The relationship between state and citizens

Dr Julian Brown, Postdoctoral Fellow in the National Research Foundation Chair on Local Histories and Present Realities at the University of the Witwatersrand presented a paper that uses the philosophy of Jacques Ranciere to examine a dispute between a school and the state in post-apartheid South Africa.

The paper, entitled “A Presumed Equality: A case study of the relationship between state and citizens in post-apartheid South Africa”, formed part of the Critical Studies seminar series hosted by the Departments of Political and International Studies and Sociology.

Dr Brown, who co-authored the paper with Advocate Stuart Wilson, Director of Litigation at the Socioeconomic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand Law School, said the case study provided an opportunity to explore the agency of citizens in post-apartheid South Africa.

Bopasetjaba Primary School had shared buildings with another school in the township of Tumahole, near Parys in the northern Free State for almost ten years before, in 2002, Bopasetjaba’s Governing Body approved a set of architect’s plans for the construction of a new set of buildings. Expectations were high that the school would at last be built, however, the construction of the new school was delayed, and then subsequently erased from the provincial government’s plans altogether without any apparent explanation.

As Dr Brown and Advocate Wilson write:  “In response, Bopasetjaba’s Governing Body and parents petitioned a range of authorities, including the State President, for an explanation. Soon thereafter a media article covering the school’s efforts drew a stifling reaction from the provincial bureaucracy. The school’s Governing Body was disbanded, its Principal suspended and then dismissed and the School itself was earmarked for closure. As a result, the school turned to the courts.

Through years of protracted legal and bureaucratic struggle, Bopasetjaba staved off closure, won back its Governing Body, reversed the dismissal of its principal and finally, in 2010, moved into temporary buildings of its own as a prelude to the construction of permanent buildings due to be completed in 2011.”

Drawing on detailed documents prepared for the court case that arose from this dispute and more recent interviews with teachers at the school, the paper considers the agency of citizens in post-apartheid South Africa in relation to organised systems of authority. In suggesting that the case study involves “more than just a debate over the meaning of education”, Dr Brown highlighted how it helps reveal the ways ordinary citizens “can have agency and open up spaces for patronage and to create demands and act with as much power on the state as it does on them,” Dr Brown said.

As Dr Brown and Advocate Wilson write, “… the case study suggests that this relationship is best understood as a set of shifting arrangements of authority between bureaucratic institutions, political personalities, the judiciary and, most significantly, South Africa’s citizens themselves. We suggest that traditional models of the state have underestimated the agency of ordinary citizens and that this case study reveals how their actions – made possible by the presumption of their equality with the state and its agents – can influence the development of a local or national political order.”

Instead of viewing citizens as “passive recipients of rights, goods and material benefits”, Dr Brown suggested the assertion of equality, as illustrated by the school’s parents and Governing Body, is suggestive of spaces in which citizens are negotiating their own sense of equality in relation to the state. “Despite discrepancies in power and resources, (the way the citizens viewed themselves as equal ) opens up new ways of looking at our history,” he said.

Story by Sarah-Jane Bradfield


Please help us to raise funds so that we can give all our students a chance to access online teaching and learning. Covid-19 has disrupted our students' education.  Don't let the digital divide put their future at risk. Visit to donate