The Global Urbanist

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The Ordinary City: Reimagining Urban African Governance and Planning

By describing the important role of Shebeens in the informal settlements of Cape Town, Bronwyn Kotzen challenges our binary conception of the formal and informal city and prompts us to develop new ways of theorising and practicing planning and governance in African cities.

Bronwyn Kotzen

Cities: Cape Town

Topics: Integrated planning, City politics, Participatory governance, Informal economy, Labour and livelihoods, Informal settlements

Photo of the informal settlement. Cape Town. Photo: Bronwyn Kotzen.
Louise’s Shebeen: tightly and inconspicuously packed between neighbouring residential shacks. Image: Bronwyn Kotzen for UrbanWorks, 2012.
Increased Revenue: The image illustrates the rentable outbuilding located in the backyard of Louise’s property. Image: Bronwyn Kotzen for UrbanWorks, 2015.
Emergent Public Spaces: The interior of Louise’s shebeen includes a (01) sound system, (02) pool table, (03) benches and (04) entrance/exit doors. Image: Bronwyn Kotzen for UrbanWorks, 2015.
Control and Surveillance: hatches are used to survey and keep valuable objects, such as the sound systems and fridges secure. The image illustrated the positioning of the (02) hatch between the bedroom and shebeen, (3) the sound system and (04) the fridges. Image: Bronwyn Kotzen for UrbanWorks, 2015.
Circumnavigating the State Radar: Spatial strategies are employed in order to ensure business survival. These include (01) windows for surveillance, (02) entrances which are hidden from the street edge, (03) a separate entrance to the home, (04) a perimeter fence and (05) single street entrance. Image: Bronwyn Kotzen for UrbanWorks, 2015.
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It was a typically cold and rainy winter morning in Cape Town, and I was spending my day with Louise in her shebeen—an unlicensed liquor tavern—in Sweet Home Farm informal settlement on the city’s historically marginalized flatlands. The moist winds were slipping through the unsealed cracks of the makeshift corrugated iron structure–both her family home and business premises. Louise positioned herself next to me on the edge of her couch, placing one of her three adopted children on her lap. Speaking in a matter-of-fact-tone, she recounted the multiple strategies she employs to avoid police interference, or worse yet, military-style police raids on her informal shebeen. Her story is one of the many I heard that week about how some of the city’s most disenfranchised residents are continually forced, amidst great risk and fear, into often illicit survivalist practices. These survivalist practices present enduring challenges for urban governance in the complex cities of the global south.

As South Africa enters its 22nd year of post-apartheid democracy, the state still struggles with the challenge of redressing historic inequalities while simultaneously meeting the innumerable demands posed by rapid urbanization. Despite progressive policies on informal settlement upgrading and service delivery, the state’s normative conception of how a city ought to function and be governed has largely resulted in a failure to see how its poorest citizenry carve out their lives as a makeshift urbanism of need. By better recognising informal entrepreneurs as important actors who shape urban economies, politics and social life, new ways of theorising and practicing planning and governance would be opened up beyond the binaries of the formal and informal city.  Given the developmental role adopted by the South African state, such a reading might begin to generate a conception of the city as a space configured not by the state alone, but by a multitude of processes among varied actors. This is an urbanity constructed not only of grand planning gestures in the interest of modernisation or global competitiveness, but one in which the everyday, iterative, and ordinary practices of all of those of who live in it are equally valued and included in its development.

Claiming right to the city: challenging urban formality

As access to official life has become increasingly difficult in urban Africa, many residents depend on informal practices to secure their livelihoods that occur outside of state regulation. UN-HABITAT data suggest that more than 60% of economic processes, employment and income lie in the illicit, grey or informal sector. At a ratio of almost 1 shebeen for every 28 shacks in Sweet Home Farm, these micro-enterprises are the dominant form of business in the settlement and surrounding areas. Despite the establishment of constitutional democracy post-1994, the shebeen economy evidences how the shackles of the past endure for many urban poor, who often live with fewer options and, in some instances, with even fewer rights than before. 

Without formal tenancy or land rights, informal settlement residents have no official addresses. As a consequence, they are an untraceable citizenry whose ‘legitimacy’ goes unrecognised by most service providers. It is nearly impossible for informal entrepreneurs to access formal mechanisms such as banking, insurance or telephone services. Furthermore, informal settlements fall outside the purview of official maps, town planning processes and zoning schemes. Not only does this stifle public infrastructure development and large-scale private investment, it also forces residents to go to formal areas for retail and services. This inadvertently bolsters the rates base of already developed areas, severely limiting the potential for economic growth within the settlement. Moreover, Western Cape liquor control policies demand that all liquor vendors attain a license in order to trade legally. The acquisition of such documentation requires that the business be located within a commercially zoned area—a condition that cannot be met in the unofficial, unzoned territory of an informal settlement. In a context of an ‘illegitimate’ citizenry and exclusionary planning policies, residents are suspended from formal economic activities, unable to break through the barriers that refuse them full participation in urban life.

