Traveling Technologies: Infrastructure, Ethical Regimes, and the Materiality of Politics in South Africa

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Photo by Guy Stubbs

Abstract

In this article, I explore the politics of infrastructure in South Africa by focusing on the “travels” of a small technical device. Since the end of apartheid, prepaid meters have been widely deployed in South Africa’s townships to curb the non-payment of service charges. Yet many residents have bypassed their meters, enabling them to illicitly access electricity or water. I track the micro-political battle between residents tinkering with the technology and engineers trying to secure it, arguing that infrastructure itself becomes a political terrain for the negotiation of central ethical and political questions concerning civic virtue and the shape of citizenship. To investigate this techno-political terrain, I trace a genealogy of the meter from Victorian Britain, when it was invented as a tool of working class “moral improvement,” to the late-apartheid period, when it was reassembled as a device of counter-insurgency against the anti-apartheid “rent boycotts.” In each moment, I suggest, the meter was harnessed to distinct ethical regimes and political projects. Drawing on my ethnographic fieldwork with engineers in contemporary South Africa, I explore the semiotic-material work required to make the device functional in the post-apartheid moment. Tracing the travels of a small technical device across time and space, I argue, opens up conceptual space to rethink the relationship between ethics, politics, and technics. 

About the Author

Antina von Schnitzler is an assistant professor in the Graduate Program of International Affairs and an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at the New School. Her research focuses on citizenship and political subjectivities, the anthropology of infrastructure and technology, liberalism and neoliberalism, and the politics of protest in South Africa. She is currently working on a book manuscript based on ethnographic and archival research in Johannesburg and Soweto, entitled Democracy’s Infrastructure: Neoliberalism, Techno-Politics and Citizenship in South Africa.  

Related work by von Schnitzler

"Gauging Politics: Water, Commensuration and Citizenship in South Africa," Anthropology News 51, no. 1 (2010): 7–9.

"Citizenship Prepaid: Water, Calculability and Techno-Politics in South Africa," Journal of Southern African Studies 34, no. 4 (2008): 899–917.

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Gas Slot Meter

Further Reading

Madeleine Akrich, 1992 “The De-Scription of Technical Objects,” in Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, edited by Weibe Bijker and John Law, 205–24, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992.

Partha Chatterjee,  The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Partha Chatterjee, Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Stephen J. Collier and Aihwa Ong, eds., Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems, Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.

Marianne De Laet and Annemarie Mol, “The Zimbabwe Bush Pump Mechanics of a Fluid Technology,” Social Studies of Science 30, no. 2 (2000): 225–63.

Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, London: Verso, 2011.

Peter Redfield, “Bioexpectations: Life Technologies as Humanitarian Goods,” Public Culture 24, no. 1 (2012): 157–84.

Multimedia

Water is Ours (Amanzi Ngawethu), by the Coalition Against Water Privatisation, Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Anti-Privatisation Forum, Friction Films, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Questions for classroom discussion

1. How does the author define and mobilize the concept of techno-politics? What is the relationship between ethics, politics, and technology in the historical and ethnographic examples she gives?

2. Can you think of other technologies or infrastructures that could be analyzed from this perspective?

3. How is citizenship and the political redefined through technologies in the article? How does such an account differ from other accounts of political action?

4. Why does the author trace the “travel” of a technology? In what ways are the historical and the ethnographic combined here and to what end?

5. How might this focus on the techno-politics of infrastructure revise existing accounts of post-apartheid democracy and rights-based accounts of citizenship? 

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