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Divided: Urban Inequality in South Africa

Divided: Urban Inequality in South Africa

South Africa is an ever-evolving, dynamic country – which over the recent years has seen the emergence of landmarks that have achieved global recognition. In Cape Town, there’s the distinctive elevation of Heatherwick Studio’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. In South Africa’s Western Cape, there’s the free-flowing concrete roof of the Bosjes Chapel, designed by Steyn Studio. And, in a design only unveiled last year, there’s the granary-inspired Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library in Johannesburg, designed by 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal winner Sir David Adjaye.

© Johnny Miller© Johnny Miller© Johnny Miller© Johnny Miller+ 10

These landmarks play, or are going to play, a significant part in shaping South Africa’s future architectural heritage. Co-existing with these landmarks, however, is the spatial inequality that is a feature of many South African cities – an inequality borne out of the legacies left by South Africa’s racist Apartheid government. Apartheid, far from being a system only codified by laws, was also structural. Black citizens of the country barred from accessing certain spaces and relegated to allocated residential areas called townships. The Urban Planners of the Apartheid regime sought to segregate South Africa's cities along racial lines - and these legacies remain an intrinsic part of South Africa's urban fabric.

Msawawa and Cedar Creek estates, Johannesburg.. Image © Johnny Miller
Msawawa and Cedar Creek estates, Johannesburg.. Image © Johnny Miller

Nowhere is this division more apparent than in the busy metropolis that is Johannesburg. The country's largest municipal economy, it was founded as a mining town after the discovery of gold. Today, it is South Africa's economic hub, its population supplemented by people drawn to it from other South African cities and migrants from other African countries. While Black people were pushed to the south of the city - to townships, white mine-owners built mansions that turned into the rich suburbs that exist in Johannesburg today. Oftentimes, this inequality is visible in a very literal sense, such as the suburb of Primrose to the East of Johannesburg juxtaposed with the adjacent informal settlement of Makause. Black families are less likely to live in middle-class suburbs, and the number of Black people who live in formerly white suburbs remains low.


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There is a reason for this glacial pace of change. Johannesburg is a microcosm of South Africa. The World Bank said in May 2018 that South Africa remains the most economically unequal country in the world. Poverty levels are highest among black people. Whites make up the majority of the elite or top 5% of the population. Hence the stubbornness of spatial segregation. — Justice Malala, South African Journalist

Further south of Johannesburg, in the coastal city of Cape Town, a marked legacy of the urban destruction caused by Apartheid is District Six. Established in 1867 as a diverse community of merchants, artisans, freed slaves, labourers and immigrants, the area was a vibrant centre with close links to the city and the port. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the marginalisation of its residents had begun. Black people were forcibly displaced in 1901, and the Apartheid government declared it a white-only area in 1966. Demolitions then followed after that, with over 60,000 people forced to relocate to the low-lying Cape Flats, their homes demolished by the government.

An aerial view of District Six. Image © Johnny Miller
An aerial view of District Six. Image © Johnny Miller

Today, District Six exists as a collection of empty lots, with rubble still present and the visible outlines of what used to be city streets. Its former residents have been able to fight against private development - with some of them even being able to return to the land they formerly owned. The contrast between District Six and Cape Town City's Centre, however, could not be any clearer. The District Six Museum, in brainstorming a vision for the future of the area, sees land restitution as an opportunity for the development of the area as a cultural heritage site, and looks to urban regeneration as a method of better integrating the economy of District Six with that of Cape Town.

District Six. Image © Johnny Miller
District Six. Image © Johnny Miller
District Six. Image © Johnny Miller
District Six. Image © Johnny Miller

Johannesburg, and District Six in Cape Town, serve as a microcosm of the urban spatial equality that exists in South Africa. An urban inequality that only exists in contemporary South Africa due to the oppressive architecture of the Apartheid government. This inequality shapes where buildings are built, where people want to live, and where public funds are allocated. Far from existing in isolation, the inequalities present in the cities we live in today are undoubtedly shaped by their pasts.

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Cite: Matthew Maganga. "Divided: Urban Inequality in South Africa" 15 May 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/961483/divided-urban-inequality-in-south-africa> ISSN 0719-8884
Primrose and Makause - Johannesburg. Image © Johnny Miller

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