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South Africa: From Township to Town- Soweto Uprising



For many, particularly outside of South Africa, the name Soweto evokes an image by Sam Nzima made during the 1976 Soweto Uprising. In that iconic photograph, 18-year-old Mbuyisa Mahkubo carried Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old boy who was fatally wounded when police fired on students protesting the official lowering of academic standards in South Africa’s black schools. The image of the dying boy spread around the world, and today the uprising is widely seen as a turning point in the struggle against the nationalist government. “Soweto” became the symbol of the profound social, cultural, economic and physical divisions of apartheid.

But such a “black and white” reading belies the complex spatial history of townships in South Africa. Soweto itself is not a unitary place but an abbreviation for South Western Townships, a collection of over 25 townships bordering Johannesburg’s mining belt to the south, which range from middle-class enclaves to informal settlements (sometimes known as shantytowns).


Until the early 1990s, when South Africa became an inclusive democracy, non white workers were forced to live outside cities in residential areas known as townships. The systematic segregation dates back to the colonial era: in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British colonial government resettled racial groups under the pretense of responding to disease epidemics in overcrowded neighborhoods. The area now known as Soweto was settled by blacks and other nonwhites who were relocated after an outbreak of bubonic plague in central Johannesburg. Early separation was formalized and reinforced by colonial laws such as the Natives’ Land Act of 1913, which reserved nearly 90 percent of the land in South Africa for a tiny minority white population. In the following decades, during which South Africa became an independent republic, a series of pass and influx laws comprehensively restricted the rights of the non white population. During the Apartheid Era, from 1948 to 1994, the ruling Nationalist Party, dominated by white Afrikaners, passed miscegenation laws, institutionalized legal segregation, formalized racial categories and restrictions on movement, and embedded apartheid physically in the landscape. Cities were designated “for whites only,” and townships became, in effect, the mechanism for housing the nonwhite labor force. Such policies accelerated the growth of separate townships across the country at all scales — from cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg to the smallest villages.

Apartheid is often construed as a largely political construct, but architecture and planning were critical to implementing apartheid policies. Design practices became cultural extensions of state power, and some professional designers validated the power of the white minority through the design of monumental structures such as the Union Buildings and Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, and through the planning of new townships mandated under laws such as the Group Areas Act (1950), which specified where racial groups were allowed to live in urban areas. Vibrant multiracial settlements were cleared and razed, their residents separated by race and relocated into distant townships. In District Six near downtown Cape Town, for instance, 60,000 residents were forcibly removed between 1968 and 1982; Cape Technikon, a white-only university, was built on a portion of the land, while the rest sat vacant for decades and is only now being developed for post-apartheid housing and community facilities.

The use of townships as a racial construct was reinforced by theoretical movements within architecture and planning. Le Corbusier’s concept of temporary workforce housing, presented in the 1922 utopian proposal Ville Contemporaine, inspired the white South African vision of the positive yet controlled movement of a black population as temporary labor; and the influence of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities can be seen in township plans, which often included neatly drawn boulevards and neighborhoods laid out in lovely curving grids. In the 1950s a group of architects at the prestigious University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg proposed to solve the “native housing problem” by designing a series of matchbox houses whose sterile forms became ubiquitous across the sprawling township landscapes. 1 Residents have since modified these homogeneous spaces, personalizing the houses with incremental upgrades, cultivated gardens, the inventive use of scavenged materials and lively paint schemes.


Under apartheid, the townships were highly controlled bedroom communities, often located at some distance from the “white city.” 2 While in a few cases, like Alexandra, older townships were close to white enclaves and separated only by walls and fences, in most places a vast zone of uninhabited land separated the townships from the city. Getting to work often involved a long and expensive commute to a job that could be three hours away. Transport was limited to state-owned buses and trains, and the scarcity of commercial development forced many township residents to shop in faraway white-owned centers, or in licensed white-owned or Indian-owned shops dispersed around the townships. Leisure activities were also strictly regulated: the only legal beer halls were in government buildings, and dirt lots served as soccer fields. Schools were poorly maintained barrack-like structures with barred windows and second hand desks. There were no cultural facilities, though churches did provide places of community and belonging.

