Barbara Heer: Spaces of Encounter and the Everyday: A Comparative Ethnography of Agency, Space and Difference in Maputo and Johannesburg

PhD-thesis in Social Anthropology, University of Basel (2015)

This dissertation focuses on public life and use of urban space in two Southern African cities after transition to democracy. It wants to shed light on how changing dynamics of neighbourhood segregation shape encounters between urban dwellers today. Long-term field research is being conducted in Maputo, Mozambique, and Johannesburg, South Africa.


Persistent segregation and new forms of urban space governance (gated communities, shopping malls, CIDs), often related to discourses of fear of different others, are a challenge to our concepts of public space and urbanity. In the academic discussion, a narrative of loss equates privatisation with a loss of urban public sphere and sees it as a threat to democracy. This project questions this deterministic view assuming urban residents’ agency and creativity in appropriating urban space.

Specific Objectives/Research Questions

With an actor-oriented approach avoiding normative concepts this projects wants to generate new insights in how the built environment and urban public life are related. Taking on a comparative approach, this study investigates how urban residents meet and interact within the fragmented cityscapes of Johannesburg and Maputo. Special attention is given to how urban dwellers defend, appropriate and create urban (public) spaces. Among the case studies are a youth group which appropriated an non-used community building, car races on public roads, and neighbourhood associations defending their suburb against whom they perceive as a threat.


In each city, the study focuses on practices of urban dwellers who live in neighbouring suburbs marked by high socio-economic inequality (in Johannesburg a township and a middle/upper-class neighbourhood). The study combines a neighbourhood study approach with the “following the people” strategy (Marcus 1995) and analysis of selected public spaces. The project adopts the Emic Evaluation Approach (EEA, Förster et al. 2011).


The data on how urban dwellers interact with each other and how they use urban space will be useful for urban planners and developers with regards to the design of public spaces and confronting urban fragmentation.


Team of supervisors: Prof. Dr. Till Förster, Prof. em. Dr. Ulf Hannerz, Prof. Dr. Elísio Macamo

Funding: Humer-Foundation, Janggen-Pöhn-Stiftung, final year funded by the Forschungsfonds (Förderung exzellenter junger Forschender der Universität Basel)

Collaboration: Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, University of Witwatersrand

Duration: Jan 2010 - Dec 2013

Download Poster: Space, Difference and the Everyday: A Comparative Ethnography of Neighbourhoods (2012)

Keywords: public life, urban space, difference, encounter, neighbourhoods, segregation, Maputo, Johannesburg