Publications based on TLR case studies in South Africa

  • Lawhon, Mary, Joseph Pierce, and Anesu Makina. (2018). “Provincializing urban appropriation: Agonistic transgression as a mode of actually existing appropriation in South African cities.” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 39.1 (2018): 117-131. Click for abstract.
    Urban appropriation is a key dimension of both Lefebvre’s widely hailed ‘Right to the City’ and Bayat’s concept of ‘quiet encroachment’. For Lefebvre, appropriation is a (generally unrealized) claim by those who do not ‘have’ the city of a right to ‘take’ it. Bayat, in contrast, characterizes actually existing appropriation as motivated by everyday needs, not aimed at wider social change. While both theorizations may be useful, we argue that a third mode of appropriation is apparent in South African urban contexts. Actors often act in ways that could be characterized as appropriative, yet do not work to consolidate an abrogated appropriative right or durable permission. Nor are they adequately explained as apolitical or individualistic; the logic used to justify them similarly is based neither on rights nor needs. We label such appropriation ‘agonistically transgressive’. We argue that agonistically transgressive appropriations are particularly evident in post‐apartheid South Africa, in part because of changing urban conditions and consequent renegotiations of spatial regulation. Using examples of urban land appropriation for housing in South Africa, we briefly illustrate how thinking pluralistically about urban appropriation might help better understand its actually existing forms in—and beyond—the global South.
  • Lawhon, M., Millington, N., & Stokes, K. (2018). A Labour Question for the 21st Century: Perpetuating the Work Ethic in the Absence of Jobs in South Africa’s Waste SectorJournal of Southern African Studies, 1-17.Click for abstract.
    For centuries, economic relations in southern Africa were profoundly shaped by interventions that sought to attract and coerce workers to participate in colonial and apartheid economies. These interventions included efforts to change the meaning of labour. Colonial powers sought to instil in colonial subjects a belief that work has worth beyond its productive value, and that work itself is virtuous. In recent decades, the classic labour question of how to create workers has been upended: public discourse emphasises the need to create jobs. This job-creation agenda is not limited to southern Africa; this is evident in the inclusion of decent work as one of the new Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. There has, however, been limited critical inquiry into the contemporary relevance of the modern work ethic in a context of widespread unemployment and limited demand for labour. In this article, we draw on interviews with people in South Africa’s waste-management sector to argue that the modern work ethic continues to have influence despite the sector’s limited ability to provide adequate financial remuneration for productive labour. Interviewees contrast the positive value of work with negatively connoted state ‘handouts’, and indicate ambivalence about the substitution of labour with technology. They also emphasise entrepreneurialism, suggesting extensions of the historically understood work ethic: good, respectable, dignified citizens are no longer just those who labour; they now must also work to create a need for their labour. We argue that reflecting upon the disjuncture between an ethic that compels labour and an economic context with limited scope for productive labour usefully contributes towards a project of deconstructing the assumption that jobs ought to be the primary means through which to claim resources, dignity, moral worth and full citizenship.
  • Ernstson, Henrik, and Erik Swyngedouw. (2018). “Wasting CO2: The Remarkable Success of a Climate Failure.” In Heterogeneous Infrastructures in African Cities Workshop, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, 12-15 November. [This paper is forthcoming in a journal.]Click for abstract.
    This paper examines the articulation between urban political-ecological transformations on the one hand and processes of global climate mitigation on the other. We use the case of South-African waste-to-value projects as combined results of local processes of urban ecological modernization on the one hand and the mobilization of global climate finance through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) on the other. While it is generally recognized that waste-related CDM projects in South Africa have been an unmitigated failure in terms of both the anticipated climate and economic benefits , we shall argue based on document analysis and interviews with project managers in South Africa, that landfill-to-gas/energy projects have functioned effectively as geographical-discursive dispositifs through which particular knowledge systems are enrolled, specific ‘solutions’ are projected, and singular imaginaries of what is possible and desirable foregrounded. This, we argue, has crowded out alternative possibilities and more socio-ecologically just trajectories of climate mitigation.
  • Millington, N. & Stokes, K. Salvage (forthcoming) Accumulation and Infrastructures of Value: Rendering waste into resource in contemporary South Africa.Click for abstract.
    This paper considers the conversion of recyclables into economic value in contemporary South Africa, with a primary focus on Cape Town. We follow differing forms of recycling for profit and trace the material processes through which recyclables are rendered into tradeable commodities. In doing so, we analyze processes of valuation as materials are produced, collected, and reprocessed, analyzing the points of economic translation—what Anna Tsing (2015) calls ‘patches’—in the conversion of recyclables into monetary value. This paper’s significance lies in its contribution to understandings of new dynamics of accumulation at the edge of purportedly formal economies, with resonance for both the South African waste sector as well as the green economy more broadly. As an industry that threads viscerally between the formal and informal, waste is a particularly fruitful space from which to theorize contemporary processes of accumulation oriented around green agendas. We empirically highlight the processes of profit-making in the South African wastescape in order to better understand the contemporary South African waste regime in a moment in which waste is increasingly being rearticulated as a source of profit. In doing so, this project furthers scholarship on primitive accumulation and the monetizing of environmental degradation. In a spirit of critical dialogue with recent work on primitive and salvage accumulation, we aim to understand how processes of salvaging are deeply embedded in and reshaped by existing dynamics of primitive accumulation through the uneven incorporation of purportedly informal economic practices into the contemporary economy.
  • Ernstson, Henrik, Mary Lawhon, Anesu Makina, Nate Millington, Kathleen Stokes, and Erik Swyngedouw. (2020, accepted). “Turning Livelihood to Rubbish? The Politics of Value and Valuation in South Africa’s Urban Waste Sector.” In Urban Transformations, edited by Michael Keith and Andreza Aruska de Souza Santos. Oxford: COMPAS, School of Anthropology, University of Oxford. (Accepted for publication).Click for abstract.
    This chapter analyses the dynamic institutional, technical, social and political-ecological landscape of waste management in South Africa and how this in turn is shaping the practices by which waste is transformed into economic and social value, who is allowed to claim such benefits, and what makes for successful claims. We call attention to the competing mandates of government – to manage waste, support social development, and increase employment while limiting the cost of both and nurturing a green sustainable transition model – and the ways in which various actors respond to these often countervailing mandates. The empirical work is based on investigations into i) the technologisation of waste management, ii) the differential impacts of the internationalisation of waste management finance, and iii) initiatives that emphasise collaborative governance and community participation and awareness as means of improving waste management.
  • Lawhon, M., N Millington, & K. Stokes. (forthcoming) The politics of value in heterogeneous configurations of waste in South Africa.

