Making sense of the state: citizens and state buildings in South Africa


Trying to understand how states are put together, I’ve been looking at them as physical entities, as bodies. This means exploring state buildings, the state’s most solid manifestations. The huge variety of these – figureheads like parliaments, organs and nerves like government departments, functional parts like local police stations and schools – constitute a complex but apparently coherent state-body.


This idea of the state as a body is an old one. Thomas Hobbes found it a useful analogy to explain how disparate parts of the ‘commonwealth’, varying in size, shape and function, come together into a coherent entity.[i] It’s compelling because it captures the idea of the state as a ‘thing’ that creates meaning and purpose out of messy, contradictory bits of matter, purpose and ability.


The state as a physical, living ‘thing’ is not just a given. Its meaning and authority depend on how citizens engage with it. You might say that citizens bring it to life. This is very difficult to grasp – the state is ambiguous and citizens’ engagements with and feelings about it are even more so. Although the state can appear to be a separate ‘thing’, it is actually entangled in the lives, ideas and discourses of society.


Perhaps ambiguity is part of the secret of its apparent coherence. Jens Bartelson thinks that the state’s ambiguity is what makes it so compelling; and the endless attempts to decipher and critique it are what give it life.[ii]


This is not to suggest that citizens engage in conscious daily critique of the state. But it is to suggest that the state is a powerful part of daily experience, often in subliminal ways, and that citizens are continuously constructing and deconstructing it. In order to try and understand how this works, it helps not only to think about the state as a body of buildings, but to see how citizens engage with it through their bodies – the ways they see and feel its buildings, and how they make meanings out of these bodily encounters.



Union Buildings, Pretoria

In particular, by exploring citizens’ physical encounters with state buildings we can paint a picture of their complicated feelings and thoughts about it; and begin to understand how they help make and unmake it. This borrows from and extends an idea suggested by Jane Jacobs in relation to big buildings.[iii] She points out that buildings are made, not just by architects, engineers and labourers, but by the people who use, reuse and abuse them. They are made into ‘big things’ through physical encounters and the ideas and narratives that emerge around them. I want to use this idea to understand how citizens’ physical encounters with state buildings contribute to making and unmaking the state – a really big thing.


I found evidence for this in a series of discussions about state buildings with groups of South African citizens.[iv] It was striking how people described their different sensory impressions. Some buildings, such as the iconic, prestigious ones like the parliament and the presidential offices, people see from a distance, or on TV. Others, associated with service provision or law enforcement like hospitals and police stations, they feel up-close: people go inside where they touch them and absorb their sounds and smells.


These different sensory engagements produce different accounts of the state.


Descriptions of what people saw were full of historical narrative, metaphor and abstraction. For example, one group of young people from Olievenhoutbosch described the Presidential Union Buildings as ‘the first passport of a black man’; ‘where our history was found’; ‘what we are’.[v] Community workers from the same township said that the Union Buildings were ‘everyone’; ‘the skeleton of this country’; ‘where you get your answer’.[vi] Others dwelt on their association with apartheid, one man for example describing them as ‘the devil’s headquarters’.[vii] The country’s Parliament was described by one woman from Cape Town as a ‘the dark side of what used to be’;[viii] and by community activists in Galeshewe as ‘like an umbrella’ or ‘crutches’ for the country.[ix] The Northern Cape’s regional parliament was described by a woman from Galeshewe as ‘a giant lipstick’.[x] A man from Galeshewe called it a ‘ship’, and explained that the Galeshewe ‘ship’ was much better than the national parliament because it realised Jan van Riebeeck’s original state-vision better than the colonial one had.[xi]


The accounts were sometimes positive, sometimes negative and sometime ambivalent. What they had in common, however, was the way they used descriptions of what the state looked like to map it out in a meaningful way. They jumped from what they saw to metaphors and historical narrative to sort it out, to make connections, to tell stories that all made the state into a thing.


Feelings of familiar buildings that people were used to going inside produced a very different account of the state. Hospitals were ‘dirty’,[xii] where you ‘meet dead people in the lift’,[xiii] or ‘smelled of medicine’.[xiv] Schools were ‘overcrowded and draining’,[xv] cold and uncomfortable because ‘the windows are broken, the desks, you can’t sit there anymore’,[xvi] unsafe and full of crime.[xvii] Police stations were smelly and undignified,[xviii] ‘horrible because you can’t see; it is dark, no lights on, nothing’, a place where ‘the prisoners are sicker than each other’,[xix] and whose internal state of decay and confusion was a direct cause of corruption.[xx]


Their impressions were visceral, with none of the abstraction or objectivity of the outsides of iconic buildings. Such haptic impressions were connected with vulnerability and entanglement: people were disgusted, frightened or reassured. The story was much messier. The state emerged as partial, unfinished and jumbled. It was as if entering the state through its buildings was to begin to find and create an unravelling, an exercise in unmaking of its thingness.


I think that, together, these different sensory registers produce a state that is both rational and orderly and disturbingly ambiguous. Popular narratives are full of ambivalence. They make the state into a thing and pull it apart at the same time.


It would be misleading to suggest that this layered state-thing is unfinished business or an entity teetering between viability and collapse. Rather, like Bartelson, we might understand how critique, constituted here in impressions of making and unmaking, brings the state to life.



Julia’s full article, ‘Making sense of the state: citizens and state buildings in South Africa’, has just been published in Political Geography and is available as a free download here.

[i] Thomas Hobbes Leviathan (New York: Routledge, 2008) [ii] Jens Bartelson The critique of the state (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001) [iii] Jane Jacobs ‘A geography of big things’, Cultural Geographies 2006, 13: 1–27 [iv] The groups were part of fieldwork in South Africa in 2019, carried out in collaboration with Anastasia Slamat and Selemo Nkwe. [v] Youths, Olievenhoutbosch, 18 January [vi] Artists, Galeshewe, 22 January [vii] Library users, 16 January [viii] Civil society group, Cape Town, 31 January [ix] Community activists, Galeshewe, Kimberley, 21 January [x] Youths, Galeshewe, Kimberley, 23 January [xi] Community activists, Galeshewe, Kimberley, 21 January. Van Riebeeck, leader of some of the first European settlers, was appointed as Commander of the Dutch settlement in the Cape, 1652-1662. [xii] Youth group, Cape Town, 24 January [xiii] Workers, Galeshewe, 21 January [xiv] Workers, Galeshewe, 21 January 2019 [xv] Artists, Galeshewe, 22 January [xvi] Adults working in education, Cape Town, 30 January [xvii] Civil society group, Manenberg, Cape Town 29 January [xviii] Youth group, Cape Town, 24 January [xix] Community activists, Lavender Hill, Cape Town, 1 February [xx] Youths, Hillbrow, Johannesburg, 10 January