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Recent projects

Youth and the work/housing nexus in Ethiopia and South Africa

With University of Sheffield and University of Hawassa, British Academy-funded, 2020 to early 2023

‘Youth Futures’ was multi-partner research project which investigated how work and housing intersect in the lives of young adults in two case study sites, one in South African and one in Ethiopia.  Funded by the British Academy, multiple partners had collaborated: the University of Sheffield, CUBES and SA&CP in SoAP at the University of the Witwatersrand, Hawassa University, Cardiff University, and 28 ‘youth representatives’ from the two sites.

The study site in Gauteng was the Ekangala area near Bronkhorstpruit, Tshwane, with high transport costs to distant urban centres and a declining industrial park with few jobs. By contrast the town of Hawassa in Ethiopia has been rapidly growing, with a recently-developed large industrial park. Our main focus was on understanding young people’s housing situations and their work in these two different contexts – one with very little employment but some government and other housing investment, the other more vibrant economically but with severe housing constraints and costs. In Hawassa, participant Workinhe summarised "There's a common saying among Industry Park workers "income's in spoons while expenditure's in spades!”.  In Ekangala Maureen told us “We even go to the firms and sit there the whole day, hoping they will employ you and there’s no luck". 

The project included training the youth to undertake a survey with other young people in their neighbourhoods, as well as training in media production: each participant was invited to capture an aspect of their life story in a medium of their choice.  Thus through striking outputs such as songs, videos, stories and poems, as well as the life history interviews we did along with many other interactions with the youth we got a glimpse into their everyday lives, dreams and frustrations. We also commissioned photographer Mark Lewis to document our core participants’ homes and private spaces.

We did not originally plan a visual display of material from our project, so the various exhibitions we held (including in the Masakhane community hall in Ekangala, at Wits, and in Sheffield, all in Nov 2022) challenged the project team on how best to convey and present research material.  In the South African exhibitions we mainly focused on material from the Ekangala study, each board focussed on a participant’s story, their creative outlet, and at times linking to survey results. Our University of Sheffield partners host the various exhibition material online, including a video of the Ekangala event.

Please take a look at all the visual material here and here. And also at an earlier write-up in the Daily Maverick.

Micro-dynamics and Macro-processes: a Gauteng-Maputo study of transit

A Maputo-Johannesburg comparative study of intra-household decision-making and state-investment in transit (Volkswagen Foundation-funded with SA&CP, GCRO, ETH Zurich and Eduardo Mondlane University) (2020-2022)

Mobility and transit are major issues in African cities. A multiple-partner study from Gauteng and Maputo shows that many participants felt that they had very little choice in their mode of transport, and that safety and security were major concerns. Despite significant investment by governments, transport remains poorly integrated.  Using innovative methods including interviews and a cellphone-based mobility app, the study compared the macro-processes of transport policy and the perspectives of transport policymakers with the everyday experiences of households in three neighbourhoods in each city region (Maputo-Matola, and Gauteng). The Gauteng findings show a disconnect between the provision of transport and people’s actual identified needs, and also, the precarity or vulnerability embedded in the transport systems in the Gauteng City-Region. The research was a collaboration from 2020 to 2022 between CUBES, colleagues at two other organisations at Wits (in the South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning and Gauteng City Region Observatory), and the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo. Colleagues at ETH Zurich were also part of the team.

The full title of the project was: Micro-dynamics and Macro-processes: a Maputo-Johannesburg comparative study of intra-household decision-making and state-investment in transit, which forms part of the Mobility in Africa theme of the Volvo Foundation.

Assoc. Prof. Sarah Charlton discussed the background to the research on Meeting of the Minds.

Living the Urban Peripheries

ESRC-NRF-funded with University of Sheffield with colleagues from SA&CP and GCRO

Since 2016 CUBES has been involved in a large funded research project entitled Living the Urban Periphery: Investment, Infrastructure and Economic Change in African City-Regions. 

