I couldn’t quite figure it out. The entire project of housing provision in South African cities seemed to be marked by an almost obsessive sense of calculation, of rational town planning. Most notoriously there is the waiting list. After apartheid, the South African government embarked on a mass formal housing delivery program. In order to qualify for a home, residents in need must register at a local office and enter the demand database. Then there is the process of enumeration. Local governments don’t like shacklands to be unintelligible, and so they render them legible by assigning de facto addresses to every structure. In both of these processes, we can see at work what the German sociologist Max Weber famously called formal rationality.

Yet exceptions abounded. Enumeration rarely kept pace with in-migration from elsewhere in the city, and small land occupations seemed to become large informal settlements in a matter of weeks. And everyone seemed to be on the waiting list for decades, whereas I’d also encounter people who received a house after a matter of years. Residents who slipped through the cracks of formal rationality began to challenge the state, ultimately in the courtroom, pointing to the post-apartheid constitutional guarantee of adequate housing. Eventually they won the right to state-provisioned “alternative accommodation,” though the guidelines were unclear as to when exactly residents would be entitled to these sprawling encampments called “temporary relocation areas” (TRAs). At first, they functioned in emergency situations, such as after a shack fire displaced thousands in a Cape Town township called Langa. But over time, their function shifted, and they were no longer reserved for unpredictable disasters. Instead, squatters might be offered the option of taking a TRA structure as “alternative accommodation.” If they refused, they could be legally evicted after the court granted an interdict.

Suffice it to say that TRAs are wildly unpopular. They tear people from their existing social networks, leaving them in unfamiliar gang territory, and they often lack decent access to institutions like schools and clinics. Above all, they reinforce apartheid geography, further peripheralizing populations racialized by the apartheid state. Recently, the City has effectively admitted that TRAs aren’t temporary at all, creating a second category — “incremental development areas” (IDAs) — that are like TRAs in many ways, except the lie of temporariness has been left at the door.

In my article “Precarious Welfare States: Urban struggles over housing delivery in post-apartheid South Africa,” I grapple with this paradox. The housing delivery program is characterized by an intensely formal rationality. But after a series of socio-legal struggles, the logic of distribution appears to shift toward what Weber called substantive rationality, organized on a case-by-case basis. But formal rationality doesn’t disappear; substantively rational and formally rational systems of delivery coexist, often in tension. In the piece, I give a detailed account of the emergence of substantively rational delivery and grapple with its demoralizing consequences for further struggles for decent housing.

My recently completed dissertation, The Post-Apartheid State: Housing Struggles in South Africa, is on the politics of land occupations in Cape Town. As I began to write about occupations and eviction, I realized it was impossible to isolate occupations from a broader understanding of the socio-spatial politics of housing in Cape Town. In the occupations I studied, residents hadn’t “invaded” the city from some other province, as housing officials would frequently suggest, but had instead come from backyard shacks and overcrowded formal houses just down the road. And when an occupation gained the right to stay put and started to grow, it became an informal settlement. But if residents were faced with eviction, they might be offered a spot in a TRA, or else they might be left to fend for themselves — which typically meant returning to backyard shacks or participating in new land occupations. “They are merely shifted elsewhere!” Engels famously wrote.

Thinking through the politics of land occupations then only made sense in relation to a number of other housing sites, and I began to think about the logic of delivery. But how to sell this to sociologists? The literature on housing provision in postcolonial cities was scarce in sociology, really the province of geography and anthropology. Yet there was also a recent resurgence of writing on the Southern welfare state in the social sciences, even if this was often limited to discussions of cash disbursement programs. Still, I thought I’d engage this literature, bring in some Weber, and voila! Southern cities can be put in conversation with Northern sociological debates after all.

But we need to be very careful. An initial wave of studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s simply projected theorizations devised in Euro-American contexts onto Southern cities, whether calling all processes of urban displacement “gentrification,” or else attempting to characterize African, South and Southeast Asian, and Latin American cities as additional “cases” of a neoliberal specter sweeping the globe. Drawing on the work of Philip McMichael, this is what Gillian Hart recently criticized as “encompassing comparison” in the context of the ongoing planetary urbanization debates.

On the other hand, I’m equally cautious of attempts to distill some sort of essence from these cities, and I’m worried that attempts to think a monolithic Southern urbanism can amount to Orientalism in reverse. Undoubtedly postcolonial trajectories can reveal a certain commonality in some cases. Extractive economies, certain planning legacies, decades (if not centuries) of enforced social stratification (and racialization), and the remedial social spending regimes characteristic of some postcolonies: all of these factors, and many more, may shape “Southern” cities. But I find the notion that there is a uniquely Southern trajectory quite dangerous, both analytically and politically.

Still, theorizing from Southern standpoints remains essential to making sense of alternative trajectories of urbanization. We need a new set of concepts when those devised in European and North American contexts prove insufficient for capturing urban processes in cities elsewhere. This doesn’t mean abandoning theory. I really resent the notion that Southern cities are unique loci of particularity, contingency, and agency, as if they are somehow divorced from their historical geographies. My article is one attempt to think through novel processes of urban change in a Southern city. Does it apply elsewhere? That’s the challenge. Under what conditions does my argument apply? Is Cape Town a unique case, or is it a post-apartheid phenomenon? Is it instead a postcolonial development, or something else entirely? That’s why comparative work is absolutely necessary if we are ever going to adequately theorize from the South. There is no unitary South from which to theorize!

Zachary Levenson is a sociologist studying the politics of housing in post-apartheid South Africa. He’s currently working on…