The Lefebvrian notion of the right to the city, and by extension the right to participation and inclusion, has critical salience here. Authors like David Harvey speak of the right to the city not merely as access, but as the ability to actively participate and create a different kind of sociality. Louise, in operating outside of formal business processes, exemplifies one form of a broadly construed ‘participation’ in urban life. In an effort to supplement her income, Louise not only manages her shebeen, but is also a landlord. She rents out a small room which leads directly onto the shebeen, as well as a larger outbuilding in the backyard. During quieter periods of the day, she sells alcohol from a serving hatch in the kitchen which is hidden from street view behind an orange, mesh-covered fence. Louise’s daughter sells homemade doughnuts from the same hatch, while her son sells grilled meat from a stall across the road.

Empty bottles are collected and recycled in the front courtyard, which not only generates extra profit but also helps keep the shebeen and surrounding area free of broken glass. Neighbours take advantage of the foot traffic by setting up stalls to sell hot food, sweets and cigarettes during busy trading hours, an income without which many families would struggle to survive. The informal form and character of the settlement, therefore, facilitates spaces of highly networked, and flexible, business economies to be established. Here, in returning to Harvey’s concept, residents claim their right to the city by reshaping a different, more inclusive socio-economic reality; one for which formal processes lack the ‘knowledge-from-below’ that they might use as a basis for urban development. Perhaps of greatest significance for moving beyond normative conceptions of how the city ought to be, are the ways these operations challenge the very notion of urban formality by breaking down the public-private distinctions that are constitutive of the city as a formal space.

Emergent publics: between the house, business and communal space

With limited government intervention, informal settlements are configured by a series of hybrid spatial juxtapositions. Louise’s shebeen is a family home, a business, and a social place within the community. This is an unusual spatial arrangement that requires purposeful negotiation of the private, semi-private and public realms. Without any formal public spaces within the labyrinth of narrow pathways in Sweet Home Farm—where residents have access only to the confines of their homes—the 109 shebeens, like Louise’s, account for some of the only communal space in the area. Shebeens, therefore, represent an emergent type of public space, one that generates a publicness premised not on public ownership, like the grand plaza or boulevard street, but rather on the communal life they engender.

Shebeen entrepreneurs influence how their stores are used through factors such as operating hours, accessibility and size of the space, as well as the kind of alcohol sold, the music played, and the amenities offered. Louise’s shebeen is furnished with a sound system, pool table and benches along the edge of the walls. During the day, many customers play pool to background music, while at other times, the shebeen is almost empty with only a few customers relaxing and socialising in it. The entrances remain open at all times, creating a permanent link to the settlement pathways outside. People, including the elderly and children, traverse the 23m2 room throughout the day, without drinking or engaging in the entertainment on offer. The evenings, by contrast, offer a crowded atmosphere. Louise influences this day-night transition through sound levels, the type of music played and the seating arrangement.

Late night drinking often results in conflict amongst inebriated patrons, for which the front and backyards of Louise’s shebeen provide some relief. Yet although shebeens are places of alcohol consumption, drinking constitutes just one of the many activities. Louise's shebeen is a space of interaction that can also foster community and cohesion in an environment characterized by under-resourcing and a lack of formal public space. Shebeens provide space for human contact. They are points where public life flourishes in the complex settlement dynamics of Sweet Home Farm. The survival of these makeshift community spaces, however, requires daily strategizing by the owners to circumvent the often corrupted authorities who illicitly draw benefit from the ‘greyness’ of their trade.

New architectures of power: circumventive strategies

The persistence of micro-entrepreneurs running shebeens, and the innovative resilience of the venues themselves, illustrate how residents exercise power in order to claim a right to the city. A principal task of the capitalist state is to disempower spaces commanded by oppositional actors like the shebeen entrepreneurs in Cape Town. Through military style police raids, local authorities aim to re-instate their power and establish rules that order urban space in an area that it is often unable to control.  City officials laud raids for cleaning up ‘heavy drinking’ and its ‘associated harms.’ Yet these raids, arguably, have the broader aim of displacing the unofficial, illicit and informal city with an official, legal and formal one. These interventions demonstrate a failure on the part of the state to accommodate the everyday exchanges, regimes of authority, and social norms that shape informal urban life, and to recognise the ways in which the informal and formal are deeply imbricated.