Reviews and theoretical interventions

  • Millington, N., & Lawhon, M. (2019). Geographies of waste: Conceptual vectors from the Global SouthProgress in Human Geography, 43(6), 1044-1063.Click for abstract.
    Geographies of waste, which include examination of its flows and politics, have demonstrated empirical differences and contrasting approaches to researching waste in the Global North and South. Southern waste geographies have largely focused on case studies of informality and (neoliberal) governance. We draw on Southern theory to argue that this focus can be productively extended through greater consideration of the production of value and the role of materiality and technology in the wastescape. We argue that a relational understanding of multiscalar wastescapes contributes insights into the distribution of costs and benefits as well as what enables and constrains the extraction of value for different actors.
  • Pierce, J., Lawhon, M., & McCreary, T. (2019). From precarious work to obsolete labour? Implications of technological disemployment for geographical scholarshipGeografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 101(2), 84-101.Click for abstract.
    The displacement of jobs via mechanization and automation has long been understood as uncomfortable for labourers but also an intrinsic part of a process of ‘creative destruction’ leading to further growth in capitalist economies. This article argues that a seismic shift is currently underway in the dynamics of the labour market with regard to automation. Technologies of automation are capable of a rapidly rising proportion of all of the tasks that capital is willing to pay for and that humans are capable of doing. We highlight the geographically differentiated implications of this ongoing transition, and emphasize that geographers are importantly situated to analyse the political and economic implications of what is likely the start of a radical restructuring of the relationships between labouring, resource distribution, and indeed human ethics.
  • Patrick Bigger and Nate Millington. 2019. Getting Soaked? Climate Crisis, Adaptation Finance, and Racialized Austerity. Environment and Planning E.Click for abstract.
    As the effects of austerity continue to ravage cities and the impacts of climate change become more pronounced, municipal officials around the world are struggling to pay for climate adaptation. Some cities have already begun to anticipate the new infrastructures that climate change will require, while others have been forced to adapt in real time as climate crises have arrived in spectacular ways. Two of the most emblematic events are Superstorm Sandy, which drenched New York City in October 2012, and the drought-induced crisis of water scarcity in Cape Town, South Africa, which was most visible between 2016 and 2018. In both cases, the cities turned to green bonds, a form of municipal finance that foregrounds environmental ambitions. In this paper, we track the forms of adaptation projects that green borrowing are earmarked to fund. Drawing from scholarship on the financialization of nature alongside recent work on racial capitalism and austerity, we find that rather than transformative municipal change each city is largely carrying on with projects that reinscribe existing inequalities in the city. In addition to reflecting inequalities already present in the two cities, however, the use of municipal debt for adaptation intensifies risks, both financial and environmental, borne primary by the poor or working class people of color. Building on qualitative fieldwork in Cape Town, New York, and across the green bond investment chain, we argue that the risks posed by climate change in the city cannot be financialized away. Ultimately, we call for the end of municipal austerity driven by national and supranational budgeting choices in favor of increasing national funding of municipal adaptation by rescaling borrowing to higher political scales that can more progressively distribute risks.
  • Lawhon, M., & McCreary, T. (2020). Beyond Jobs vs Environment: On the Potential of Universal Basic Income to Reconfigure Environmental Politics. Antipode. First online 28 January 2020.Click for abstract.
