The right to the city: a theory, a slogan, a politics of everyday life

Facebook Twitter Email

Mari HuchzermeyerLast week, Professor Marie Huchzermeyer gave her inaugural lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she is a professor in the School of Architecture and Planning. Her lecture explored the concept of the ‘Right to the City’ as it appeared in the work of Henri Lefebvre and as it appears in the everyday life and politics of shack dwellers in South Africa. The blog includes a link to a PDF and audio file of her original lecture.


In South Africa and in many former colonial countries, the struggle for a right to the city formed an integral part of the fight against colonialism and apartheid. However, the political transitions that followed did not resolve these struggles: As exclusionary legislation was finally repealed, market forces and (more recently) the relentless drive to attract global investors have been barring the poor from living and making a livelihood in the city, and from having any meaningful involvement in shaping it.

Today, as in colonial and apartheid times, informal or shack settlements remain a form of defiance in the face of that exclusion. Richard Pithouse, who works closely with South African shack dwellers’ movements, has written about the very long history of their part in the struggle for the right to the city. In post-apartheid South Africa, ongoing urban repression, exclusionary forces, and the state’s inability to overcome the highest urban inequality on the globe, means that the shackdwellers’ sustained struggle for city rights must continue.

It is fascinating that in the 1960s, when the demand for a right to the city expressed itself in struggles from below in South Africa and many former colonies, a French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre was also, unrelatedly, challenging dominant scholarly and political thinking in France by articulating and theorizing a ‘right to the city’.

Lefebvre’s publications on the right to the city were only translated into English after 1996, and still only in part. A much-belated Anglophone debate has ensued in recent years.  Many argue that Lefebvre’s ideas have been trivialized and corrupted. The reality is though, that they are being used in many different campaigns for a right to the city across the globe.

Working on informal or shack settlements in South Africa, one can hardly ignore the growing ‘right to the city’ movement internationally. Literature on this movement in the north refers directly to Lefebvre’s writings and ideas. But in the more recent adoption of the ‘right to the city’ slogan in the Anglophone Third World, little reference is made to Lefebvre himself. With a few exceptions, the meaning of this slogan is taken for granted.

In my inaugural lecture last week titledHumanism, creativity and rights: invoking Henri Lefebvre’s right to the city in the tension presented by informal settlements in South Africa today’, I decided to go back to Lefebvre’s own writing. Despite the fact that Lefebvre was writing in a postwar European context, he provided us with concepts that are relevant to our understanding of informal settlements and to constructive mobilization around related issues in South Africa today. These concepts, however, are often overlooked.

In unpacking Lefebvre’s writing in this way and placing it in the South African context, it was surprising to see how a particular shack dwellers’ movement in South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo, has been evoking the right to the city in a Lefebvrian sense, perhaps far more so than academic discourse has to date. Take, for example, the value that Lefebvre places on the process of ‘inhabiting’ and on the everyday, with all its contradictions. Or, his  insistence that roles should be reversed in the synthesis that informs planning decisions. All these elements are deeply engrained in Abahlali baseMjondolo’s own philosophy. These commitments have driven the movement, since its founding in 2005, to engage in an extremely difficult (often life threatening) but relentless campaign demanding a right to the city.

This aspect of the lecture resonated particularly deeply with around 20 residents from the Makause informal settlement in Ekurhuleni on the eastern side of Johannesburg, who were able to attend the lecture. After the lecture, their sms comment to me was ‘Amandla2the Right2the Cities!’.

Editorial note: ‘Amandla’ is a Zulu term for ‘power’.

3 thoughts on “The right to the city: a theory, a slogan, a politics of everyday life

  1. the struggle for informal settlement dwellers in Cape Town South Africa to have houses, toilets, water and sanitation as well as waste removal forms a core challenge, as the provisions of these constitutionally enshrined rights give them not only dignity but it also give them rights to participate as full citizens in the creation and participating in IDP that contributes to the very creation of the City of Cape Town and thus, exercising their Right to the City, a right that has been denied them for 350 years.

  2. The right to the city: a theory, a slogan, a politics of everyday life | Democracy in Africa
    Thank you for some other informative web site.
    Where else may just I am getting that type of information written in such an ideal approach?
    I’ve a undertaking that I am simply now running on, and I
    have been at the glance out for such info.

    Stop by my weblog; help with dissertation writing

  3. Thanks for insightfully articulating these challenges of how the new political dispensation in spite the rhetorics such as “having a good story to tell” had not been succesfull in the arena of not only challenging “organised business” in the housing industry but also allow “market forces” and by extension global investors in the property sector to continuously influence and inflate market prices making it difficult if not impossible for the poor to have a say in either the decisions afecting their city and participating in reconstructing it. Which is their right as city dwellers. These deprivation has extended to the commodification of basic services creating urban sanitaion inequities of basic waste removal and the provision of toilets. These challenges form the basis of my PhD Thesis of the role of Social movements in overcoming these Sanitation Inequities in Cape Town, to ensure their realisation of their Right to the City as articualted by Henri Lefebvre.

Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading