious multi-disciplinary research platform, based on building exciting linkages between postgraduate education, cutting edge research in urban studies and forms of civic engagement,” she explains.

“We ran a number of important projects with CUBES last year, such as building the foundations of what has become a prominent activity of the Centre in 2014 – the research support that street trader organisations have asked us to provide, in their complex engagement with the City of Johannesburg after Operation Clean Sweep.

Actively translating engaged research and civic engagement into education, and training young scholars in a multidisciplinary fashion to interrogate urban politics and local democracy is key to Benit-Gbaffou’s identity as an activist academic.

As part of this, in 2013 she created a multidisciplinary Masters degree in Urban Studies, in collaboration with fellow activist academics in politics, sociology, history and planning. Within this degree for the first time she offered a new masters course on Community Participation in Urban Governance. “It has been incredibly rewarding to see bright, motivated students blossom in this degree,” says Benit-Gbaffou.

She also worked towards completing the final outputs of the Yeoville Studio, a community-oriented research partnership between the School of Architecture and Planning and community organisations in Yeoville, for which she received the Wits Transformation Team Award in 2012. 

After substantial community-oriented outputs in 2012 and 2013, she is finalising two academic books, forthcoming in 2014: one is aimed at a broad audience, telling Yeoville stories based on the rich ethnographic material gathered; the second is reflective on academia’s complex positioning within community politics and towards city policies.

This profile appears in the 2013 Wits Research Report.