Jo Beall, Owen Crankshaw, Susan Parnell. Uniting a Divided City: Governance and Social Exclusion in Johannesburg. London and Sterling: Earthscan, 2002. xv + 237 pp. $156.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-85383-921-4; $44.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-85383-916-0.
Reviewed by Dale T. McKinley (Independent lecturer, writer and activist, Johannesburg)
Published on H-SAfrica (July, 2004)
Mistaking Symptoms for Cause
Since the late 1990s, the South African "transition" has rapidly become a favorite focal point for academic and developmental research and analysis/writing. Such scholarship is, generally, to be welcomed as a positive contribution to the growing corpus of research/literature on South Africa's post-apartheid "journey." However, the majority of these efforts have not been able to bridge the gap between macro- and micro-analysis, between theoretical framework and practical experience. The result has been a scholarship that is, by and large, ill-informed by the political, economic and social realities evinced by the post-apartheid "reconstruction" of state and society, and the concomitant effects on the vast majority of South Africans who remain poor and marginalized.
Beall, Crankshaw, and Parnell's book, if somewhat tenuously and partially, makes an endeavor to straddle this divide. The authors attempt to forge an inter-disciplinary analysis that allows them to look at both the micro-level specifics of urban society and politics in Johannesburg and to place this within the larger macro-context of (historical) social change and what they term, "urban governance." They do a commendable job of tracing the contradictory history of Johannesburg's political and socio-economic development (or lack thereof) as well as locating such development within the broader theoretical terrain of industrial and urban studies.
Nonetheless, the underlying hypothesis of the book, that the South African transition provides an "extraordinary opportunity to unite one of the world's most divided cities" (p. 197), suffers from a crucially important and ill-informed assumption. Namely, that such a "unity" at the micro-level of a "twenty-first century city" such as Johannesburg is a real possibility within a macro socio-economic framework that has institutionalized, and indeed reinforced, class division and conflict (that then filters down and exacerbates other societal divisions such as race and ethnicity).
It is the "transitional" foundation upon which the authors build their analysis that is at the heart of this problematique. They treat the South African transition, and by consequence the urban socio-political terrain of Johannesburg that provides the focal point of their lens on that transition, as a priori, an institutionalised balancing act. For the authors, the main question then posed becomes "whether a balance could be achieved between equity and efficiency and whether early commitments to participatory processes and responsive government could be maintained" (pp. 3-4).
What this ignores is the unilateral adoption by the African National Congress (ANC) national government, prior to any of the major "restructuring" initiatives at the urban/local level of government, of a neo-liberal macro-economic framework that pre-figured the developmental and institutional prioritization of capitalist market "efficiency" over socio-economic "equity." Thus, from the beginning of the "transition, the ground-rules under which any subsequent approach to popular political participation in, and control over, governmental decision-making as well as the pursuit of socio-economic equity had already been decided. In other words, what has transpired in South Africa since 1996 has not been a "balancing act" but rather the pursuit of "reconstruction" within a unilateral and prescribed developmental framework that has, at its core, the unbridled quest for a deracialized capitalism.
What the authors thus see as "new understandings of local government in Johannesburg [being] ... shaped by the imperative of developing rapid and pragmatic approaches to service delivery, urban economic development, spatial restructuring, environmental sustainability and institutional reform" (p. 3) have turned out, in reality, to be little more than the acceptance and implementation of the above-mentioned framework. While the authors are correct to point to the application of "political will" in guiding post-apartheid (urban/local level) restructuring, it is the intent and goal of such will that they fail to critically interrogate.
This all adds up to a well-intentioned, but ultimately circumscribed and ill-informed, analytical approach to the contemporary political and socio-economic landscape of the authors' chosen "target" (that is, Johannesburg). The result is that the authors' analytical axis, namely the inter-dependent relationship between structure-agency-institutions rests on crucially misplaced assumptions in relation to the combination of socio-economic, political and institutional realities engendered by their de facto acceptance of the chosen developmental framework at both the macro and micro levels.