Nor was there any “public space.” While there was a great deal of unoccupied land in most townships, it had no civic, social or cultural role. It truly was a “no-man’s land,” with no owner, no rules, no maintenance. Footpaths to transit connections often crossed these weed-infested fields, but they were dangerous and strewn with trash. What little civic interaction occurred in the townships during apartheid happened in people’s yards, in churches or in the marketplace.

And yet, even in this strictly controlled environment, informal spaces and activities emerged and flourished — sometimes as a matter of survival, other times as a political act. Private minibuses, more commonly known as “black taxis,” filled the service gap between the need for urban transport and the capacity of the state system. (Post-apartheid, they’ve been legalized and are still the backbone of the transportation system for most townships.) Illegal bars, or shebeens, were run out of matchbox houses, providing a much-needed social (and, often, political) venue. Spaza shops, also run out of homes, served as small-scale convenience stores integrated into the township landscape. And the inadequate supply of official housing was supplemented by informal settlements located either on the periphery of the sprawling townships or integrated within their boundaries as shacks on subdivided lots — solutions that today remain an integral part of the landscape. These acts of responsive urbanism underscored the substandard living conditions for nonwhite peoples; sometimes they also gave the townships a physical and cultural vitality absent from the more sanitized city centers.


Racially motivated land tenure policies were officially repealed in 1994, following the democratic election that brought the African National Congress party to power, but there persists a class barrier that follows the old racial lines. In 2007, according to a report by the Johannesburg-based consultancy FutureFact, 55 percent of black adults lived in townships, and more than 40 percent of these were members of the working class. 3 As white-only areas have opened to other races, the biggest post-apartheid population shift has been the movement of black middle-class residents from townships to formerly all-white suburbs, enabled in part by growth in the black middle-class. 4 And yet the Future Fact report found that 81 percent of township residents planned to continue living there. Many stay for the strong communities and fledgling economic opportunities the townships provide; others cannot afford to leave.

To understand why these demographic trends are significant, look at Soweto. It occupies only 10 percent of the land of metropolitan Johannesburg but contains 40 percent of its population. 5 Even as economic growth remains unpredictable, the people of the Soweto townships are pushing to transform these marginalized settlements into important hubs of commerce, political power and diverse social agendas. In fact, in some places, the townships are actually beginning to resemble towns. Entrepreneurial residents engage in a variety of businesses, run out of homes or hastily constructed shacks and shipping containers, or in newly constructed commercial centers. And global consumer culture is making an appearance in places like the huge air-conditioned Jubalani Mall, where Soweto residents can buy almost anything available in South Africa — from the latest fashions to fast food — from franchises of national and international chains. Another enormous commercial complex, Maponya Mall, envisions itself as an all-inclusive entertainment center, with special cultural exhibitions and activities designed to attract tourists.

Across the country, new and rehabilitated museums, monuments and leisure accommodations have transformed the townships into cultural destinations. Attractions like the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in the Orlando West township (Soweto), Mahatma Gandhi’s printing press and home in the Inanda township (Durban), and the Red Location Museum in New Brighton township (Port Elizabeth) appeal to both South African and foreign tourists. Township tours, restaurants and homestays are also big business. Johannesburg tour companies like Imbizo offer shebeen crawls.


It is difficult to assess the value of all this commercial activity, but one clear benefit is increased employment in a country where the unemployment rate among blacks is nearly 29 percent 6 and where most jobs, until recently, were far from home. Township residents who work in local businesses, museums and malls do not have to spend hours and rands commuting; and locally owned businesses keep money in the township, where it spurs prosperity. The townships finally have access to commercial momentum. But still, even with the significant shifts of the past 15 years, residents in places like Soweto make 74 percent of their retail purchases outside the township; and of those who are employed, 70 percent work outside. 7

The recent record of public space is equally mixed. Many early post-apartheid projects were small plazas built in prominent locations, like the entry plaza at the main road into the Philippi township near Cape Town. These well-intentioned civic gestures were quick and inexpensive, and they signaled the intention of the African National Congress Party to invest in the transformation of the townships. The small spaces served multiple roles — as weekly markets, informal car washes and shoeshine corners — but with no historical tradition of public space in South Africa, they were rarely used for civic gatherings of any sort. Moreover, the post-apartheid government, after funding construction of plazas, usually failed to plan for maintenance and improvement. Most early projects are now derelict, and the trees that were planted with such hope for the future have been chopped down for cooking fuel.



