Covid-19: Spatial Plan and Human Settlement Enterprise in South Africa

By Dr Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo, PhD

THE urban and rural apartheid spatial plan in South Africa has a peculiar history. For the purpose of this piece, I focus only on the urban spatial plan. The latter was complemented by pieces of legislation that were meant to control the standard of living and manage the movement of Africans in spaces which were deemed to be the exclusive domain for whites and relegated Africans to the fringes and denied them permanent residence.

Townships, which are areas that were reserved to accommodate ‘Non-Europeans’, were formally established from the beginning of the 20th century and were for people who did not to belong to the racial classification of ‘whites/Europeans’.

Initially, the purpose was to control Black people, who were mainly workers. Planning was based on the management and control of “natives” and was strongly influenced by racist policies and the notion of what constituted a ‘Non-European’ lifestyle.

Growing up in Queenstown, also known as Komani, in Mlungisi Township in the 1980s, our location was separated from the Coloured community by a road[1], with a buffer zone of an open piece of land on one end. Equally, we were separated from the town by another buffer zone in the form of a large vacant land, known by Africans as eMabaleni, a part of which was at one point a residential area for Africans, eSidikidini and from which Blacks were later forcefully removed as a result of the Group Areas Act of 1950.

Just like many South African townships, ours was poorly designed and had limited entrances to it. When I moved to Cape Town in the early 1990s for post matric studies, I observed the same spatial design. This enterprise continues to date, except that the vacant pieces of land are now flooded with informal settlements.

With the outbreak of Covid-19 in South Africa, in particular, and the Covid-19 Regulations which include social distancing, regular washing of hands, restricted movement of people, and the national lockdown, I could not stop thinking about the contradictions between public health and the colonial and apartheid spatial planning in South Africa.

With the increasing Covid-19 infections and the increase in deaths, the question is how lockdown restrictions will be managed. How practical is social distancing and regular washing of hands in  townships when they are poorly designed and have small houses occupied by more than six family members, in most cases, and are in small yards.

The gravity of the challenges of combating the disease becomes even more glaring in informal settlements where there’s overcrowding, houses erected close to each other with no yards, and lack of basic needs such as running water and sanitation. The practicality of social distancing and other lockdown restrictions become unrealistic and impossible. 

The development of modern South Africa has been based on racialised and ethnic planning. The planning enterprise in urban areas was linked to public health issues, racialised modernity and a theory of nativism. The juxtaposing of the ‘civilised’ West/Europeans and the ‘primitive natives’ was palpable.

There are a number of elements that epitomise the colonial and spatial planning in South Africa but I will focus only on four canons.

  1. The urban management and the control of African migrant workers. Drawing on the experience of mining and compounds, commercial companies and the non-mining sector run their own private hostels. These were viewed as a convenient form of accommodation for workers at their work places or in the hostels that are owned by their employers or municipalities. This form of housing facilitated control over workers, and was strictly for male.

For instance, the first hostel for dock workers was built in 1878 where the stands today the popular Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town. The plan of the hostels was the same –   whether closed or open compounds – the ‘native docks’ or ‘native yards’, or railways locations, or Mary and Robert hostels in Cape Town were all the same.

The control of Africans was intensified by pass laws that were meant to control the influx of Africans in urban areas and their movement in general.  

2. The spatial plan and public health. This has its own history and sociology. In the 20th century, spatial planning was influenced by public health issues – public health laws and outbreaks, the 1914 Tuberculosis and 1918 Influenza Commission Reports. When diseases broke out in the cities, the public health commissions reported that Africans were a health hazard and were accused of carrying disease to cities as a result of their ‘poor’ living conditions (Dondolo, 2018).   “The first removal of Africans from District Six in 1901 after the area was hit by the bubonic plague paved the way for the establishment of the first formal African township, Uitvugt/Ndabeni” (Dondolo, 2002:40). The inadequate housing infrastructure, resulting in the poor living conditions, had a direct influence on the belief by whites that Africans brought diseases into the inner city. This view later influenced the public health commission reports.

The State entered the housing space using the Public Health Act of 1919 and the Housing Act of 1920. These were followed by several legislations including the Native Urban Act of 1923, the Slum Act of 1934, the Prohibition of Illegal Squatting Act of 1951 and the Group Areas Act of 1950. The latter contributed significantly to the destruction of areas like Sophiatown, District Six, eSidikidini and many others. The Public Health Act of 1919 made provision for the State to regulate land subdivision, use and zoning, both inside and outside the municipal areas. In major cities, the latter formed part of the modern plan – the Garden City Model. Ethnic and racial zoning formed part of this racialised modernity (Dondolo, 2018:97).  

3. The apartheid spatial plan enterprise and the race issue. The Garden City Model, which strongly influenced the colonial and apartheid spatial plan project, was advocated by Ebenezer Howard from London and was first implemented in Britain against the increasing number of the working class. Richard Stuttaford, who was a merchant and a member of the Union of South Africa cabinet, and others were strongly influenced by this plan in so much that he donated his own money in order for it to see the light in South Africa. The notion of the Garden City Model later degenerated into the concept of the Garden City Suburbs. It was also interwoven with racist policies. The Garden City Model was first established in Pineland in 1919 and in Lang Township in 1923, with the latter later becoming the model for developed townships (See Dondolo, 2004).

