Quiet Conflict: Social Movements, Institutional Change & Upgrading Informal Settlements in South Africa

by James Tayler

Ben Bradlow has worked with Shack/Slum Dwellers International and the SA Alliance since 2009. Ben’s thesis considers the experience of the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) in building coalitions of the urban poor and partnerships with local government, which he calls the “Quiet Conflict”. During his time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): International Development Group where he studied Master’s in City Planning, Ben was active in promoting critical thinking of African urbanism and co-founded the UrbanAfrica group, and a MIT student group on planning and development issues in African cities. For his active contribution to learning, Ben was rewarded with the “Harold Horwitz Research Fellowship” by MIT School of Architecture & Planning and received an  ”Honourable mention for intellectual contribution”. The SA Alliance is proud to showcase Ben’s research.


The South African government’s attempts to provide land and housing for the poor have been focused primarily on interventions at the policy level and within internal state bureaucracies. But experiences of social movements for land and housing have shown that significant opportunities for formal institutional change occur through relationships of both contestation and collaboration between such movements and state institutions, especially at the local level. Such a relatively underexplored mechanism of institutional reform enables us to understand exactly how such change processes gain legitimacy and potency. This thesis draws on case studies of two recent, formalized partnerships between grassroots social movements and local authorities in the metropolitan municipality of Cape Town and the municipality of Stellenbosch. The studies examine exactly how such relationships create the space for both conflict and collaboration between communities and city government. They are based on semi-structured interviews with government officials, community, and movement leaders, and participant observations of engagements between the movements and city authorities in January and June-August 2012. The evidence suggests that theories of the state and institutional change require much greater attention to the multiple ways in which social movements interact with the state in order to realize rights of access to land and housing. The contingent endowments of these actors allow them to be more or less able to trigger institutional reform processes. When change has occurred, collaboration has been essential. But these cases also highlight the value of a credible threat of conflict based on city-wide mobilization, no matter how quietly such a threat lurks in the background. Policy interventions in the urban land and housing sector in South Africa, pitched as rational bureaucratic recipes, are unlikely to realize such rights without institutionalized engagements, especially at the city level, with organized social movements of the landless urban poor that articulate both conflictual and collaborative tendencies.

Read the full thesis here. (1.4 MB)