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Blurring Boundaries: the legacy of Apartheid towns

The legacy of apartheid by design will take generations to rectify

To understand why – after more than 20 years since the abolition of the laws that regulated apartheid – segregation, inequality and social justice still are, at every territorial scale, the distinct feature of South Africa’s settlement patterns, requires coming to terms with at least three elements.

The first is the demographic dimension. Some 40 per cent of the South African urban population reside in a township the size of a city. Soweto has more than 1.3 million inhabitants, Botshabelo over half a million, and there are another 20 townships each with a population between 100,000 and 150,000 inhabitants. Whereas officially anybody can live anywhere, it is evident that to reduce the apartheid legacy of the separation of population along ethnic lines, enormous material and cultural resources are required.

Dgil 0255 0013

Dgil 0255 0013

Image by Dennis Gilbert

The second is that the origin and the development of townships was not a spontaneous or informal phenomenon. Quite the opposite, they were created as a physical support to a precise plan of social engineering, drafted and implemented by the government and its institutions, not only to assert the supremacy of the white population, a numeric minority, but to firmly entrench it. The result has been that injustice and discrimination have become an integral part of South Africa’s topography. A recent series of drone pictures by Johnny Miller, aptly titled ‘Unequal Scenes’, makes the contrast eloquently visible.

The oldest existing township is New Brighton in Port Elizabeth, built in 1902, however the majority were built almost half a century later. After 1950 and the promulgation of the Group Areas Act, during the years of the so-called ‘high apartheid’, the Department of Community Development was established by the government to ‘provide and assist in the proper settlement and housing of all population groups, and local authorities were assigned the task to demarcate specific areas for the different ethnic groups’. This led to a process of forced relocation of large tracts of population, and ethnic cleansing of urban centres. It was then that the term ‘township’, that originally merely indicated ‘an area of land divided into erven [Afrikaans word for plots]’ became synonymous with a racially defined settlement.

2015 08 14  empower painted 00001

2015 08 14 empower painted 00001

Image by Jan Ras/U-TT

The third element is the apparent irrationality, from an economic perspective, of specific choices of location, which placed townships at a distance from existing towns. This was purely dictated by ideological reasons, and – as Glen Mills aptly put it in a 1989 article (‘Space and Power in South Africa’) – clearly identified the township as a ‘mechanism of control’.

All of the above makes it difficult to systematically address today’s situation. There are instances where the buffer zones between spatial enclosures have become blurred boundaries, and so, for instance, Soweto can be seen as a part of Johannesburg’s agglomeration, with some form of economic integration. In other cases, such as that of Botshabelo, the explicit separation from Bloemfontein has remained. Established in 1979 to prevent the black population that had been evicted from Thaba Nchu district from finding a place in town, Botshabelo survived for years thanks to the incentives provided by the government to the industries that localised there. But today, in a free market regime, incentives have disappeared, and unemployment is soaring, allowing for social conflicts to grow. All on the back of a programme which had effectively subverted the semi-independent black peasantry, hence preventing alternative forms of economic subsistence.

‘The narrative of a political landscape within the townships needs to be read in conjunction with the recognition of citizenship for all their residents, and “the right to have rights”’

In his May 1994 State of the Nation address, President Nelson Mandela identified 13 Special Presidential Projects through which integrated development could be fostered, by improving the physical connectivity of the excluded areas to the city and the provision of infrastructure and services. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was the centrepiece of the policy, although now, critics of the initiative have an easy task in claiming that its most visible result has been the rollout of sprawling suburban patterns of more than four million RDP houses and service delivery in the township has not necessarily improved. Further, while grappling with the fundamental issue of land tenure, the majority of government-funded urban design work aimed at ‘re-stitching the city’ has relied on an almost deterministic belief in transit-oriented development.