The past decade has seen more ambitious public space projects. In 2002, the government, in cooperation with quasi-governmental development groups, launched a design competition for a public space scaled to the vastness of Soweto but rooted in one of its vibrant communities, Kliptown. The winner, Johannesburg-based architect Pierre Swanepoel and his practice, StudioMAS, created a vast public square featuring, at its edges, a hotel and conference center, a large open-air market, food vendors and office space, as well as community meeting space and other needs. The focal point is a memorial celebrating the Freedom Charter, an anti-apartheid document signed and dedicated at a mass rally held on that spot in 1955. Named after the great anti-apartheid activist and close friend of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu Square is slowly settling into the community, as residents figure out how to use the huge space for trade and tourism.

The government has also used infrastructure projects to correct the apartheid legacy of inadequate transportation, housing and services in the townships. Since 1994, infrastructure has been developed through initiatives like the Reconstruction and Development Programme, a national blueprint for improving government services and basic living conditions for the poorest citizens, who number at least 17 million. 8 By 2009, programs such as the RDP had facilitated the construction of over 2.3 million homes 9 and provided electrification and clean-water access to millions more. 10 Yet, with 50 percent of the population living below the poverty line, implementation has not kept pace with need. 11

South Africa has also seen large-scale infrastructural investment in connection with the 2010 World Cup. In anticipation of millions of soccer-loving tourists, the government spent over $5 billion to upgrade stadiums, airports, trains and roads. 12 Soweto in particular has been changed by the landmark Soccer City Stadium, designed by Boogertman + Partners, on its outskirts, and the new bus rapid transit line, by Ikemeleng and Osmond Lange, from Dobsonville township to central Johannesburg. While both have been touted by the government and media, public opinion has been mixed. Informal minibus taxi drivers fear that the BRT system will undercut their livelihood. Activists and NGOs have complained that the government shifted money away from poverty alleviation projects to high profile showpieces that would, they argued, provide little benefit to the country as a whole.


Some of the more successful infrastructure investments have been smaller-scale projects like multi-modal transit stations. Designed as mediating points between formal and informal activity, hybrid public transport and shopping centers such as the Baragwanath Taxi and Bus Facility, in Soweto, provide for transport, trade and social interaction. Designed by Urban Solutions and opened in 2008, opposite the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital (one of the largest hospitals in Sub-Saharan Africa), the facility serves over 42,000 people daily, attracting more than 1,000 informal traders. 13 The design incorporates trading stalls and a pedestrian bridge to facilitate movement between transit lines, the hospital, trading areas and the street.

But despite such activity, post-apartheid officials have not been nearly as aggressive as earlier governments were in using planning and architecture to achieve their goals. The physical gaps between the former white city and the former black townships remain all too evident, and the spatial inequities of apartheid endure. While the government has built more than a million new housing units, a majority are on marginal lands at the edges of townships, exacerbating the challenge of access to jobs, transportation, education and commercial goods. Instead of using its robust housing program to heal the spatial wound between cities and townships and develop mixed-use neighborhoods on the in-between belts of land, the government encourages and maintains discrete industrial facilities, factories, workshops and the occasional shopping complex. The townships still lack the commercial diversity, both dense and distributed, that characterize thriving urban centers. What was once a racial divide has now become a class divide — although, of course, the two are linked in South Africa by racism and limits on education and social mobility.

