Urban Forum

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 233–243 | Cite as

Discourses of Infrastructure and Citizenship in Post-Apartheid Soweto

  • Alex Wafer


In this article, I locate Soweto at the epicentre of the changing relationship between state infrastructural capacity on the one hand, and imaginations of citizenship on the other. Far from the ‘hidden’ or merely technical functioning of urban governance, infrastructure has always been central to the urban politics and everyday life of townships in South Africa. The infrastructural capacity of the apartheid state entrenched the segregated apartheid urban system, and was simultaneously the target of political protest in the 1980s. Infrastructure plays a significant role in political expectations in post-apartheid South Africa. Through policies such as the Reconstruction and Development Program and Developmental Local Government, the post-apartheid state has attempted to re-frame citizenship of South Africans, especially in townships, through the provision of housing and basic services. The emergence, therefore, of service delivery protests in townships and informal settlements in the early 2000s marked the possible limits of a post-apartheid citizenship. Based on field research conducted in Soweto in the mid 2000s, and a number of follow-up interviews in 2010 and 2011, I trace the shifting relationship between infrastructure and citizenship as it emerges in the everyday life of contemporary Soweto. I show how electricity disconnections by the municipality and state electricity utility Eskom in the early 2000s—and the subsequent protests they sparked—provided the context for challenging the limits of post-apartheid citizenship. Residents of Soweto were able to link the ‘hidden’ infrastructure of electricity cables and wires to a particular narrative of place. Returning to Soweto in 2010, in the midst of protest action against water prepaid metres in Phiri neighbourhood, issues of access to basic services, housing evictions and unemployment still characterise the everyday life of Soweto. As with protests against electricity disconnections, protests against water prepaid metres have linked urban infrastructure to articulations of citizenship that reside in particular narratives of place. But so too do newer forms of ‘consumer citizenship’, particularly in the form of a new shopping mall that was opened in 2008, and which stands in stark contrast to the politics of basic services.


Soweto Township Infrastructure Protest Local government Service delivery 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.African Centre for Migration and SocietyWits UniversityJohannesburgSouth Africa
  2. 2.Max Planck Institute for the study of Religious and Ethnic DiversityGoettingenGermany

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