Dec 11, 201304:24 PMPoint of View

The METROPOLIS Blog

After Mandela, What Will Be South Africa's Urban Future?

After Mandela, What Will Be South Africa's Urban Future?

RDP Houses in Soweto. RDP stands for the government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme

Courtesy flickr User Ign11

(page 1 of 3)

This article, by Vanessa Quirk, originally appeared on ArchDaily as “What Will Be Mandela’s Spatial Legacy?


There are few systems of government in recent memory that relied so heavily upon the delineations of space than the Apartheid government of South Africa (1948-1994). Aggressively wielding theories of Modernism and racial superiority, the country's urban planners didn’t just enforce Apartheid, they embedded it into every city—making it a daily, degrading experience for the country’s marginalized citizens.

When Nelson Mandela and his party, the African National Congress (ANC), were democratically elected to power in 1994, they recognized that one of the most important ways of diminishing Apartheid’s legacy would be spatial: to integrate the white towns and the black townships, and revive those “shriveled twin[s].”

As we remember Mandela—undoubtedly one of the most important politicians and leaders of the modern era—and ponder his legacy, we must also consider his spatial legacy. It is in the physical, architectural, and urban dimensions of South Africa’s towns and cities that we can truly see Apartheid’s endurance, and consider: to what extent have Mandela’s words of reconciliation and righteous integration, truly been given form?

Apartheid: A Spatial Overview

Every society produces monumental structures that commemorate and encapsulate its ideals; South Africa under Apartheid is no exception. As Lisa Findley and Liz Ogbu point out in their article “From Township to Town,” the designs of both Pretoria’s elaborate Union Building, the official seat of government, and the Voortrekker Monument, which memorializes the struggle of Afrikaans “pioneers”, for example, both validated and glorified the white minority.

But there is no greater monument to Apartheid than South African cities themselves.

The Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons User Davinci77

The tradition of “apartness” began far before the system of Apartheid institutionalized and legitimized it. Apartheid just gave government officials the mandate they needed to purposely shape South African cities in a way that would benefit the white minority and mollify the black majority. (Although, of course, they never explicitly put it that way themselves. As Findley and Ogbu note, Minister of the Interior, Dr. T. E. Tonges justified the separation of the races in parliament in 1950 as a matter of public health and safety: “Points of contact invariably produce friction and friction generates heat and may lead to a conflagration. It is our duty therefore to reduce these points of contact to the absolute minimum which public opinion is prepared to accept.”)

Thus, the goal, first and foremost, was to put blacks (via forcible removal or through the strict enforcement of “Pass” laws) in their own residential areas, or townships. These townships, often located as far from the town’s central business district (CBD) as possible, were then maintained separate via the use of natural and man-made barriers, such as railroads, roads, or open-space corridors (no-man’s-lands).

However, the “why” of separation still did not prescribe the “how” of its design. For that, Apartheid planners turned to Modernism.

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