Daily Practices of Informality Amidst Urban Poverty by Philip Harrison, Edgar Pieterse, Suraya Scheba and Margot Rubin brings together the work of two case studies: research on the Hillbrow basements, in Johannesburg Inner City, undertaken by researchers associated with the South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning (SA&CP) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and housing conditions in Delft undertaken in association with the South African Research Chair in Urban Policy and the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town. The work formed part of the Nelson Mandela Initiative (NMI) which explored multiple dimensions of poverty and inequality in South Africa.

A key preoccupation of the NMI was with understanding “why it had not proved possible to give effect to the promised constitutional rights as quickly as we had hoped and expected”. In exploring this question the NMI arranged a series of deliberations culminating in a two-day conference in February 2018. Importantly, however, the NMI ensured that these deliberations were built on a strong empirical base backed by targeted research on different dimensions of poverty and inequality.

The contribution of this report is the empirical support to an argument that South Africa is struggling to address problems of poverty and inequality because many of the processes that shape vulnerability and opportunity in people’s lives are unrecognized or rejected by the state. In some instances, the state is actively hostile to processes that operate at least partly outside its reach, but in other cases social vulnerability is reproduced by state ambivalence towards informality or simply by an inability of the state to know what to do in these contexts.

This report is prepared as a constructive contribution to dealing with tough policy choices. The work is empathetic towards policy makers, recognizing the extraordinary difficulties in managing complex urban environments. It does, however, make it clear that unless the state finds a way to engage positively with the actual processes shaping lives and spaces in the city, solutions to poverty and inequality will remain elusive. As Hornby et al (2017) argue, the myriad and complex ways in which people live their lives are often rendered invisible, leaving formal policy as a weak instrument in influencing processes in urban and rural areas.

The report asks a set of questions around: how people live their lives (for example, how they access housing, livelihoods and services); how they engage with each other; how they engage with the state; what spaces they use; and, how these spaces are regulated. Through these questions we explore the multiple forms of informality, and the connections between them; and, also the ways in which formal and informal activities and governance processes connect and disconnect.

The report was prepared with a specific commitment to explore people’s lives in an open ended way without either romanticizing or demeaning informality.

“Our aim was to observe people’s lives as best as we could, identifying practices that support or hinder their efforts at living meaningful lives. “Informality” is the term we have at hand but it is an inadequate term in relation to the multiple forms of activity it embraces and the complex relationships it has with “formality”. Although we use the term we do so with an understanding of its limits, and with the hope that a new vocabulary will evolve that relates more precisely to the actual nature of people’s lives.”

Download the full report here.