In a chapter of the seminal 1998 collective book Blank_Architecture, Apartheid and After, Susan Parnell and Owen Crankshaw speak about how, after 1994 and the advent of democracy in South Africa, townships ‘no longer bear the marks of state control […] and are now as varied as the freehold settlements they once replaced’. However, the narrative of a political landscape within the townships needs to be read in conjunction with the recognition of citizenship for all their residents, and ‘the right to have rights’.

Dgil 0255 0030

Dgil 0255 0030

Image by Dennis Gilbert

If it is undeniable that attempts to address and progressively dismantle the distorted and segregated spatial fabric inherited from colonialism and apartheid have been made, many convincingly argue that it is too little. Even the Government’s 2013 Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act recognises that ‘many people continue to live and work in places defined and influenced by past spatial planning and land-use laws and practices which were based on racial inequalities, segregation and unsustainable settlement patterns’.

At the two ends of the spectrum of initiatives it is useful to identify how architectural projects have stretched their reach from a grassroots approach, which has seen many activists work on small to medium-scale interventions, to the institutional approach such as the City of Johannesburg’s 2012 Corridors of Freedom. This large-scale development strategy is an example of the difficult engagement faced by different institutional bodies that have decided to concentrate their investments on the construction of a rapid-transit transport system between the city and the Alexandra township, to facilitate development along to the line. Local Studio, the team who won the design competition, successfully managed to shift the attention towards an improved pedestrian connectivity, activating a community participation with the choices that concern its territory. 

‘The future looks bleak unless paradigms radically shift’

The future looks bleak unless paradigms radically shift. An obvious reason is that since spatial fabric is the physical manifestation of social fabric, reversing the process is not a self-explanatory automatic mechanism. Furthermore, the strong central state power that planned and realised the exclusion by design project, is no longer there. Beyond the rhetoric, the neoliberalism that underlies the drivers for the current government policies favours a theoretically ethnically blind socio-economic re-segregation, rather than inclusion by design. As Anthony Christopher pointed out in his Atlas of Changing South Africa (2001), ‘the fabric of the apartheid city can be adapted but not erased. The physical inheritance from the apartheid era will be a massive legacy to be overcome by future generations’. 

In this framework, the architectural explorations that seem to hold more promise are the ones that go beyond the insertion of discrete objects, but rather operate acupuncturally and catalytically. Perhaps in no other context is the contradiction and polarisation of conditions so visible as in Cape Town. 

The overlap of land tenure issues, violence, public infrastructure, health management and ethnic tensions is at the centre of the challenges of intervening in a truly progressive and transformational way towards achieving the ideal of social justice. Khayelitsha, allegedly South Africa’s fastest growing township, located in the Cape Flats lowlands along the N2 highway, is a condenser of the risks connected with operating in a contested environment. Here the formal ‘garden city’ logic of apartheid era townships, conceived of as ‘native villages’, has been overrun by the self-regulating fast-paced growth of makeshift informality. The effects of the large-scale rollout of the single-family dwelling unit as the unique inhabiting typology, lucidly explained in Building Apartheid (2103) by Nic Coetzer, carry through in post ’94 government attempts at providing housing and services to all citizens. 

It is for this reason that the recent ‘Empower Shack’ project, initiated by Urban Think Tank in 2014, is both interesting and problematic. By shifting part of the emphasis away from the dwelling unit to a larger re-blocking land tenure strategy for the subdivision of a pilot site, the initiative aims to upgrade the settlement through an economic model that effectively allows inhabitants to benefit from using their land as collateral to the investment, and prevents the risk of displacement. At the same time, it is not able to engage with the ontological disadvantage that living in Khayelitsha implies. 

As the Gini coefficient, a statistical measure of income inequality, for Cape Town and South Africa at large, remains in the vicinity of 0.7, the battles led by civil rights movements, such as ‘Reclaim the City’ – under the banner ‘land for people, not for profit’ – put at the centre of the discourse how addressing inequality in the post-colonial democracy most likely needs more conflict.