Micro-Politics and Neighbourhood Organizing in a Sphere of Informality: The Formation of Leadership Committees in Three Informal Settlements in Cape Town

Drivdal, L. Diss. (2014). Micro-Politics and Neighbourhood Organizing in a Sphere of Informality: The Formation of Leadership Committees in Three Informal Settlements in Cape Town. (Doctoral thesis). Cape Town, South Africa: Univerisy of Cape Town.

Cape Town
Publication type
Academic thesis
CityLab Programme
Laura Drivdal
Published year



This thesis examines the politics of leadership organizing in three informal settlements in Cape Town. Building on the facts that internal informal settlement politics is tense and leadership organizing fragmented and fluid, I focus on the politics of leadership organizing as internal negotiations of how leadership should be organized and what institutional logics should be adapted. The main argument is that the politics of leadership organizing consist of balancing bureaucratic and democratic logics, which are not an act of mimicking or decoupling, but have evolved through historical and context specific discursive practises. The tensions and political negotiations around how to balance these essentially conflicting logics concern to what degree the committees and leaders should engage in bureaucratic and administrative efforts securing order and development, or focus on internal mediation and democratic procedures to keep conflicts at bay.

By analysing leadership, organizing and politics at the informal settlement scale, the thesis is not only covering an empirical gap but also making a contribution to a niche of urban studies grappling with neighbourhood politics in South Africa. In order to contribute to these attempts and explore the politics of organizing, I suggest moving beyond instrumental and outcome descriptions of ‘politics of the belly’, leaders as heroes or villains, and organizations as rational. Instead seeing politics as a means-to-an-end and as arena specific, inspired by a mixture of new-institutionalism and Arendt’s philosophy, I frame politics as a human process of defining common concerns and negotiations over how these should be dealt with through specific ways of organizing. Interlinked with this, a social constructive process approach to organizations and leadership enables an analysis of the grounded symbolical sides of organizing practices and models. Further, within the framework of institutional pluralism, leadership politics entails the acts of balancing conflicting institutional logics by adapting and mediating different organizational models and practices.

Applied to analyse empirical insight from following leadership processes in three informal settlements over three years, the thesis provides insight into how the specific urban conditions of South African informal settlements impact on the politics of forming organizations and leadership.

Despite differences between the settlements, leadership practises and ideals displayed a similar focus on bureaucratic and democratic practises and models, indicating that these practises are institutionalised in relation to specific historic and pragmatic needs of urban informal settlements. Also, context specific behavioural norms restrict the conditions for speaking publicly and increase the need to adhere to bureaucratic and democratic logics. However, these logics are essentially conflicting. Hence, as the leadership committees are hybrid organizations in a setting of institutional plurality, leadership politics consist of balancing and adapting these different logics when tensions emerges both between leaders and between residents and leaders.

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