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Accepted Paper:

“The Constitution doesn’t realise itself”: South Africa’s Public Interest Litigation Organisations (PILOs) and the negotiations of state-led development  
Leila Strelitz (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

As the government’s failure to deliver development is increasingly framed as unconstitutional, Public Interest Litigation Organisations (PILOs) emerge as prominent actors in South Africa’s development industry. An ethnographic focus on PILOs offers key insights for the anthropology of development.

Paper long abstract:

South Africa’s 1997 Constitution locates socioeconomic development within the remit of law both through its inclusion of socioeconomic rights, and the onus on government to realise these rights subject to “available resources”. A Public Interest Litigation Organisation (PILO) industry has thus developed, assisting the poor and marginalised to access the Constitution’s transformative aspirations. It accomplishes this through litigation, and commentary on policy bills related to housing, education, healthcare, basic services, land reform, and enforcing standards of good governance. PILOs thus take on issues that traditionally fall within the ambit of the “development industry”, extending its institutional fabric.

Based on ethnographic research in several South African PILOs, this paper argues that PILOs are key actors in South Africa’s development industry. Their work intervenes in the tension between the government’s constitutional developmental obligations and its (in)capacity to fulfil these. As PILOs’ work is also underpinned by their own ideologies of development, informed by the communities they represent, they highlight contestations regarding both the substance and delivery of development.

As rights represent part of the political ontology of the present and an ideational assumption about the future, PILOs and the law mediate the tension between imagined constitutional ideals and the material realities of “development” by a range of actors, including the government, the judiciary, PILOs, and PILO clients.

Engaging with PILOs highlights the need for the anthropology of development to consider previously underemphasised institutions, actors, and ideas around state power, thereby forging new avenues of inquiry and cultivating creative reconsiderations of development itself.

Panel Anth36
African futures and the new boundaries of the anthropology of development and social change
  Session 1 Wednesday 31 May, 2023, -