Photography by:
  • Clive Hassall, Clive Hassall, GCRO

Off-grid cities: Elite infrastructural secession and social justice

The Off-Grid Cities project is an NRF-funded project that focuses on how urban elites are seceding from state-provided infrastructure networks in favour of private hybrid and off-grid technologies. These actions are transforming the provision and consumption of services in cities, with consequences for climate change and social justice. The project builds on the social justice literature and introduces it into climate change scholarship in the global South, recognising that the actions of one social group affect resource allocation in highly unequal cities, and that the infrastructures of elites tend to be absent from urban climate thinking.

Hence, the core objective of the project is to explore how elite infrastructure transitions need to be integrated into debates on, and practices of, producing cities that are environmentally sustainable and socially just. This will be done through a comparative analysis of electricity and water infrastructure in South Africa, focused on practices of elite households and businesses, as well as the policies and programmes of relevant government stakeholders responsible for this infrastructure.

The project team comprises a group of academics and students from a range of institutions including GCRO, the University of the Western Cape, the University of Cambridge, Cardiff University and the University of Sheffield

Project updates

The project has entered fieldwork, with interviews being conducted in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni with a range of stakeholders including, residents, businesses, off-grid technology suppliers, government officials and experts.

From March - May 2023, the project team ran an online survey for South African residents, which aims to understand residents' opinions about and investments in alternative electricity and water technologies. The data from this survey will contribute to understanding household motivations and practices around off-grid energy and water infrastructure.

Students and postdocs

Together with the NRF, this project is funding two Postdoctoral Fellows, one PhD student and two Masters students:

  • Temba Middleman (Postdoctoral Fellow, UWC)
  • Brian Murahwa (Postdoctoral Fellow, UJ/GCRO)
  • Joanna Watterson (PhD student, Cambridge)
  • Eyong Tarh (PhD student, UWC)
  • Miguel Isaac (Masters student, UWC)
  • Zackeen Thomas (Masters student, UWC)

Previous team members included: Simbarashe Nyuke and Sheliza Bhanjee.

The project website can be accessed here.

Upcoming events

The Off-grid Cities project will be hosting a session at the Annual International RGS-IBG Conference in London (29 Aug - 1 Sept 2023), entitled 'Off-grid Cities: Infrastructure tensions between sustainability and (in)justice'. Session information and abstract submission details available at this link.

A team writing workshop will be held in Cambridge, UK, in early September 2023.

The project dissemination workshop will be a hybrid event, online and in-person in Johannesburg, in October/November 2023.


GCRO outputs

Culwick Fatti, C. and Khanyile, S. (February 2023). 'Justice implications of household access to alternative water and electricity'. GCRO Vignette #43.


Fiona Anciano, Mercy Brown-Luthango, Christina Culwick Fatti, Charlotte Lemanski and Margot Rubin (February 2023). 'Off-grid Cities: Considerations for sustainability and justice'. Panel discussion, 5th National Global Change Conference, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein. 1 February 2023.

Temba Middelmann (February 2023). 'Multi-scalar analysis of the drivers and impacts of household and business adoption of hybrid infrastructure'. 5th National Global Change Conference, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein. 1 February 2023.

Christina Culwick Fatti (November 2022). 'Impacts of off-grid investments in Gauteng, South Africa'. City profiles: tackling climate change governance in Johannesburg, Mumbai, Karachi and Jakarta, virtual. 29 November 2022.

Christina Culwick (November 2022). 'Building data to support sustainable infrastructure policy and planning'. ACC African Infrastructure Futures Policy Conference, Cape Town. 23 November 2022.

Blog posts & Op-eds

Cooper-Knock, SJ. (2023, April 24). 'Subsidising Life in South Africa'. Available online.

Nyuke, S. (2023, March 8). 'Cleaning up fossil fuel divestment'. Available online.

Isaaq, M. (2023, March 8). 'Struggles ahead for a just energy transition'. Available online.

Thomas, Z. (2023, March 8). 'The risk of water apartheid: lessons from the Cape Town drought'. Available online.

Culwick Fatti, C. and Khanyile, S. (2023, February 22). 'South Africa’s power crisis: going off the grid works for the wealthy – but could deepen injustice for the poor. The Conversation Africa. Available online.

Middelmann, T. (2022, October 12). 'What is the private sector’s role in South Africa’s public energy infrastructure?'. Available online.

Watterson, J. (2022, September 14). 'South Africa’s transition to renewables: The business of off-grid energy'. Available online.

Tarh, E.M. (2022, May 6). 'Energy Justice in Africa: What role can renewable energy play?'. Available online.

Project workshops

Writing workshop, Johannesburg. November 2022

Fieldwork workshop, Cape Town. June 2022

Design and methodology workshop, virtual. September & October 2021

Project inception workshop, virtual. March 2021

News stories

Off-Grid Cities project hosts session at 5th National Global Change Conference, 8 March 2023

Postdoctoral Researcher joins the GCRO Off-Grid Cities Project, 24 February 2023

GCRO co-hosts seminar on governing climate change in Southern cities, 16 January 2023

Last updated: 17 May 2023.


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