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Practices of the State in Urban Governance

The Practices of the State in Urban Governance (PSUG) research programme is located within CUBES and is coordinated by Prof Claire Bénit-Gbaffou. The programme is funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and runs from 2015 to 2018.

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For scholars interested in urban change in the post-apartheid city, the question of the state, its practices, representations, discourses, interventions, and their impacts on the city, keeps emerging as a central one. Yet, how the state works to shape the city remains to a great extent a ‘black box’, as it is seen primarily from ‘outside’ or from its ‘margins’. Beyond depiction of the state as ‘the enemy’ (as it is often represented in social movement literature and politics) and beyond ideas of the state as hopelessly heterogeneous and contradictory (as it is increasingly conceptualised through the study of residents’ everyday encounters with the state), the PSUG programme is attempting to unpack practices of a local developmental state, through the lens of city making, and based on the case of Johannesburg and its city-region.

These state practices can be captured both from 'outside' (encounters with the state) and from ‘within’ the state (officials’ practices and visions). Whilst there is now a growing body of literature on state-society encounters from the ‘outside’ – and as this remains a dynamic and emerging field of research, there is limited documentation of state practices from ‘within’. This involves examining what shapes, constrains and influences state officials’ practices at different levels, an attention to informal practices and practical norms, and an interest in the interplay between agency and structures.

The key question that the PSUG programme asks is: how are state officials and politicians (re)structuring, (re)shaping and governing the city, and what are the effects/impact of their practices on inequality and social change in the city?

Research Focus

The PSUG programme focuses on the three following themes or approaches of state practices to urban governance:

  • The politics of state-society interface: generally seen mostly from a society lens, the programme attempts at also unpacking state’s rationalities in framing the interface with society.
  • The politics of policy making and urban policy by its instruments: the programme aims at unpacking how urban policy is made and applied at a local government level, in its interplay with urban societies, upper levels of the state, and own internal political and bureaucratic dynamics.
  • Practices of municipal officials in shaping the city: the programme also focuses on practices of officials, and particularly “activists in the state”, navigating bureaucratic and political, professional and personal rationalities.

The programme looks at these three themes using a variety of research focus areas. Two of these have so far been consolidated, while others are emerging:

PSUG International Workshop (6-8 June 2018)

From 6 to 8 June 2018, the Practices of the State in Urban Governance International Workshop was held at Wits University, as the closing event of the NRF-funded programme (2015-2018). The workshop aimed at consolidating and debating the key findings of the programme, along its three main themes, with key international and South African scholars who have inspired or engaged with the theme of the programme. Read more on the workshop here.

PSUG International Workshop

PSUG International Workshop, Wits University, 6-8 June 2018

Postgraduate Seminars

The PSUG postgraduate seminars comprise a core group of full- and part-time postgraduate students (Honours, Masters and PhD) whose research fits within the PSUG programme. The aim of the seminars is to facilitate discussions on a range of relevant topics, including key authors and methodological issues, as well as a space to develop student proposals and research. The core group meets twice a month for a two hour seminar, alternating between reading group and research proposal development seminars. PSUG students are also invited to a reading group on the topic of "Reading power and patronage in an apporach to local government in South Africa", which is jointly hosted by Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI), CUBES and the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) in 2018.

Wits-Sheffield Newton PhD Programme

PSUG PhD students are offered the opportunity to participate in the Newton PhD exchange programme between Wits and Sheffield Universities (coordinated by Claire Bénit-Gbaffou and Glyn Williams). This entails participating in a Spring School at the University of Sheffield and a Summer School at Wits University (every year from 2016-2018). In April 2016 PSUG students participated in the Sheffield PhD programme and in November 2016 eight Sheffield students participated in the PhD workshop on “The Politics of Research” at Wits. In May 2017 a number of Wits students attended a Spring School in Sheffield on the topic of "Demystifying Qualitative Analysis", and in November 2017 ten Sheffield students participated in the Wits Summer School on "The Politics and Practicalities of Writing". In 2018 seven Wits-affiliated students participated in the final Spring School in Sheffield on the topic of "Dealing with Moral Dilemmas in Research".  Read more about these events here.


For more information on the PSUG programme contact Claire Bénit-Gbaffou (Coordinator):


See the left hand menu for more information on focus areas, research and publications, academic events, and staff and students associated with the PSUG programme.