In Conversation with Edgar Pieterse: The Malleability of Planning?

Writing and feature visual by Khensani de Klerk

This week I had the humble honor of having a sit-down conversation with South African Research Chair in Urban Policy and Director of research hub African Centre for Cities, Edgar Pieterse. Pieterse is also consulting editor for magazine Cityscapes: Re-thinking Urban Things. The idea to have a conversation with Pieterse has been on Matri-Archi’s list of “people to speak to” for a while now. At the same time, I am an Honours student in City Planning and was tasked with having to interview a “planner” so the moment was ripe with opportunity. Granted Pieterse is not a planner per say, my rst instinct led me to interview him for a few reasons:

There is an in nite amount to be learnt from such a proli c thinker who is able to shift between various scales along the design spectrum.

Part of my curiosity as a designer lies in the interface between planning theory and practice and how we begin to actualize the in- tangible into the tangible; furthermore the nature in which these two notions constantly speak to one another. I can imagine other designers have this same curiosity.

Essentially this conversation is the beginning of a pragmatic investigation into looking at how policy affects South African city plan- ning, and Apartheid cities, which we currently unquestionably occupy. Edgar and I had a 30-minute conversation, which transcribed into quite a lot of reading. Consequently, the conversation below has been shortened in order to articulate the most poignant points that emerged.



Thank you for meeting up and having a conversation Edgar. I decided to interview you because of the fact that you are not a planner, but a practitioner involved and invested in the discourse of urbanism in South Africa; through policy shaping, the act of regulating: A strange paradox in the psychological hangover South Africa faces with historical oppression and present socio-spatial political turbulence. I have also avidly researched most of your work online and looked into all of the critiques, blurbs and “abouts” beyond the content of your work. So, having said all of this, how do you place yourself within planning theory?

I don’t talk of myself as being a planner, even though a lot of the work that I do is on the policy end of planning. I do both research and policy development on a metropolitan scale and strategic planning. I’ve done quite a bit of research and engagement with regard to Cape Town and I have an ongoing research project to analyse various planning instruments deployed in Johannesburg. Furthermore, a lot of my other research and advisory work is in the domain of Urban Policy Frameworks at a national, continental, and global scale. That stems from a fundamental interest in how political power operates, and asking how one exercises a multiplic- ity of pressure points at the same time as a way of affecting change at the local and global scale; a symbiotic process.

For example, if you take a notion of “the right to the city”, it is a discourse that is not re ected in the constitution of the city but it is implicit in a rights based conceptualization of access to a minimum basket of services and goods which all citizens and residents are entitled to. Of course, the right to the city as a concept denotes a sort of political assumption about right bearing citizens that has a stronger assumption of proactive agency in that it assumes that rights are achieved through striving for them as opposed to them being bestowed.

Of course, policy circulates relentlessly. There can be a downside to this when really regressive ideas get taken for “best practice” by the governments and often they can be highly problematic when applied out of context. This is the case because often, policies come from contexts that are so different that the simplistic translation into the applied context makes little sense. In other words, policy is never something that is uncomplicated and uncontested. There is a fundamental link between resources and political forces to effect local change and policy frames. My work is very much about how you do that translation and ACC is structured in a similar fashion of translation.

I nd that symbiotic relationship very interesting: where in you shift between these various scales. I recently read the Art of Shaping the Metropolis by Pedro Ortiz which seems to translate a lot into what you’ve just spoken about. There is plenty to be said about how various stakeholders holding different capacities of power speak to one another on a socio-economic and political scale spec- trum; and more interestingly the implications that their actions have on the scales above and below them. Speaking from the lens of a black woman in a currently spatial and political identity contested South Africa, I, amongst many other aspiring intellectuals at university have observed the tendency of institutions to measure themselves in proximity to a Eurocentric/Global North model. Is there any explicit identi cation of how the Global South Theory feeds the post-colonial idea of Eurocentricism in planning policy discourse? Would you say that we are still following the path of falling into the “Global South”? Johannesburg classi es itself as a “world-class” city, what does that mean? These are things that I’m very interested in investigating and so I apologise for the deluge.

One is never fully formed as a researcher and one’s theoretical standpoints are always changing and growing. And so, if you take the very Eurocentric stuff in planning theory, like the Planetary Urbanism body of work that is highly in uential at the moment, you pri- oritise an understanding of capital accumulation, which is driven by speci c data sets about value, assets, and circulation of money. In that sense there is a link between theories, their data priorities and the information they invoke.