It is also disturbing that the new government-built houses are often indistinguishable from the bare-bones houses of the apartheid era. These basic residential units — usually consisting of a wet core with a room or two — are understood to be starter homes. Residents can, over time and as funds allow, add rooms and floors, or even a small building in the back to rent out. And in the townships, here and there, you can find three-story houses built out to the lot lines, next to a neighbor still living in the basic house with maybe an added-on metal shed. But though they’re often painted with a brighter palette, many of the new houses are even smaller than those built during apartheid, and located on smaller lots. The ruling ANC party has apparently decided that replicating the old housing strategy of building bedroom communities is an effective way to make homes, neighborhoods and towns.



Such government sanctioned strategies have provoked increasing frustration among the impoverished black South Africans. Persistent factors such as low residential density, high unemployment, family breakdown due to AIDS deaths, and inadequate policing in township neighborhoods have contributed to a pervasive culture of poverty and violence. The rape incidence in South Africa is among the world’s highest, carjacking and burglary are common, and recently there has been an increase in xenophobic attacks toward immigrants from other African countries. After the first significant attack in the Alexandra township, in spring 2008, violence quickly spread to other provinces. Although the unrest was eventually quelled, outbreaks still occur occasionally. Foreigners have become a convenient target for some members of the black working class, with tensions exacerbated by high unemployment, particularly among the young and semiskilled, and by dissatisfaction with the slow rate of progress nearly two decades after Mandela became the nation’s first post-apartheid president.

South Africans who were elated at the end of apartheid, and at the promise of townships becoming towns, now battle to remain hopeful. For many it can seem like a surreal and conflicted world. The media report that the country is prospering, but day-to-day experience often says otherwise. South Africa’s townships continue to be sites of struggle and resilience, as they have been throughout their history. They constitute a distinct urban typology that must be addressed by practitioners, policymakers and scholars if we are to transform the spatial legacy of apartheid into a landscape that better reflects the multiracial aspirations of the nation. As townships evolve, residents are confronting the spatial legacy of the past, negotiating the socioeconomic and political challenges and opportunities of the present and slowly building a vision for the future.



  1. Beginning in the early 1960s, many of the country’s architects resisted participating in these activities, and some joined a boycott of all work for the apartheid government. 
  2. When the Minister of the Interior, Dr. T. E. Tonges, introduced the second Group Areas Bill in a parliamentary session in 1950, he couched the justification for the legislation in a humanitarian cloak: “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.” 
  3. FutureFact 2007 Report, quoted in Lauren Shapiro, “The New Urban Geography: The Changing Face of Suburbia” [pdf]. Due to high migration rates and lingering suspicion of government attempts to categorize the population, demographic statistics have a large margin of uncertainty, so these numbers should be understood in that context. 
  4. One study found that in just 15 months, from late 2005 to early 2007, the black middle-class population grew from 2 million to 2.6 million adults, while the percentage living in the suburbs rose from 24 to 47 percent. See Black Diamond 2007: On the Move, a study by the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing and TNS Research Surveys, quoted in “SA’s Booming Black Middle Class,” May 24, 2007,
  5. Digital Humanities Initiative, “Mapping Soweto.” 
  6. Statistics South Africa, “Quarterly Labour Force Survey,” Quarter 3, 2011. 
  7. Annemarie Loots, “Soweto Integrated Spatial Framework” [pdf], 2008. 
  8. Federal Research Division of the U.S. Library of Congress, “Postapartheid Reconstruction,” South Africa: A Country Study, ed. Rita M. Byrnes (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1996). 
  9. G. Setswe, “Township communities and urbanisation in South Africa,” discussion guide for “Current Challenges in Urbanisation and Health,” AMPREP World Health Conference, 2010. 
  10. Richard Knight, “Housing in South Africa,” 2001. 
  11. Chris Webb, “Selling South Africa: Poverty, Politics and the 2010 FIFA World Cup,” Global Research, Centre for Research on Globalization, March 24, 2010. 
  12. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of African Affairs, “Background Note: South Africa,” October 3, 2011. 
  13. Johannesburg Development Agency, “Bara Transport Hub Up and Running,” October 3, 2008. 

Lisa Findley & Liz Ogbu, “South Africa: From Township to Town,” Places Journal, November 2011. Accessed 16 Jun 2020.

Source :Places Journal

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