A classic example of how this plays itself out in the authors' treatment of Johannesburg-specific urban "reconstruction" efforts is their view that the "cause" of the city's mid-to-late 1990s crisis must be seen in fiscal terms alone. While fiscal mismanagement and the costs of restructuring the city's bureaucracy were certainly important components of the crisis, the reality was that it stemmed predominantly from application of the ANC national government's political decision to adopt the neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR).
Part of GEAR's prescriptions included a massive scaling down of national government capital subsidies and other financial support to local government councils. This forced those councils, with Johannesburg at the forefront, to turn towards commercialization and privatization of basic services as a means of generating the revenue that was no longer provided by the national state. In turn, such a strategy, in the context of a city with increasing levels of unemployment and rising poverty ensured the onset of a multi-faceted crisis that had less to do with fiscal efficiency than with a politically and ideologically enforced developmental framework.
Similarly, the authors' acceptance, at face value, of the claim by the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council of extensive and meaningful popular participation in drawing up the first "Land Development Objectives" and "Integrated Development Programme" is indicative of their confusion between stated intent/appearance and reality. The much-touted community development forums (with a few exceptions) were either marginalized or simply became ANC-controlled fiefdoms designed to rubber stamp the Johannesburg Council's pre-determined developmental plan for dealing with the city's serious socio-economic problems.
Perhaps the most glaring example of the authors' failure to come to grips with the fundamental class fault line of the South African "transition" (and as specifically applied to Johannesburg) is their repeated insistence that the debates and struggles centered on essential socio-economic services are in danger of "erasing" the "viability of participatory planning frameworks and democratic governance ... from the urban-reconstruction agenda" (pp. 103-4).
Were the authors paying attention to what was happening in the townships and shantytowns around Johannesburg (and other major urban areas) during their research activities in the late-1990s and early-2000s? If so, then they could not have helped but conclude that the very people supposed to benefit from "participatory planning frameworks and democratic governance" were themselves engaged in ever-intensifying grassroots struggles against the very Johannesburg Council, and the ANC politicians who govern it, precisely because, without accessible and affordable basic services, there can be no meaningful "urban reconstruction," not to mention democratic participation.
It is such an instrumentalist approach to the realities of Johannesburg's political economy that also allows the authors to make the preposterous argument that the installation of pre-paid electricity and water meters (provided as part of privatized service delivery) represents an improvement for the poor and an example of effective municipal service delivery. Besides the fact that pre-paid meters represent the essence of what is wrong with the commodification of basic services, the ongoing and pervasive grassroots struggles against them are not reducible to a technical and spatial problem. Rather, they are part and parcel of the larger struggle of Johannesburg's majority poor over fundamental issues of public service ownership, developmental priorities and the politics/ideology that frames societal "reconstruction".
It is unfortunate that the authors' analysis of community structures, politics and struggles is outdated (for example, their concentration on the long-moribund South African National Civics Organisation). For a book that purports to offer a comprehensive and sophisticated view of Johannesburg's "transitional" political and socio-economic make-up, the absence of any substantive treatment of the character and content of the new social movements that have arisen in direct response to the policies and governance of the ANC government (at all institutional levels), is all the more conspicuous.
Despite what are, in places, useful and informative descriptions and analyses of Johannesburg's pre- and post-apartheid political, social and economic "journey," this book falls prey to the ubiquitous "TINA" (There Is No Alternative) disease. The authors' dominant view, that fundamental political/ideological decisions taken by those in political power are a given, ensures that the macro-economic framework remains essentially unchallenged and that the consequent problems of social exclusion and poverty, et al., are seen as "constraints" that have to be "engaged" and/or "managed." If, as the authors want readers to accept, understanding "the structural nature of urban change" is a prerequisite for "uniting divided cities," then they cannot expect those same readers to accept the applicability or viability of niche arguments for dealing with structural problems.
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Dale T. McKinley. Review of Beall, Jo; Crankshaw, Owen; Parnell, Susan, Uniting a Divided City: Governance and Social Exclusion in Johannesburg.
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