Accessing the State: Everyday Practices and Politics in the South

Sophie Oldfield, Claire Bénit-Gbaffou
Journal of African and Asian Studies 46(5): 445-452, 2011

This special issue explores everyday practices and politics of accessing the state and state resources from a southern perspective. The collection of papers documents low-income residents’ everyday relationships with the state, through the study of actual practices of interaction with a range of state representatives at the local level (councilors and officials, at various levels of local government). Formal and informal, legal and illegal, confrontational and cooperative, we analyze the multiple tactics of engagement with the state by low-income residents to understand the extent to which they allow access to state resources and to degrees of state recognition, even in contexts of mass poverty, informality and scarce public resources. The modes of interaction with the state also embody and frame low-income residents’ representations of the state, of their expectations, and of their own citizenship. This special issue thus critically draws together a wide-ranging and important debate on governance, and the relationships it constructs between state and civil society. The main question we thus raise in this special issue is how the dynamics of governance reform, with attempted development or deepening of both decentralization and participation, affect everyday practices to access the state and the resulting politics that shape state-society relations in southern contexts.

Collectively, the articles in the special issue reflect on the ways in which low-income citizens access to the state challenges existing theories of the state and democracy. Stemming from a research programme entitled ‘The Voices of the Poor in Urban Governance: Participation, Mobilisation and Politics in South African Cities’2, this special issue focuses on South African cities primarily but not exclusively. Although the contexts examined have their own specificities, we argue that they provide an interesting and critical context in which to work through the debate from a Southern perspective. South African societies are specific in the huge expectations residents have in the post-apartheid state, and in the ways that ideals continue to be framed in modernist terms, as emblematized by policies of mass public housing delivery and effort towards mass access to urban services. The state, even if it is not so powerful, remains at the core of representations and expectations especially of lower income residents (Borges 2006) – mass urban protests which continue to rise in South African cities today show the disappointment of these expectations rather than a disregard, ignorance or avoidance of the State (Bénit-Gbaffou 2008, Alexander 2010). Attempts to address the gaps between expectation and public delivery have taken the form of major local government restructuring in a post-apartheid context, relying extensively on principles of good governance (decentralization, democratization as well as new public management principles). However, these expectations and experiences of confrontation of civil society with the state co-exist with everyday practices of negotiation, seeking of favours, and clientelism, which also shape residents’ access to resources, and more broadly their representations of the state and the construction of their urban citizenship (Oldfield and Stokke 2004). The South African case is thus particularly relevant to study the interaction between the modern state and good governance ideals, and practices of ‘political society’.

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