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Development Studies Research


Environment and Sustainability With deepening recognition of the profound climatic and environmental consequences of human activities, in what is now frequently referred to as the 'anthropocene', one prominent theme of UJ Development Studies research focuses on the interconnected issues of environment and sustainability. These interrelated topics are approached from a critical perspective that challenges dominant assumptions that the environment and its resources can be exploited primarily to serve human societies and economies, and that infinite economic growth can be maintained, as long as sufficient market-based measures are taken to manage 'externalities'.

We are conscious of the damage done by past 'environmentalist' dogma, particularly in fraught colonial and postcolonial contexts where 'modernist' conceptual dichotomies between 'nature' and 'culture' provoked exclusion and alienation from the 'environment' through the dispossession of land in favour of wildlife and nature reserves. Water is also critical here. Necessary for human survival, its commodification by global political and corporate elites (notably in mining, energy and industrial sectors) in pursuit of profit has serious consequences for human use, often exacerbating environmental/social injustices. 

In engaging with scientists around environmental challenges, we also insist that socio-political realities are not addressed instrumentally. For example, we move past seeing water scarcity as simply a bio-physical fact, understanding how it is manufactured in social, political and historical contexts. Alert, therefore, to the deep interdependence and co-existence of humans and animals within shared ecologies, we highlight the urgency of understanding the interrelated social, political, and economic nature of environmental crises. To this end we explore the potential of more radical non-market solutions, such as proposals grounded in understandings of the limits to growth, and the pursuit of environmental justice and ecological debt. Moreover, in this era of triple crisis, we emphasise the conceptual centrality of common property regimes, concerned with shared natural and/or cultural resources, and their governance through specific rules for distribution, preservation, use and development.

Research topics within this field include work on environmental and social justice issues related to the political ecology of water and sanitation across from the local and global scales (Mary Galvin), as well as  research on waste management, environmental justice, and corporate responsibility (Hali Healy), and on the politics of game ranching and land distribution in Zimbabwe and South Africa (Nqobile Zulu).


Land, food and agrarian systems UJ Development Studies recognizes the fundamental place of land, food and agrarian systems across Southern African. Our focus revolves around the investigation of both rural and urban agrarian systems, acknowledging the interplay between the two. Our engagement with questions about the transformation of the agricultural sector goes beyond the investigation of political and social processes to include an interrogation of the progressive realisation of individual and group rights.

The questions we pose relate not only to agrarian reform, the land question and livelihood sustainability, but also to the empowerment of small-scale players in production cycles. Work done within this stream focuses on the contestations in the private wildlife sector, between state and farmers but also between state, farmers and the poor. Here the questions asked relate to land reform, redistribution and land expropriation within the broader agricultural sector.

Taking as a point of departure the interplay between land, food and agrarian systems, our work examines the functioning of value chains, supply lines and ensuring urban food security. We have a particular focus on urban agriculture, indigenous cropping (Hilda Bbenkele), integrated food systems (Naude Malan), land reform and wildlife farming (Nqobile Zulu).

Technology and Diverse Knowledge Systems In the department of UJ Development Studies, we view technology as consisting of tangible and intangible systems, services, processes and artifacts that can be used, adapted or innovated upon. Technologies are always politically and socially significant – shaping thought and action in both profound and everyday, practical and embodied ways.

Research in UJ Development Studies seeks to assess technology in all its shapes and forms,  critically and reflectively, in line with recent developments in the field of Science and Technology Studies. We place attention upon the design, development and implementation of old and new, 'digital' and 'appropriate', technologies, while reflecting historically and theoretically on the changing role technologies play in shaping emergent global and local contexts in order to better address contemporary political and societal challenges.

Technologies and knowledge systems are deeply intertwined and interdependent. Diverse knowledge systems prevail across all communities, societies and cultures. Acknowledging the vitality, uniqueness and diversity of knowledge systems globally, we are cognisant of the injustices often perpetrated against 'indigenous' knowledge systems, especially in colonial and postcolonial contexts. Understanding the politics and power of changing technologies necessarily incorporates attention to the politics of knowledge production. We therefore affirm the value and utility of 'indigenous' and 'local' knowledge systems, even as we recognise the efficacy and benefits of 'modern' scientific knowledge.

We are, however, aware of the importance of moving beyond such polarized divisions between 'opposed' 'forms of knowledge'. We seek to explore, lay bare and move beyond problematic classifications and stratifications of different ways of knowing and diverse technologies. Such as approach is vital in order to explore the collective and emergent nature of all knowledge practices and technology, for the larger purpose of generating knew forms of innovative, collaborative, and more symmetrical forms of intellectual production and sharing. We recognise this as part of the fundamental challenges and opportunities afforded by the '4th Industrial Revolution', in the contemporary context of deepening global environmental and social crises.

We aim to contextualize different and entangled knowledge systems, and to critically adapt and innovate upon them in order to address contemporary social challenges. We are actively engaged in developing new knowledge systems through our own research, teaching and community engagement, even as we reflect critically upon particular knowledge practices that have become inherent to the development imperative. This is the case for example for building an understanding of the utility and effectiveness of approaches to monitoring and evaluation (Hilda Bbenkele), a key element in the Development Studies "toolkit". The iZindaba Zokudla Farmers' Lab (Naude Malan) for example, is leading the way in constructing new knowledge and technologies for the development of a sustainable urban food system in parts of Johannesburg. Another critical area of work is (Larry Onyango's) re-assessment of  the role of new communication technologies in challenging entrenched poverty among marginalized youth in Johannesburg.


Development and Political Economy UJ Development Studies recognises the crucial role and effects of power, economics and politics in determining the trajectory and pace of development. Indeed, questions of political economy, inequality and governance underlie all the themes discussed here. To this end, we explore how development processes are often sites of struggle, conditioned by strategies of accumulation, distribution and restriction of resources among both powerful and less powerful groups in society. Such struggles are nearly always at once both economic and political, hence the classical idea of 'political economy' is deeply embedded in our research.

Societies across the global south consist of a diversity of different political and economic systems, in various modes of change, and this inevitably makes 'development studies' more complex than the 'northern' models from which much of the discipline's theory derives. Thus, we take a critical approach to the often derivative and normative ideas that constitute much conventional development discourse. To this end our work is based both on careful theoretical argumentation and strong empirical research, drawing on a broad and historically deep range of perspectives to interrogate socio-political and economic issues in developing countries. We focus especially on southern Africa, but engage with comparative studies from across the global south, including Asia and Latin America. 

In order to understand how political economy matters for understanding development, we have a particular focus on governance systems (i.e. relationships within and between states, classes, political groups, international financial institutions, transnational corporations, institutions such as non-governmental organisations, and the ideological underpinnings of all of these) and their impact on the socio-economic transformations constituting 'development' (David Moore). Our research also interrogates poverty and inequality as development challenges, exploring the different policy debates that derive from interactions between labour and employment creation (Mbuso Moyo); and from the work of civil society and social movements as agents/inhibitors of development (Zenzo Moyo). Other areas of research include governance, political economy and social transformation in South Africa (Mary Galvin), Zimbabwe and other southern African social formations; war economies, civil society and social movements across Southern Africa; labour youth employment and participatory politics in South Africa; and development theory and analyses of international financial institutions.