Given the scale and the challenges of the Global South, we don’t have the luxury to do endless theoretical gymnastics which seems to me to be where Western philosophy has been xated for the past 20 to 30 years. And so, there is the urgency of the historical burden of injustice that you have to think through pragmatic imperatives of how you do things, which in turn demands a philosoph- ical grounding and always holds theoretical implications in ected by place, history and multidimensional spaces. And I do think that the pragmatism strands in Western philosophy can be helpful in fostering our Southern epistemic project.

Our contextual condition is marked by the fact that there is a constitutive complexity if you address historical layers along with the range of pressing contemporary questions. Due to the multiplicity of issues and the enormous institutional variability, there is just no way that you can resolve what to do next in an absolute way. You can have a sense, but not an absolute solution. And so it is import- ant to draw on disciplines within the humanities that helps us in an existential sense to think about the registers of life and aesthetics; and that sort of tempers the nature of being able to think pragmatically. In the nal analysis it is about allowing oneself to inhabit that tension between aesthetics and pragmatism and move between various types of data. This sensibility precludes dogmatism or xity.

It’s a complex network that evidently requires multi-disciplinary strategies and quite frankly, wisdom and patience. I ask this next question assuming that you may challenge it. How would you de ne a “better” Cape Town City? What interventions or types of interventions do you feel should be implemented in order for a just Cape Town to exist/grow?

In 2014, my collaborator, Tau Tavengwa and I, put together an exhibition around 10 thematics to tell the stories of eleven Capetown- ians through the prism of their everyday lives. We used photography and lm to intimate that their lives are beyond the one-dimen- sional sense of being that textual representation affords. We also used quantitative data trends to emphasize the thematics, which in turn was folded into rich non- ction journalistic accounts, drawing on the power of narrative. This practice that manifested in the City Desired exhibition is emblematic of how I think about your question. There’s obviously a long list of things that we can do to change things, but in the case of the exhibition we took on the conceit of saying that if there’s one thing practical thing we can change, it is this or that, depending on the topic.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that it is always possible to name speci c actions to effect change, but in the nal analysis you need movements and coalitions, anchored by shared narratives. These do not arrive automatically but must always be built. It’s a different kind of work to prescription. I can recite policy “solutions” and frameworks in my sleep but in order for things to work they have to have political and cultural resonance, and that is never a technocratic exercise. You’ve got to be in conversations, involved with other people. It has to be co-produced across different elds of knowledge and practice. In a setting where certain identities are dominant, which is the norm in a place like Cape Town, one has to confront this question: how does one destabilize the setting and at the same time build alternative perspectives and create movements for change across different institutional arenas?

A very provocative, daunting and real question I feel. I suppose, from a personal perspective of the youth involved in #FeesMustFall currently challenging the hegemonic institutionalism of fundamental pillars of “functional” South African society, I wish I had the an- swer. The challenge for me, is the multiplicity of human morale, with its frequent association to particular identity groups with varying societial power coupled with the increasing clashing of these morale by virtue of their roots being con ictory.

Bringing me to the next question, that sparked from your mentioning of the interface between the pragmatism of planning and the process of setting conversations up to create shared narratives, particularly in a context where many narratives are con icting. Policy, through my lens, seems to be quite de ned and absolute, and so I am trying to nd out whether the way in which you work speaks to the malleability of planning policy?


Policy is an artefact. So, you’ve got to understand that part of the logic of policy is to appear certain, permanent and absolute; but that’s part of its logic. Because policy is always profoundly unstable and vulnerable, it has to put that certainty on the foreground. The assumption has to be that this policy artefact is malleable, and it can be changed, destabilized and improved.

I think the challenge is that many people aren’t adept at knowing how to do that without destroying the very idea that you do need policy to allow various institutions to function in a consistent way to solve various problems. As a result, what often happens is that people think that they have to abandon the very idea that policy is required. For some, the demonization of policy is the essence of radical politics. This is clearly misplaced because radical politics is actually about dismantling a particular interpretation; an effective policy can provide an alternative imagination. A lot of radical movements are clear on the destabilization part but the re-imagination is a challenge. Sometimes when you listen to activists they display a pathological fear of codifying claims into policy because you may feel like you are becoming part of what you are ghting against. And that schizophrenia and radical impulse is something to always and constantly wrestle with.

So, to answer your question: to take policy’s sense of certainty at face value would be to give it to much power.



  1. Edgar Pieterse, Audio interview, May 5th 2017


More Reading/Watching:

  1. Siona O’Connell , “An Impossible Return”, 2015
  2. Pedro Ortiz, The Art of Shaping the Metropolis, 2013
  3. Cityscapes: Re-thinking Urban Things





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