Building comparisons from policy links: slum upgrading in eThekwini and São Paulo

Blog post by Camila Saraiva

17 Dec 2021, 4:09 p.m.
Camila Saraiva



It is increasingly common for cities to establish cooperation agreements for the exchange of experiences, practices, and policies. After all, it seems that there is nothing really new under the sun of urban policies. In the field of urban studies, several scholars have examined this growing interconnectedness between cities as well as their meanings for global and networked governance. Less frequent though are analyses that consider city-to-city connections as actual existing comparisons thus exploring their methodological comparative potential. The paper “Disassembling connections: A comparative analysis of the politics of slum upgrading in eThekwini and São Paulo”, in that sense, offers an innovative contribution.

In this paper, Camila Saraiva proposes a creative comparison drawing on a city-to-city cooperation between São Paulo (Brazil) and eThekwini (South Africa) for the exchange of practices and expertise in slum upgrading, that is, the gradual improvement of informal and precarious settlements through infrastructure and services provision (i.e., streets, footpaths, drainage, clean water, sanitation, and sewage disposal), land tenure security, as well as access to education and health care.

The paper suggests that conceiving policy links as complex spatialities that assemble people, policy trajectories, and transnational circuits together is a fruitful way of building comparisons. The main argument is that many comparative insights can be generated when we disassemble such connections to understand its interrelated parts – localities and flows – from a broader historical point of view. In that way, by tracing the constitution of one policy link between São Paulo and eThekwini for the exchange of slum upgrading expertise, the paper contributes to a set of studies on policy mobilities, but then it moves to the analysis of this connection inside the broader history of slum upgrading developments in each city. The municipal cooperation established between the two cites is thus methodologically used to unravel as much the larger dissemination of slum upgrading frameworks (that intersect with and exceed these localities) as the specificities of this kind of policy in distinctive contexts over time. For this reason, the comparative tactic was named ‘disassembling connections’.

The comparison of São Paulo and eThekwini policy trajectories shows how local actors from both contexts had engaged in and shaped slum upgrading policy outcomes and transnational circuits. It reveals how the solid collaboration between local actors from São Paulo and the World Bank, Cities Alliance, as well as the transnational municipal network United Cities and Local Governments, especially from the early 2000 onwards, led to the connection with the eThekwini Municipality. On the eThekwini’s side, it indicates how the partnership established with São Paulo can be seen as a strategic manoeuvre of the Municipal Institute of Learning to enhance its image as a learning centre among other Southern African and African cities.

Regarding the slum upgrading policy trajectories in these two cities, the comparison surprisingly unveils some repeated instances or repetition in difference. It allows us to perceive how slum upgrading initiatives, that were very community-driven in both contexts in the early 1990s – when Brazil had soon started a redemocratisation process and South Africa were at the final years of the apartheid regime – will gradually lose much of their socio-political transformative potential. It is striking that such a ‘depoliticisation’ process had happened alongside the consolidation of democracy, in the two contexts, but of course in very different ways.

In São Paulo, where slum upgrading practices gradually gained city-scale and became more complex, the advancement in terms of technical and design solutions was followed by increasingly less flexible contracts and more constrained participatory methodologies. While in eThekwini, the pioneer experiences of in-situ upgrading were gradually undermined by the post-apartheid national government decision of 'betting all the chips' in a housing program based on the production of brand new individual full-subsided units, which even led to a loss of the municipality's capacity to develop in-situ upgrading. Of course, the dynamic politics underlying the slum upgrading histories in the two contexts and their shared wider policy circuits, mean that this should not be seen as a static or permanent outcome, as the turn in the last decade of the eThekwini municipality to Interim Services (basic services provision) indicates.

What is remarkable, though, is that the ‘disassembling connections’ as a comparative tactic opens the possibility of connecting the past of certain localities actually linked at some point of their history, allowing us to explore how certain policy decisions made in the past might be affecting as much the present of policy development as the establishment of specific policy links.


Government houses in Cato Crest, Durban. Photo by Camila Saraiva, 2015.

Government houses in Cato Crest, Durban. Photo: Camila Saraiva, 2015


Interim Services in Redcliffe. Photo: Ethekwini Municipality, 2011

Interim Services in Redcliffe. Photo: Ethekwini Municipality, 2011


Infrastructure and urbanisation works in Cantinho do Céu. Photo: Camila Saraiva, 2014.

Infrastructure and urbanisation works in Cantinho do Céu. Photo: Camila Saraiva, 2014.


New buildings for in-situ relocation in Heliópolis, São Paulo. Photo: Camila Saraiva, 2021

New buildings for in-situ relocation in Heliópolis, São Paulo. Photo: Camila Saraiva, 2021


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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