The second key plan was the Foreshore Plan that was initiated by Railways and it was drawn up by recognised individuals such as Leslie Thornton-White, a professor of architecture at University of Cape Town, Longstreth Thomson from London and E.E. Beaudoun, a chief architect of the French Government who was appointed by the City of Cape Town Council. The Foreshore plan was about the redevelopment of the inner city to modern standards that were promoted by Le Corbusier, a French planner who had a major influence across continents. This plan is related to the history of townships because residents of areas such as the District Six in Cape Town, which was excluded from this plan, were forcibly removed and relocated to townships like Langa and Nyanga West, which later became known as Gugulethu. 

From the 1920s until the last days of apartheid, planning of townships was predominantly based on race and class as the broader spatial planning project was about separate development. Race is a way a group of people is differentiated from other groups on grounds of perceived differences, such as colour. From 1923, when Langa Township in Cape Town was established, the planning of townships had been based on discriminatory laws and the Garden City Model. The Monumental approach that was based on Le Corbusier’s ideas was applied in Cape Town. From the 1950s, Modernist planning became the norm but in South Africa, it was intertwined with the racialised spatial plan. For Instance, the Foreshore Plan, which was implemented in Cape Town, was based on ideas of modern planning and efficiency as well as racist planning, resulting in the relocation of people who were living in the areas that were excluded from the Plan. This form of spatial planning demonstrate that town planners were influenced and shaped by the ideological constraints of their class and dominant political ideas at a given time.   

This kind of spatial planning is best demonstrated by juxtaposing the two worlds of the apartheid spatial planning projects in the context of affluent suburbs on one side and sprawling townships on another, separated by a piece of road. Examples include Gonubie and eSantini township; Beacon Bay and Nompumelelo/Gqobhasi location in east London; Pineland and Langa township in Cape Town; and Sandton and Alexandria in Johannesburg.  Apartheid spatial plan also reinforced ethnicity as it formed part of this racialised modernity.

4. Spatial plan and the notion of ‘nativism’. This spatial planning project model was also founded on colonial and apartheid notions of a ‘native’ and ‘settler’ society; a ‘tribalised’ and racialised historiography that classified the indigenous Africans – I use the term being aware of the politics of indigeneity in South Africa- as ‘natives’/‘bantus’. This historical tale of African societies is presented using the notion of ‘traditional society’. This tradition-driven account is trapped in native politics and settler versus native discourse. The latter, however, was used to rationalise the colonial rule. This historiography is observed in the depiction of the two worlds that did not meet; ‘modern white society’ compared to ‘primitive’ and ‘traditional’ locals.

These representations were in line with Sir Henry Maine’s theory of nativism. The settler-native discourse and apartheid hegemony defined the category ‘native’ but ‘native did not designate a condition that was original and authentic. Rather, as in Maine, the native was the creation of the colonial state; colonised, the native is pinned down , localised, thrown out of civilisation as an outcast, confined to custom and defined as its product” (Mamdani, 2013: 2). Mamdani’s concept of native as the colonial state construct and as a political identity is demonstrated by the apartheid spatial plan as it reinforced ‘nativism’ by creating residential areas that were deemed for a group of people who spoke the same language and the concept of ‘non-European’ inferior living standard by the racist minority under the separate development project. Whites were defined by history, law and modernity while the indigenous people were defined by geography, tradition and culture.  

By the early 1950s ethnic zoning in black people townships was implemented unobtrusively, with little monitoring. For instance, in the South Western Townships (Soweto) and other townships in Johannesburg there is a Zulu section, Xhosa section and Sotho section. But in Cape Town, the IsiXhosa speaking people and Coloured communities dominated the Cape Flats. Africans were perceived to be different from Coloureds and as such were located separately.  

The apartheid spatial plan enterprise, particularly with regard to townships, created places of manipulation, white domination, and control of Africans. Furthermore, it had underpinnings of ethnicity, nativism, superiority and inferiority complex and racism. It was also used to perpetuate racial and ethnic stereotypes as was the case with the human zoo in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The isolated post-apartheid spatial plan framework and human settlement project are not framed by any ideology nor do they make any material transformation in terms of the rooted colonial and apartheid spatial plan geography. Instead, they are sustaining it.

In conclusion, the colonial and apartheid spatial plan project and human settlement design enterprise continues to live with us in the present, and so is the hangover with the African heritage deficit. In South Africa, the Covid-19 is not merely a (public) health matter, but, also a social, economic and spatial plan enterprise and human settlement design challenge.

While the national lockdown with its restrictions, regular washing of hands and social distancing are welcomed, the structural inequality with its negative effects cannot be overlooked. Similarly, it has reminded us about the post-1994 spatial planning and human settlement shortfalls by the present government in its failure to disrupt the colonial and apartheid spatial plan project. In other words, township residents are ‘permanent outsider’ and ‘not members of the national family’ (Du Bois, 1920/1999).

Dr Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo, is a historian, heritage studies specialist, museologist, a former Fulbright Scholar at Cheyney University (US) and a former Rockefeller Scholarship holder to Emory University (US). He is the Director of the Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies at the University of Fort Hare. He writes in his personal capacity.

[1] Racial classifications in South Africa have a peculiar history and sociology. For the sake of common use and simple understanding, I employed the term ‘Coloured’.

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