In Conversation with Edgar Pieterse: The Malleability of Planning?

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 South African 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 first instinct led me to interview him for a few reasons:


  1. There is an infinite amount to be learnt from such a prolific thinker who can shift between various scales along the design spectrum.
  2. Part of my curiosity as a designer lies in the interface between planning theory and practice and how we actually begin to actualize the intangible into the tangible, and how the two constantly speak to once 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 planning, and Apartheid cities, which we currently unquestionably occupy. Edgar and I had a 30 minute conversation, which transcribed into quite a lot of reading. So the conversation below has been shortened in order to articulate the moist poignant points that emerged.


K :       Thank you for meeting up and having a conversation Edgar. I decided to sort of interview you because you are not simply 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 existence. I have also stalked all 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’m just going to go right ahead with the first question then: When addressing a particular project, how do you shift between the global and local scale, if so at all?


E:         To give you a little bit of an overview as to how I situate myself in this all: So part of it is that I don’t talk of myself as being a planner, and so 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 with regards to Cape Town and part of my ongoing research is to analyze that planning instrument in the case of Johannesburg. A lot of the work is then Urban Policy Frameworks at a national, continental, and global scale. That stems from a fundamental everything which stems from how political power operates, and asking how one exercises a multiplicity of pressure points at the same time as a way of affecting change at the local and global scale? – And that is a symbiotic process.

For example if you take a notion of “the right to the city”; that discourse is not reflected 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 sort of agency component to it in that assumes that rights are achieved through striving for them as opposed to them being in doubt. That sense of agency isn’t in our constitution in a way.

Of course policy circulates and that has a downside when really regressive ideas get taken for best practice by the government and often they can be highly problematic. This is the case because often, policies come from contexts that are so different that the simplistic translation into the applied context makes no sense. So policy is not 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.


K:        I find that symbiotic relationship very interesting: where you shift between these various scales. I recently read the Art of Shaping the Metropolis by Pedro Ortiz and I think it translates a lot into what you’ve just spoken about. There is a lot to be said as to how characters with various capacities of power speak to one another and what implications their actions have on scales above and below. And so speaking from the lens of a black woman in the current contested space that is South Africa, I find that there is a tendency of institutions to measure themselves in proximity to a Eurocentric/Global North model. Is there any explicit identification of how the Global South Theory is feeding 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 classifies itself as a “world-class” city, what does that mean? These are things that I’m very interested in investigating.


E:         One is never fully formed as a researcher and ones theoretical standpoints are always changing and growing. And so if you take the very Eurocentric stuff in planning theory, like the Planetary Urbanism stuff, you get an understanding of capital accumulation, which is driven by specific data sets- value, assets, and circulation of money. So there’s a link between theories, their data sets and the information they invoke.

Given the scale and the challenges of the Global South, we don’t have the luxury to do all of this endless theoretical gymnastics where Western philosophy has been the main thing for the past few 20 to 30 years. And so there’s such an urgency of historical burden of injustice that you have to think through pragmatically of how you do things. And I do think there is a very useful pragmatism in philosophy that is helpful in getting there.

But there is equally a constitutive complexity both if you think in terms of historical layers and the range of contemporary questions, that there’s 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 its important to draw on the humanities tradition which 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. So it’s really about allowing oneself to inhabit that tension and move between various data- and that’s not a fixed field.


K:        I ask this question knowing assuming that you will challenge it. How would you define 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?


E:         In 2014, Tau Tavengwa and I, who collaborate, put together 10 thematics to tell the stories of 10 Cape Townians and their everyday lives. We used photography and film to animate and intimate that their lives are beyond the one-dimensional sense of the text. And then quantitative data was used to emphasize the thematics- journalists followed their lives for 6 weeks. This is emblematic of how I think about your question. There’s obviously a long list of things that we can do to change things, so in the case of the exhibition we took on the conceit of saying that if there’s one thing we can change it’s this.

So I can think in very specific and different ways but I know that in order to affect change you need movements: and you need coalitions and narratives and you’ve go to build a shared narrative. It’s a different kind of work. I can tell you all about policy in my sleep but in order for things to work they have to have political and cultural resonance, and that’s not a technocratic exercise. You’ve got to be in conversations, involved with other people. It has to be co-produced across the fields. In a setting where certain identities are dominant, which is the norm, how do you destabilize the setting and at the same time build alternative perspectives and create movements for change in different institution settings?


K:        Something that has stood out to me from what you’ve said is this idea 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 conflicting. Policy through my lens seems to be quite defined and absolute, and so I am trying to find out whether the way in which you work speaks to the malleability of planning policy?


E:         Policy is an artifact. So you’ve got to understand that part of the logic of policy is to appear certain and defined and clear and permanent and absolute- but that’s part of its logic. Because policy is always profoundly unstable and vulnerable, it has to kind of put that certainty on the foreground. So the assumption has to be that this thing is malleable, and it can be changed, and destabilized and improved and so forth.

I think the challenge is that many people aren’t adept to 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. So what often happens is that people think that they have to abandon the very idea that policy goes, and that’s what radical politics means right? But actually it’s about dismantling a particular interpretation; an effective policy can provide an alternative imagination of another or developed policy. A lot of the radical movements are very clear on the destabilization but the re-imagination… there’s almost a pathological fear of codifying into policy because you may feel like you are becoming part of what you are fighting 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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