For one thing, the state is already implicated in the illicit trade through the activities of corrupt police. Allegiances with police are important ways of maintaining some form of protection for shebeens. Shebeen entrepreneurs recognise that the police — who possess the authority to execute official regulations — make their trade possible in a reciprocal relationship of need. Police supplement their incomes through bribery and extortion. Paying these bribes is considered necessary business practices for informal entrepreneurs. The shebeen entrepreneur therefore displays resistance to state power, while simultaneously being vulnerable to it. This reflects the complex hierarchies of power that shape engagements with the state, as well as the survivalist needs of those who are determined to continue trading. It is along these opaque boundaries where new rules of exchange emerge to re-order official architectures of power and systems of urban governance in the city.

Shebeen entrepreneurs employ spatial strategies to mitigate risk of state harassment, further driving their operations underground. Off-site liquor storage and the absence of advertising circumvent the state radar. Carefully placed windows allow for passive surveillance, while entrances are hidden from direct street view, and perimeter fences are erected around the shebeen territory. These flexible characteristics allow shebeen entrepreneurs to respond to risk and fear whilst building business resilience. Although misdirected policy objectives aim to close informal enterprises down through police targeting—which often results in the closure or down-scaling of the more prominent liquor taverns –but the resilience of shebeens in Sweet Home Farm demonstrate the ineffectiveness of such aims. As a response, the shebeen is innovatively adapted in its architectural and urban form to become less detectable, indelibly marking its place in the geography of the 'informal' city.

While it remains important to enforce state legislation, the legitimacy of enforcement is hinged on the citizens’ perception of their state. In a context where the state struggles to provide for its citizens, and survival is at stake, state power and policies are often considered exclusionary. Residents reconfigure and subvert power through behaviours that compete with official codes. These seemingly microscopic actions provide the starting point from which to reconsider the relevance of the formal-informal dichotomy and to find more meaningful approaches to building and governing the contemporary African city.

The Ordinary City: beyond the Formal-Informal Divide

The system of developmentalism adopted by the post-apartheid government derives from the modern ideal that the state holds the power to transform society, and it is rooted in the state’s overarching mandate to reduce poverty by accelerating economic growth. Yet this paradigm fails to recognise, value or make use of the many ways in which the city’s most disenfranchised actors, who often fall outside of state registers, claim their spaces and voices.

Although some schools of thought believe that the poor are the best drivers of a solution to the problem of poverty (see for example Arjun Appadurai), more convincing arguments suggest that the informal city will require more than ‘development from below’ (see for example Ash Amin). Following John Turner’s advocacy of the ‘supportive shack’ as better than an ‘oppressive house’ in meeting the needs of the urban poor, urban governance is not only about implementing and enforcing — often oppressive — state policies. It is about the formation of policies that recognise, include and support the practices of the poor in city planning and development frameworks.

The often-debated issue of extending land rights and tenure to the poor, though crucially important, is insufficient to achieve economic and spatial inclusion on its own. Since it does not deal with a host of policies and material realities which exclude informal residents from participation in urban life, new spaces of operation such as the hybrid world of the shebeen emerge as one of the few options through which to gain access to the city. To achieve a more equitable quality of urban life, a radical reform of urban citizenship is required, one in which both the state and the citizen are recognised as players in the complex process of city making. The poor must be equally visible as the rich on state registers.

Perhaps the first step is to build institutional and planning systems that conceive urban citizenship beyond democratic rights alone, through a universal rights-based agenda as the basis from which the developmental role of the state should be defined. This means including socio-economic rights, such as the right to basic services, the right to adequate standards of living, the right to safe public spaces and the right to participation. Recognising such rights might reveal potential cleavages for different forms of governance and planning to take hold. Shebeens, for example, might play a crucial role in the public life of informal settlements. The illegalisation of the industry not only means that the many who rely on this business suffer economically, but the provision of one of the only public spaces is also jeopardised. Nuanced policy frameworks that recognise and support their existence are therefore crucial to level stark social, economic and spatial inequalities in South Africa’s cities.

Introducing land use management and hybrid business and residential zoning schemes is one possibility for legitimising important emerging spaces and including them into official planning systems. Development and planning need to encourage a constructive antagonism between the state and 'informal' forms of sociality. This calls for a deep ethnographic project that unveils the complex realities on the ground, while engaging in a parallel study of how and why city governments pursue certain regulations and interventions and not others. By looking from the ground up, we will begin to see how the city has been co-constructed by a multitude of legal and illegal, visible and invisible, official and unofficial, informal and formal processes. After all, the real African city is not singular. It is, rather, the highly variegated making of a myriad of practices exercised by the state and its people on a daily basis. To create, theorise and practice an urbanism of equality means to move beyond the formal-informal divide and acknowledge that which is an extraordinarily ordinary urbanism.



The author acknowledges that this paper has been informed by a research project which was co-ordinated by the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation and Urban Works Architecture and Urbanism – a team which she formed part of. This article has been written independently by the author. Neither bodies had any influence on the decision to publish this article or on any of its content.




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