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“Where there is fire, there is politics”: Ungovernability and Material Life in Urban South Africa

By Kerry Ryan Chance

Cite As:
Chance, Kerry Ryan. 2015. “‘Where there is fire, there is politics’: Ungovernability and Material Life in Urban South Africa.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 3: 394–423.


This article combines theories of liberal governance, material life, and popular politics to examine the unruly force of fire in state-citizen struggles. Tracking interactions between state agents and activist networks during South Africa’s celebrated democratic transition, I analyze how the urban poor leverage the material properties of fire to secure techno-institutional claims to energy infrastructure, and more broadly to political inclusion and economic redistribution. I highlight how fire, as a social and historical as well as a chemical process, becomes a staging ground for the promise and endangerment of infrastructure. Approaching fire as intertwined with power, I argue, illuminates how those living on the margins of the city come to inhabit political roles that transform economic relationships in the context of liberalism.


democracy; energy; material life; race; urban poverty