Involving various partner organisations the study includes several of CUBES’ thematic areas as indicated in this project summary: The spatial edges of large cities and city-regions in Africa are places of complex but poorly understood urban transformations; in some areas, large-scale formal investment is evident, while others are characterised by informal development or a complex mix of formal and informal processes, alternatively, there is stagnation or decline. These processes are often inadequately managed through policy and planning as institutions of governance are frequently weaker and more fragmented on the edge than in the spatial core. There is a critical gap in existing research on African cities, which has tended to overlook peripheral areas or focus on a donor-driven conception of the ‘peri-urban’ concerned primarily with changes to land use and agriculture (Mbiba and Huchzermeyer 2002). Without responsive policy and planning they may continue to be poorly managed, experience decline; institutional weakness; and neglect.

This project sought to understand how transformation in the spatial peripheries of African cities, is shaped, governed and experienced, with a view to informing governance approaches, strategies for poverty reduction and addressing the gap in the existing literature. It uses the lens of ‘lived experiences’ to understand the intersection of state, market and people’s practices in producing “new urban spatialities” (Beall et al 2015; Mabin et al 2013; Todes 2014). The project examined seven cases within three African city-regions: Gauteng, eThekwini and Addis Ababa. These choices facilitated comparative analysis spanning both a low and a middle-income country, as well as primary and secondary cities. All three cases displayed rapid but variable urbanisation, changing patterns of segregation and integration, and variant patterns of governance and investment, offering critical spaces for comparative analysis, theorisation, and policy influence.

The project was a partnership between researchers at the School of Architecture and Planning and the SA Research Chair on Spatial Analysis and City Planning (University of the Witwatersrand), and the Gauteng City Region Observatory, and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield. It was funded by the National Research Foundation, SA and the Economic and Social Research Council, UK, and runs from 2016 – 2019.

Spatial Justice and Urban Resilience

NRF-funded with Uni Venda and DUT

Under the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) programme for Collaborative Postgraduate Training, this project focused on interdisciplinary PhD supervision. The project duration was 2017-2019. It supported seven PhD students across three South African universities:

The supervisory team included both experienced and new PhD supervisors, and through a reflective supervision process, built supervisor capacity in all three institutions. In the context of varying PhD regulations across the three institutions, the project endeavoured to maximise space for creativity and innovation for the student cohort. The project provided a cohort of PhD candidates a networked learning context across the institutions and beyond. An annual student-supervisor workshop, open to a wider network of students and supervisors, was tailored to particular stages in the PhD journey.

  • Read more about the June 2017 PhD workshop here.
  • Read more about the June 2018 PhD workshop here.
  • Read more about the 2019 PhD workshop here.
  • PhD cohort
Practices of the State in Urban Governance


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 a growing body of literature on state-society encounters from the ‘outside’ – and as this remains a dynamic and emerging field of research, there has been 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 asked was: 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?

A collective book (in press) leading out of this project, asks the following questions:

  • Why are even progressive local authorities with the ‘will to improve’ seldom able to change cities?
  • Why does it seem almost impossible to redress spatial inequalities, deliver and maintain basic services, elevate impoverished areas and protect the marginalised communities?
  • Why do municipalities in the global South refuse to work with prevailing social informalities, and resort instead to interventions that are known to displace and aggravate the very issues they aim to address?

Local Officials and the Struggle to Transform Cities analyses these challenges in South African cities, where the brief post-apartheid moment opened a window for progressive city government and made research into state practices both possible and necessary. In debate with other ‘progressive moments’ in large cities in Brazil, the USA and India, the book interrogates City officials’ practices. It considers the instruments they invent and negotiate to implement urban policies, the agency they develop and the constraints they navigate in governing unequal cities. This focus on actual officials’ practices is captured through first-hand experience, state ethnographies and engaged research. These reveal day-to-day practice that question generalised explanations of state failure in complex urban societies as essential malevolence, contextual weakness, corruption and inefficiency. It is hoped that opening the black box of the workings of state opens paths for the construction of progressive policies in contemporary cities.

Collective submissions on draft legislation or policy

CUBES helped develop substantive comments on the draft Gauteng Townships Economy Bill which had sparked several concerns for many organisations, not least for its proposed restrictions on foreign traders operating in townships. A formal submission was made on 3 Nov 2020 into the consultative process on the Bill as a collective response by a group of organisations (listed at the end of the submission). Read the comments here.