    The tension between creating jobs and protecting the environment remains central to contemporary environmental politics. Critical scholars have reworked the “jobs vs the environment” problematique, but how people will secure livelihoods in various imagined futures remains unclear. We demonstrate how a Universal Basic Income (UBI) that enacts a revitalised politics of redistribution, in conjunction with an active state, has the potential to rupture the link between employment and income. We suggest that such a UBI is complementary to various postcapitalist politics that fundamentally reorganise relationships between people, ecology, and labour. Further, such a UBI can enable the cultivation of new economic subjectivities, as well as the time needed for greater democratic engagement. Where radical environmental politics often configure a fearful agent of change, motivated by a dystopian imaginaries, we propose new radical visions for socioecological futures in which people have time for leisure, community, and democratic participation.
  • Nate Millington and Suraya Scheba. (2020). Day Zero and the Infrastructures of Climate Change: Water Governance, Inequality, and Temporality in Cape Town’s Water CrisisInternational Journal of Urban and Regional Research. First published: 30 March 2020.Click for abstract.
    From 2015 to 2018, Cape Town, South Africa, was marked by fears of a water crisis in which the city’s taps threatened to run dry. We argue in this article that Cape Town’s crisis of water scarcity was a product of the convergence of ongoing contradictions in South African water governance as they came into contact with shifting infrastructural priorities associated with climate change. In its response to the possibility of a financial crisis brought on by reduced water consumption, the city withdrew the universal provision of free basic water (FBW) and reconfigured existing tariff structures. Both changes meant that the city moved further into commercialization and valuation practices in the context of restricted monetary flows. Based on an understanding of contemporary governance in South Africa as reflective of an often contradictory need to balance municipal budgets while also correcting for apartheid inequities, we argue that ongoing experiences of climate change are stretching existing municipal budgets in ways that threaten to deepen existing inequalities. Ultimately, we suggest that Cape Town’s crisis is critical for understanding how climate change is reconfiguring existing governance dynamics at a planetary scale, thus offering insights into what form urban climate change adaptation may take in the future.
  • Swyngedouw, Erik, and Henrik Ernstson. (2018). “Interrupting the Anthropo-ObScene: Immuno-Biopolitics and Depoliticizing Ontologies in the Anthropocene.” Theory, Culture & Society 35 (6): 3–30.Click for abstract.
    This paper argues that ‘the Anthropocene’ is a deeply depoliticizing notion. This de-politicization unfolds through the creation of a set of narratives, what we refer to as ‘AnthropoScenes’, which broadly share the effect of off-staging certain voices and forms of acting. Our notion of the Anthropo-obScene is our tactic to both attest to and undermine the depoliticizing stories of ‘the Anthropocene’. We first examine how various AnthropoScenes, while internally fractured and heterogeneous, ranging from geo-engineering and earth system science to more-than-human and object-oriented ontologies, place things and beings, human and non-human, within a particular relational straitjacket that does not allow for a remainder or constitutive outside. This risks deepening an immunological biopolitical fantasy that promises adaptive and resilient terraforming, an earth system management of sorts that permits life as we know it to continue for some, while turning into a necropolitics for others. Second, we develop a post-foundational political perspective in relation to our dramatically changing socio-ecological situation. This perspective understands the political in terms of performance and, in an Arendtian manner, re-opens the political as forms of public-acting in common that subtracts from or exceeds what is gestured to hold socio-ecological constellations together. We conclude that what is off-staged and rendered obscene in ‘the AnthropoScenes’ carries precisely the possibility of a return of the political.

