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Dr Evance Mwathunga

Home country: Malawi

PANGeA partner: University of Malawi

Year of enrolment: 2010

Graduation date: April 2014

Department:  Geography and Environmental Studies

Supervisor: Prof Ronnie Donaldson

Dissertation title: Contesting space in urban Malawi: A lefebvrian analysis


Abstract: Cities in Malawi continue to be sites and spaces of resistance, struggle and contest over urban spaces. Since the introduction of colonial modernist planning with its adherence to segregation through functional zoning, homogenisation, and fragmentation of urban areas, squatting and land invasions on urban land have remained one of the widespread struggles for space in urban Malawi. Continued occurrence of squatting, land invasions, and encroachments on urban land reflect the inability of urban planning and its attendant land policies to provide land and housing to the majority of urban dwellers mainly the middle income as well as the marginalised urban poor. Over the years, government efforts have not decisively addressed the issue of land contestations in urban areas in spite of numerous reports of increasing cases of conflicts and competing claims over urban land in Malawi including land dispossessions, conflicts over land uses in urban and peri-urban areas and most significantly contestations manifested in squatting and land invasions on state land leading to growth of spontaneous settlements. In urban areas, efforts to address these competitions have included relocation; titling programmes, sites-and-services schemes, land reform programmes, and forced evictions, but struggles such as squatting and land invasions persist. In urban Malawi, the question is: why is urban planning, as it is conceived and acted upon (i.e. as mode of thought and spatial practice), a creator and not a mediator of urban land conflicts? The study aimed to answer this question, by using Lefebvre's conceptual triad of social production of space, to gain an in-depth understanding of how the contradictions between people's perceptions and daily life practices in relation to space, on one hand, and planner's conceptions of space as informed by colonial, post-colonial, and neoliberal perceptions of space, generate perpetual struggle for urban space in Malawi. The study also investigated spatial strategies and tactics which urban residents employ to shape, produce and defend urban spaces from possible repossession by the state. Finally, the study explored lived experiences and the multiple meanings that urban residents attach to spaces they inhabit and these are used to contest imposition of space by state authorities while at the same time to produce their own spaces. Mixed method approaches were used to gather geodata, quantitative and qualitative data in the two neighbourhoods of Soche West (Blantyre city) and Area 49 (Lilongwe city) where there are on-going tensions over land between state authorities and urban residents. Primary sources of data included household surveys, focus group discussions, key informant interviews, documentary sources, observations, and electronic and print media. In view of the magnitude of the data, three software were used namely, SPSS, ATLAS.ti, and ArcGIS 9.3TM GIS for quantitative, qualitative, and spatial data respectively. Content and discourse analysis were also used to analyse government documents and newspapers. The research found that although planning thought and practice is dominated by imported modernist conceptions of space, planning authorities in Malawi are unable to impose this space on urban residents. Specifically, the research identified a number of constraints faced by planning authorities ranging from human and technical capacity, corruption, cumbersome and bureaucratic procedures, archaic, rigid and contradictory in laws and policies, complexity of land rights, poor enforcement, political influence and emergence of democracy, incomplete reclassification of rural authority into urban authority and shortage of financing mechanisms. In view of these state incapacities coupled with peoples's perception of the illegitimacy of the state to control urban land, the study found that 'dobadobas' (that is middlemen, conmen and tricksters) have taken over to contest planning practices of the state by employing both violent and non-violent spatial tactics to appropriate, and defend their claim for urban spaces, thereby generating conflicts between the state and users of space. Consistent with our argument regarding representations of spaces and representational spaces, the research found that in both Lilongwe and Blantyre cities, the multiple meanings attached to spaces represent divergent but true lived experiences that involve different core values that may or may not be recognised by those residents who do not share them. Finally, planners, therefore, have to reconcile the contradictions between planners' visions and the experiences of those who experience the city in their everyday life. By way of recommendation, planners, therefore, have to reconcile the contradictions between planners' visions and the experiences of those who live in the city. Planners' emphasis on abstract spaces and their modernist images of order imply that viable alternative place-making processes are not well understood, partially because formal discourse in planning and place-making revolves around largely iterative representations of space and the persuasive capacities of one or another representation. Rather, this researcher recommends continued use of the conceptual triad to enable researchers to become more fully aware of complexity in the human dimensions of space before planning. In the same way, by focusing on the two neighbourhoods, the researcher recommends that planning requires considerable time and effort and that it should priotise the human or the micro scale. Planning ought to bring on board the multiple meanings of space as discussed in the study as these are the multiple dimensions that planning has to grapple with in its quest to organise and produce urban space. Since space is never empty as it always embodies meaning, it is imperative to understand various meanings that people attach to the spaces they inhabit and their attachment to these spaces. In the study the fact that spaces carry multiple meanings encompassing exchange value, use value, emotional value, historical value, and sacred values among others, has been explored. Continued advancement of colonial modernist conceptions of orderliness, segregation, functional zoning and commodification which are constructed largely, by dominant economic and political elites, provokes resistance by groups who defend and seek to reconstruct lived space. Also, in view of the incapacity of the state to impose its conceptions of urban space through spatial practice of planning, urban residents continue to devise their own spatial strategies and tactics violent and nonviolent, to shape their own space. In conclusion, the paper stresses that spaces are not exclusively shaped or moulded by planners and planning practices of the state only, but also by spatial practices of everyday life albeit clandestine and unofficial. In this regard, in Malawi, cities including the post-colonial city of Lilongwe should not be understood as being shaped by planners' space only but also the changing experiences of the city and everyday life and ambiguities of the users of urban space. Thus plans and documents as conceived spaces should not be understood as the only mechanism to shape and organise urban space but also the changing experiences of the city and everyday life and ambiguities of the users of urban space.

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