Understanding change in local states through the lens of history

Noor NieftagodienProfessor Noor Nieftagodien’s work is centred on local histories and how it affects the present realities of South African citizens. While being deeply political, he attempts to comprehend a set of problems through a historical lens, looking at how state practices of the past have shaped how we are today.

Nieftagodien takes us through a brief history of locations and how their governance was formed through the years, from the municipal locations created in the 1920s and the advisory boards which were elected to advise the white government, to the Urban Bantu Councils which were linked to the Homelands in the 1960s.

“The Bantustans are not dead,” he says. Perhaps the architecture has changed and on paper they do not exist, but if you look at the police and other institutions, the same systems are in place. “The past is very present in relation to the state,” he says, quickly clarifying that he does not mean that nothing has changed since apartheid, but that we need to be sensitive to issues of continuity.

It’s important to understand that while these forms of governance were in place to enforce control over black people during apartheid, they also have an effect today. These councils created by the apartheid government undermined the organic ability of governance developing in townships, and undermined local authorities.  When state strategies for controlling the urban black population fell apart, the state immediately resorted to coercion, violence and force. Nieftagodien argues that there are important continuities in the way the state interacts with poor black people in their localities. He suggests that we have to have a sense of transition and history in order to understand why the problems the country faces today happen as they do.

However, in looking at the past in order to understand the present, we cannot only focus on certain parts of the country. Academic research on South Africa tends to focus on our main metropolitan areas such as Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. The problems and successes of these places are read as a template to understanding the whole of South Africa, despite the population of these places being in the minority. As Nieftagodien’s research shows, not all the people that live in these areas consider it home. His work is therefore focussed on areas outside the metropolitan cities.

In researching the challenges faced in South Africa, Nieftagodien found that the idea of a failed state is being used as an explanatory framework. According to Nieftagodien,his concern is that it does not really tell us what is happening at a local level. “Local state is transforming in a way that we need to give attention to and that we don’t understand,” he says. Limpopo, in particular, has seen incredible growth due to mining developments in the area. The town of Lephalale, which many South Africans do not even know of, has the highest property value increase rate after Camps Bay in the Western Cape. That land on which new mining is taking place is owned by traditional authorities, who are now becoming stakeholders in mining companies, and this has political consequences. There are greater contestations over who is chief of an area, as well as an influence on the relations between the chief and the people of the area if the chief is to sell land that is considered communal land. The traditional authorities are linked to deriving significant amounts of income independent of the state, which reshapes the political economy of the area and has an impact on power struggles in the country.

Nieftagodien’s explanation of how this change in areas outside the main metropolitan cities affects the future of South Africa can be found in his talk below.

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