PhD theses

  • Stokes, Kathleen. 2020. “Waste Labour and Infrastructural Citizenship: Promises and Perils of State-Led Community Waste Initiatives in South African Cities.” PhD thesis, Department of Geography, The University of Manchester. Advisors: Erik Swyngedouw, Kevin Ward, and Henrik Ernstson.
  • Anesu, Makina. (title to be added). PhD thesis, Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability, University of Oklahoma. Advisor: Mary Lawhon.

Books, chapters and edited volumes

  • Lawhon, Mary, with Lene Le Roux, Anesu Makina, and Yaffa Truelove. 2020. Making Urban Theory: Learning and Unlearning through Southern Cities. Abingdon & New York: Routledge. Click for abstract.
    This book facilitates more careful engagement with the production, politics and geography of knowledge as scholars create space for the inclusion of southern cities in urban theory. Making Urban Theory addresses debates of the past fifty years regarding whether and why scholars should conceptualize southern cities as different and argues for the continued importance of unlearning existing theory. With examples from the urban question to environmental justice, urban infrastructure to basic income, this volume highlights the limitations of existing explanations as well as how thinking from the south entails more than collecting data in new places. Throughout the book, instances of juxtapositions, unease, unlearning and learning anew emphasize how theory-making from southern cases can open avenues to more creative possibilities. The book pulls theories apart, examining distinct components to better understand the universality and provinciality of empirical phenomena, causality and norms, including questions of what a city is and ought to be. This book delivers a clearer articulation of ongoing debates and future possibilities for southern urban scholarship, and it will thus be relevant for both scholars and students of Urban Studies, Urban Theory, Urban Geography, Research Methods in Geography, Postcolonial/Southern Cities and Global Cities at graduate and post-graduate levels.
  • Ernstson, Henrik, and Erik Swyngedouw, eds. 2019. Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-Obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities. Abingdon & New York: Routledge.Click for abstract.
    Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities centres on how to organize anew the articulation between emancipatory theory and political activism. Across its theoretical and empirical chapters, written by leading scholars from anthropology, geography, urban studies, and political science, the book explores new political possibilities that are opening up in an age marked by proliferating contestations, sharpening socio-ecological inequalities, and planetary processes of urbanization and environmental change. A deepened conversation between urban environmental studies and political theory is mobilized to chart a radically new direction for the field of urban political ecology and cognate disciplines: What could emancipatory politics be about in our time? What does a return of the political under the aegis of equality and freedom signal today in theory and in practice? How do political movements emerge that could re-invent equality and freedom as actually existing socio-ecological practices? The hope is to contribute discussions that can expand and rearrange critical environmental studies to remain relevant in a time of deepening depoliticization and the rise of post-truth politics. Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene will be of interest to postgraduates, established scholars, and upper level undergraduates from any discipline or field with an interest in the interface between the urban, the environment, and the political, including: geography, urban studies, environmental studies, and political science.
  • Ernstson, Henrik, and Sverker Sörlin, eds. 2019. Grounding Urban Natures: Histories and Futures of Urban Ecologies, Cambridge: MIT Press. The book won the MIT Press Library Award. #OpenAccess.Click for abstract.
    The global discourse around urban ecology tends to homogenize and universalize, relying on such terms as “smart cities,” “eco-cities,” and “resilience,” and proposing a “science of cities” based largely on information from the Global North. Grounding Urban Natures makes the case for the importance of place and time in understanding urban environments. Rather than imposing a unified framework on the ecology of cities, the contributors use a variety of approaches across a range of of locales and timespans to examine how urban natures are part of—and are shaped by—cities and urbanization. Grounding Urban Natures offers case studies from cities on five continents that demonstrate the advantages of thinking comparatively about urban environments. The contributors consider the diversity of urban natures, analyzing urban ecologies that range from the coastal delta of New Orleans to real estate practices of the urban poor in Lagos. They examine the effect of popular movements on the meanings of urban nature in cities including San Francisco, Delhi, and Berlin. Finally, they explore abstract urban planning models and their global mobility, examining real-world applications in such cities as Cape Town, Baltimore, and the Chinese “eco-city” Yixing.