Is (in)access to infrastructure driven by physical delivery or weak governance? Power and knowledge asymmetries in infrastructure governance in Cape Town, South Africa

Anika Nasra Haque, Charlotte Lemanski, Jiska de Groot

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite widespread scholarly recognition that infrastructure delivery and consumption is as much a sociopolitical
process as a technical-material product, global development agendas (e.g. United Nations’ Sustainable
Development Goals) continue to prioritise the universal provision of public infrastructure as a static transfer
of physical goods/services without explicit recognition of their socio-political dimensions. This paper explores
the everyday ways in which citizens negotiate public infrastructure delivery and access, situated in a global
South context of extreme inequality and limited state capacity. Using a case study of two low-income settlements
in Cape Town with differing infrastructure provision, we demonstrate how governance processes can undermine
the physical delivery of infrastructure. While participatory governance remains a core policy mechanism to
democratise service delivery, in practice the capacity of citizens to participate is affected by power and
knowledge asymmetries that function both within and between communities and the state. These asymmetric
power relations and knowledge flows contribute to clientelistic politics that not only limit citizen engagement in
participatory governance, but actively undermine low-income urban dwellers’ access to services that have been
physically delivered and targeted to meet their needs. Framed by a case study of energy interventions, we
conclude that widening access to public infrastructure requires significant investment in effective governance
processes for low-income urban dwellers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)48-58
Number of pages11
Early online date31 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2021

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