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PSUG International Workshop 2018

From 6 to 8 June 2018 the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies (CUBES) at the School of Architecture and Planning hosted an international workshop on the theme Practices of the State in Urban Governance.

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Aim and format of event

This international workshop constituted the closing event of the Practices of the State in Urban Governance (PSUG) research programme, funded by the NRF from 2015 to 2018 and coordinated by Prof Claire Bénit-Gbaffou from the Centre for Urbanism and the Built Environment Studies (CUBES). 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. The event was framed as a relatively small and focused event in scale (no parallel sessions), in order to foster joint engagement and collective debates. Workshop programme available to download here

PSUG International Workshop

Rationale for the workshop

The event aimed at better understanding urban dynamics through the lens of state practices, and reciprocally to understand state practices through the lens of urban change. The state is an often obscured and opaque, yet key agent, in driving change or reproducing the status quo in contemporary cities. This field of enquiry is therefore intrinsically multi-disciplinary, straddling urban studies, planning, political studies and other disciplines.

Theoretical as well as methodological difficulties have limited the amount of research on the state as an agent of change at city level. Studies on the state tend to focus at the national level, and seldom take the city as a main lens. Studies on the city generally analyse state practices from outside the state, and conceptualise the state as either a united (often sinister) force, or as a fragmented, arbitrary (and partly irrelevant) player, in particular in cities of the South. Methodologically, it is often daunting to overcome this conundrum: both in terms of research access (state officials are seldom open to being observed by researchers, and have sometimes little interest and encounter some risk in doing so) and in terms of writing (with issues of confidentiality and politics, especially in the context of democratising and developing countries).

A number of authors have in this respect inspired the programme and the event, in different respects. Pierre Clavel and his work on “activists in City hall”, has greatly contributed to frame a body of research on urban change driven from local government. His idea of ‘activist in the state’ finds echoes in feminist literature, and recently in the work on Rebecca Abers on social movements and the state in Brazil. Ananya Roy’s framing of informality as a mode of intervention of the state in cities, has brought a specific Southern theoretical take on such interrogations, together with an array of exceptional Indian and Indianist scholars, such as Partha Chatterjee, Akhil Gupta, Solomon Benjamin working more specifically on cities. Javier Auyero’s quest to map the grey zone of state-society interface, marked by urban clientelism and violence in the democratizing society of Argentina, has also inspired us to look for the actual working of urban democracies, from the edges of the state intertwined with party politics.

PSUG International Workshop


The three-day workshop was structured around a number of panel presentations under three key themes, corresponding to the main threads in the programme, that we brought into discussion with other students of the city-state interface. These themes and sub-themes are:

  • Theme 1: State-society encounters in the city – what do we learn about the state and its practices in the city, through these encounters?
    • Driving change from outside the state? Beyond or besides contentious politics
    • The politics of intermediation: Mediators, the poor and policy change
    • Twilight institutions - expanding or undermining the state in urban governance
  • Theme 2: State officials practices in the city – straddling agency and structure
    • Unpacking officials’ practices in the city of the South
    • “Activists in City Hall” - a Southern view
  • Theme 3: The politics of policy instruments for city making
    • Policy instruments as embodiment of state rationalities
    • Knowing and not knowing as modes of urban government
    • Data, knowledge and the work of confusion: impeding the capacity to govern?

On the final day of the workshop there were two roundtables on the theme 'The politics of studying the local state', which addressed questions around researching and writing about the local state:

  • Roundtable 1:  Embedded or engaged research? Confronting the messiness of researching the local state
  • Roundtable 2:  Building a research collective on the local state

PSUG International Workshop

Programme and presenters 

Workshop programme available to download here.

International presenters included: Dr Solomon Benjamin (Planning, IIHS Bangalore, India), Dr Monika Dowbor (Political Studies, CEBRAP, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil), Prof Laurent Fourchard (History and Political Studies, CERI, Sciences Po, France) and Dr Thomas Aguilera (Political Studies, Sciences Po-Rennes, ARèNES, France). 

South Africa-based presenters and discussants included: Prof Sophie Oldfield (Urban Geography, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town), Ntombini Marrengane (Urban Geography, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, Saskia Greyling (Urban Geography, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town), Prof Monique Marks (Urban Sociology, Urban Futures Centre, Durban University of Technology), Dr Kira Erwin (Urban Sociology, Urban Futures Centre, Durban University of Technology), Dr Sogen Moodley (Planning, Durban University of Technology),  (Planning, South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning, Wits University), Prof Xolela Mangcu (Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town), Prof Noor Nieftagodien (History, South African Research Chair in Local Histories and Present Realities, Wits University), Prof Ivor Chipkin (Political Studies, PARI),  (Planning, South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning, Wits University), Dr Richard Ballard (Urban Geography, GCRO, Wits University and University of Johannesburg), Graeme Gotz (Planning, GCRO, Wits University and University of Johannesburg), Prof Mary Galvin (Sociology, Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg), Dr Laila Smith (Urban Geography, CLEAR-AA, Wits School of Governance), Dr Melanie Samson (Human Geography, Department of Geography, Wits University), Ryan Brunette (Political Studies, PARI) and Melinda Barnard (Anthropology, CISA, Wits University).

From the PSUG research programme: Prof Claire Benit-Gbaffou (Urban Studies, CUBES, Wits University), Nqobile Malaza (Planning, CUBES, Wits University), Neil Klug (Planning, CUBES, Wits University), Prof Sarah Charlton (Planning, CUBES, Wits University), Boitumelo Matlala (Urban Studies, CUBES, Wits University), Kate Tissington (Urban Studies, CUBES, Wits University), Darlington Mushongera (Economics and Planning, GCROWits University and University of Johannesburg), Mamokete Matjomane (Planning, GCROWits University and University of Johannesburg), Jeanne Bouyat (Political Studies, Sciences Po, Paris and CUBES, Wits University) and Rodolphe Demeestere (Urban Studies, University Sorbonne Paris I and CUBES, Wits University).

PSUG International Workshop

Cocktail launch of special issue of The Journal of Development Studies

On 6 June CUBES hosted a cocktail launch of the recent special issue of The Journal of Development Studies on 'Informal Practices of the State in Urban Governance: Views from Southern African Cities', edited by Prof Claire Bénit-Gbaffou and Prof Sarah Charlton. The articles in the special section include:

A number of contributors to the special issue - Claire Bénit-Gbaffou, Sarah Charlton, Dr Sian Butcher and Dr Margot Rubin - gave a short introduction to the special issue, with Dr Solomon Benjamin and Prof Karl von Holdt as discussants. 

Postgraduate writing workshop

On 8 June a closed postgraduate workshop was held for PhD and Masters students, as an opportunity to draw from the rich experience of senior scholars whose ideas have influenced PSUG themes and debates; and to consolidate their arguments following broader discussions of topics they are writing about. Mentors were assigned students to work with, and the idea was for students to work on critical areas in their papers that this mentorship could most enrich.


For more information on the workshop please contact PSUG coordinator Prof Claire Bénit-Gbaffou, CUBES: