You are on page 1of 12

Reframing Township Space: The Kliptown Project

Lindsay Bremner

Public Culture, Volume 16, Number 3, Fall 2004, pp. 521-531 (Article)

Published by Duke University Press

For additional information about this article

Access provided by New York University (31 Jan 2014 06:16 GMT)

Reframing Township Space: The Kliptown Project

Lindsay Bremner

n 1955, the African National Congress (ANC) held its historic Congress of the People to ratify its liberation manifesto, the Freedom Charter. This event took place in Kliptown, on the outskirts of Soweto (g. 1, above), at a site that came to be called Freedom Square in honor of the occasion. Today Freedom Square is an open, windswept tract of land, lying between a shack settlement, a railway line, and a taxi rank and bounded by the back facades of warehouses and wholesale stores. The trees that once lined its edges, providing shade for local traders and commuters, have mostly died, and the farm that once cultivated the land around it has long been abandoned. Remarkable today only for the tapestry of footpaths marking its surface, tracing the movement of people who traverse it in the course of their daily lives, Freedom Square has an auspicious history. This site in Kliptown was chosen for a meeting of what became known as the
Public Culture 16(3): 521531 Copyright 2004 by Duke University Press


Public Culture

Congress of the People simply because it lay outside of municipal jurisdiction, was big enough to accommodate the expected ten thousand attendees, and had functioned many times before as the site of civic gatheringsreligious services, political and trade union meetings, and cultural and sporting events. On June 25 26, 1955, nearly three thousand delegates and seven thousand spectators from all over South Africa assembled on the site and, surrounded by members of the South African Police, ratied a document that had taken two years to prepare. This process had been inaugurated by Z. K. Matthews of the ANC, not yet a banned organization. His vision was to gather, from across the country, popular demands for a free society. Volunteers from the ANC and its alliance partners collected statements and petitions in church halls, at political rallies, on buses, and in trains. Shortly before the historic meetings, a committee crafted these into a draft charter. This was presented to the delegates at the Congress of the People, amendments were proposed, and delegates voted on its wording, clause by clause. A year later, after it had circulated through the branches of the ANC and its partners, this document was signed by Chief Albert Luthuli, chairperson of the ANC. The Freedom Charter became the manifesto of the liberation movement, symbolizing its vision and dreams of a free South Africa. Today Kliptown is home to approximately thirty thousand people, many from neighboring Soweto or Eldorado Park but also from the rural hinterlands of southern Africa, Lesotho, and Mozambique. These multiple geographies are mapped via the names given to its component neighborhoods Charter Square, Mandelaville, Chris Hani, Swaziland, Tamatievlei (Tomato Marsh), Geel Kamers (Yellow Rooms)its superimposed spatial stories about political afliations, kinship networks, places of origin, and landscape features. Kliptown is a virtually invisible place, folded into and through the myriad of geographies its residents occupy and the stories they tell. The singularity of this place called Kliptown lies in this seeming invisibility, in this unlocatedness or, rather, in this condition of being located in many places simultaneously. Kliptown is not singular but rather multiple: a locale of teeming, undisciplined practices and trajectories of people whom, for all intents and purposes, have been excluded from or by the regulatory discourses of spatial planning and social administration. Kliptown is a community of surplus people living in a leftover space. Kliptowns history is indistinguishable from this condition of being unincorporated, leftover, or outside of. Its origins lie in the eradication of a Johannesburg inner-city slum yard in the early 1900s. When pneumonic plague broke out in 1904 in the downtown neighborhood known as Coolie Location, its entire popu522

lation was relocated to a site on the Klipspruit River outside the city limits, close to where Kliptown now lies. The former mixed, slum-yard populationdestabilizing to notions of xed identity and status, of modernity and civilizationwas rendered, in effect, invisible and inconsequential. Remaining outside the boundaries of any municipality until 1970, Kliptown survived as a neglected, hybrid space, not least due to the confusing and often mutually contradictory, overlapping bureaucracies under whose jurisdiction it fell under apartheid law the Peri-Urban Areas Health Board, the Group Areas Board, the Department of Community Development, the House of Representatives, the South West Management Committee, and so on. It was one of the few places in the city where non-Europeans could engage in trade or own their own businesses, where couples in racially mixed marriages could live with impunity, or where pass law offenders could hide.1 In short, Kliptown was a place where people experimented, through undisciplined, hybridized, and frequently illegal encounters, with change, exchange, and fusion. For authorities, the way to deal with Kliptown site of activities marginal and illicitwas to simply ignore it. Kliptown still does not exist, at least not ofcially. On maps, it appears as a loose grouping of portions of the Klipriviersoog farm. Freedom Square is a collection of small, vacant properties owned by both public authorities and private individuals. The people of Kliptown live in shacks or in dilapidated houses, many without electricity, and with only rudimentary services portable chemical toilets, communal standpipes, and refuse collection from designated communal sites in the area. Kliptown has a police station but no schools, clinics, or other public services (e.g., library, community center). The spaces that anchor its social practices, however, are rich and multiple. People live overlapping associational lives between the shebeen (bar), the church, the stokvel (collective savings society), the funeral society (mutual aid organization for the bereaved), the youth club, the street, the home. During the day, everyone is out. To stay at home is to miss out on the life of the street. Private space is small and cramped; things spill out. The prized vantage point is the streeta place to watch, view, greet, sell, and drink; to produce and reproduce the life of the collective. Since 1999, Kliptown has been targeted for redevelopment by the Gauteng provincial government, under whose jurisdiction it now falls. While this initiative
1. The notorious Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952 required that all black South Africans carry a labour passportor passin urban areas. Those without this document were required to remain in their designated tribal homeland.

Reframing Township Space


Public Culture

includes the rehabilitation of the adjacent Klipspruit River, improved bulk infrastructure, the building of seven thousand new houses, and the provision of services to its shack yards, the fulcrum of this projectwhich absorbs more than 33 percent of its budget is the commemoration of the signing of the Freedom Charter through the redevelopment of Freedom Square. In 2000, the provincial government decided to include the development of Kliptown on its list of high-priority economic development projects (others include such megaprojects as a rapid rail link between Johannesburg and its airport and the development of the Cradle of Humankind paleoanthropological site as a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage site). This reawakened interest in the neighborhood owed little to a sense of benevolence, responsibility, or redistributive justice on the part of the provincial government but rather to a new conception of tourisms signicance for economic development. Gauteng is an inland province with few exploitable natural resources. It is urban and industrialized with a landscape shaped historically by the booms and slumps of the gold mining industry and by the banality of apartheids spatial planning. Tourism strategies, in this context, have focused on two areas shopping (malls, hotels, restaurants) and the township. The township has been reconceptualized as one of the provinces few tourist attractions as an image of apartheids legacies of racial segregation and poverty, a site of ethnic and cultural identity, and the locus of idealized or aestheticized political struggle. The Hector Peterson Museum in Soweto, erected on the site of the shooting of thirteen-yearold Peterson during the student uprising of 1976, has drawn thousands of local and international tourists since its opening in 2002. The idea of an architectural competition for the redesign of Freedom Square was conceptualized within this imaginary. In commemorating the events that took place in Freedom Square, the redesigned space was meant to resonate with the visions and dreams of a free South Africa (Johannesburg Development Agency [JDA] 2001: 9); to represent the ideals of the Freedom Charter to an international community so that it would support struggles for freedom and human rights wherever this is required (JDA 2001: 11); and, at the same time, to deal with a range of specic community needshousing, retail space, library, meeting rooms, local government ofces, sports hall, taxi rank, bus stops, and so forth. In other words, architects were asked to mediate between, on the one hand, the near order (Lefebvre 1996: 101), that is, direct relations between persons and groups interacting in a space, producing and reproducing themselves, and, on the other hand, the far ordersocietys signicant ensembles and institutions of power, propelled, in this instance, by notions of freedom, democracy, and human rights.

They were asked to imagine how a democracy of populist origins, represented in the Freedom Charter, could be transformed into a spatial or, rather, an urban democracy. What follows is a discussion of several entries to the competition, chosen from the thirty-three submissions, that can be seen to dramatiz[e] . . . possibilities for a different urban form (Minkley 1998: 218) and, in so doing, expand the architectural terrain. For architects and urban designers from StudioMAS, the competition presented an opportunity to completely re-vision not only Freedom Square and Kliptown but also the entire greater Soweto area and to position it at the heart of the nation (g. 2). They constructed a metanarrative for the space, transforming an apartheid buffer strip (including and extending a portion of Freedom Square itself [bottom of g. 1]) into a three-kilometer-long public boulevard lined with a three-story colonnaded megastructure that connected the wetlands of the Klipspruit River to the west with the citys sewer works and the Orland Dam to the east. This nineteenth-century beaux arts set piece formed the backdrop to a series of squares: from Freedom Square to the west (top of g. 2), patterned with a giant replica of local artist Willem Boshoffs artwork, to a forecourt to the national houses of Parliament, relocated from Cape Town, to the east (bottom of g. 2). The scheme appropriated a number of easily recognizable symbols of power: the conical towers of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, the colonnades of ancient Rome, the light columns of Hitlers Nuremberg stadium, and the underground vault of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. The Freedom Charter itself would be laid to rest inside a truncated cone, in which, at midday on June 26 each year, observers would be able to watch the sun briey light up its surface, before it receded once more into the shadows of history. By contrast, though also broad in its scope, Kate Otten and Charles van Bredas entry connected the shack yards to the west with the stretch of open ground to the east using a strategy that deferred the making of form almost entirely. Otten and van Breda simply created platforms of intention, or precincts of activity, based on spatial practices observed at the site. These included a place of gathering or celebration (what they called a platform of endeavor) bridging the railway line and increasing the access of shack dwellers to the site; a marketplace; a transport plaza; a community square; and an urban park. Within this civic framework, unforeseen subjectivities, both individual and collective, would shape or appropriate spaces of signicance. My own proposal, formulated together with Mashabane Rose Architects,

Reframing Township Space

Figure 2

made use of an analogous relationship between memory, as portrayed by an image of the crumpled papers pinned to the podium at the Congress of the People (g. 3), and contemporary social practicethe manner in which secondhand clothes are daily laid out for sale in Freedom Square, effectively clothing the earth. The inclusive populism of the Freedom Charter was connected with current modes of economic and associational life and spatial practice. We crumpled and folded the earth to contain an oral history museum and archive, while allowing the micronarratives of everyday life in Kliptown to carry on undisturbed. The events of the Congress of the People were minimally reenacted a single cable of electric lights, a raised podium, and rows of benches served as a series of mute and almost invisible markers at the intersection of history and lived spatial practice. Space was thus suspended between past and present, a site of negotiation between a multiplicity of times and uses. Hannah le Rouxs response to Kliptown read it as a fragmented web of spatial relationships. Foregoing the temptation to order, unify, or tidy these up, she chose, instead, to create resources at points of potential intersection between tourism and local need. So, for instance, she transforms one of the existing buildings backing Freedom Square through a coupling of the programmatic

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figures 5 and 6

requirements of a museum and a movie house; she constructs a new connection between Freedom Square and the shack settlements to its west and marks this movement route with a monumental linear scaffold for exhibiting posters, one of the most effective and popular mediums of mobilization during the antiapartheid struggle (g. 4). In a similar, though more abstract reference, Ivan Kadey, David Barkham, Wilhelm Hahn, and Harold Poliak (American architects, two of whom are formerly from Johannesburg) draw on the modernist (in this case workingclass) imagery of industrial spacesteel girders, electricity pylons, sports stadia, and billboardsin their reframing of Freedom Square as a site for ongoing political dialogue. Their scheme makes no claims on the wider urban eld, constructing instead a single gure around which the fragmented space of the township is clustered. Other approaches to the space of the township saw its incorporation into the market system as a guarantee of freedom. During the apartheid period, township space existed outside of this logic; it belonged to the state. For Gadija Bux (who submitted jointly with MGB Draughting and Design) and Feral Gathoo, two nonarchitect participants in the competition, the generalization of exchange across the space of freedom would lift the burden of constraint and misery under which residents had lived for so long and would allow them to participate in contemporary urban (conceived of as economic) life. A trading space bearing the names of liberation heroes Oliver Tambo, Dr. Dadoo, and Lilian Ngoyi and a

Public Culture

Figure 7

hotel named after Nelson Mandela distinguish this place of commerce from any other (gs. 5 and 6). Thus we see a number of approaches to the reframing of township space, responses to the admission of the township into the arena of postapartheid architectural discourse. These range from refusal, eradication, and displacement to incorporation and an unsettling of disciplinary boundaries. StudioMAS, which won the competition, saw the township as a not-yet-urban, incoherent, dependent periphery. Marked by poverty and a lack of resources, its space is impoverished and urban life is experienced as no more than a burden of constraints (Lefebvre 1996: 79). For StudioMAS, the commemoration of a founding myth of the new democracy, the Freedom Charter, enabled the investment of resources in monumental urban spaces as stage for celebration and spectacle. Dramatic and exaggerated forms created the image of a possible new city, a new morphology for urban life. Yet, argues Henri Lefebvre (1996: 114), in the construction of the urban, the formal morphology of the city cannot be separated from social practice. By whom, one wonders, can this formal morphology be construed a city? For, in a single gesture, all traces of the existing site and its peoples have been erased. Mannequins beautiful, happy, young, and black have instantaneously populated the newly formed spaces (g. 7). Kliptowns motley, creolized community

of outsiders and their meandering narratives have, yet again, been displaced. They have been rendered invisible by an architecture anxious to redeem a space that has been shaped historically by its outsider status, its dislocation, its uidity. Otten and van Bredas work, on the other hand, admitted the social and spatial practices of Kliptown into architectural discourse as potentially unsettling to its procedures and received forms. For them, architectures role in this space is to establish new connectivitiesan inclined plane bridging a railway line, an underpass under a road to facilitate movement and human interaction. Apartheid planning segregated, fragmented, and dispersed; postapartheid planning connects, stitches, and centralizes. Otten and van Breda sought to defer to residents and to refrain from overdesigning the space (not always successfully)to facilitate rather than dictate. The users of the space, would, in time, construct places of identity and valuethrough singing, dancing, drinking. The architect, displaced from the center, opened architecture to its outside and admitted a less colonizing, less binary set of questions, positions, and procedures. My own work with Mashabane Rose, like that of Otten and van Breda, conceived of the space of Kliptown not as one of eradicated urbanity but as a unique and open-ended place of the possible (Lefebvre 1996: 156) that, having evaded the modernist social project, exists as a place of simultaneity, gathering, and convergence, a place of encounters and multiple narratives. In addition to the specter of the Congress of the People, a new gure that of the tourist was about to make its presence felt. Our approach was to fold this new presence into the eld of Kliptown through a modication of the ground through layering, digging, burying, pushing, shifting, raising, encircling, and extending, thereby reterritorializing its space. Building became not landscape but topographya continuous, folded surface of experience (cf. Deleuze 1993). An oral history museum was inserted under the surface of Freedom Square, the micronarratives that traverse it thereby reformulated. Our approach to architecture was anthropological. We attempted to observe spatial practices from an ethnographic not a panoptic point of view (the position usually assumed by the architect) and to admit other spaces (the spaces of the other) into the discourse, but we nevertheless reserved for architecture the prerogative of poetic interpretation. Le Roux sought to realize ideas articulated in a previous theoretical piece, Undisciplined Practices: Architecture in the Context of Freedom (1998). In this, she had begun to map emerging tendencies in postapartheid architectural practice. In her work, space is hybridized, becoming a site of negotiation among a multiplicity of users. She argues that, in environments such as Kliptown, the construction of a community of users takes priority over the construction of form, and

Reframing Township Space

Public Culture

given that communities may be simultaneously unied and dispersed . . . the appropriate architectural responses may be fragmented and arranged across a broad territory, contrary to the conception of architecture as form enclosing discrete spaces (Le Roux 1998: 355). While in other contexts, Kadey, Barkham, Hahn, and Poliaks modernism might appear nostalgic, it has specic resonances for the South African township. Jo Noero (1999), winner of a previous competition for the design of an apartheid museum in Red Location, a township outside Port Elizabeth, explains his choice of an industrial aesthetic based on the signicance of the factory as the only truly civic space during the apartheid years. The factory, through the trade union movement, was one of the few spaces in which visions of an alternative society were mobilized and lived. Finally, the designs by Bux and MGB Draughting and Design and by Gathoo, like that by StudioMAS, began from a reading and possibly the experience of Kliptown as a space congured within an economy of lack. By reprogramming it with fast-food outlets, tness centers, sports shops, movie houses, cell phone suppliers, banks, and other accoutrements of consumer society, its incorporation into an economy of plenty would be signaled to the world. This representative sample of plans submitted to the competition indicates some of the ways that architects and designers gave shape to the idea of an architecture of freedom in Kliptown a place, like many others in the country, still bearing the marks of apartheid neglect. All claimed to both represent the ideals of the Freedom Charter and, at the same time, contribute to the development of local peoples lives. All interpreted township space and proposed alternative modalities for architecture within it. In doing so, in constructing new imaginaries for the space of the township, they introduced some difcult and unresolved questions: What are architectures conditions and possibilities in a place like this? What are its purposes and procedures? To whom is it accountable? Who are its subjects? What are its references? If architecture is to have a role in constructing a new urban democracy in South Africa, these are some of the questions it will be required to address.
Lindsay Bremner is chair of architecture at the School of Architecture and Plan-

ning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is the author of Johannesburg: One City, Colliding Worlds (2004) and coeditor of Emerging Johannesburg: Perspectives on the Postapartheid City (2003).



Reframing Township Space

Deleuze, Gilles. 1993. The fold: Leibniz and the baroque, translated by Tom Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA). 2001. Freedom Square precinct architectural competition brief. Johannesburg. Lefebvre, Henri. 1996. Writings on cities, selected and translated by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. London: Blackwell. Le Roux, Hannah. 1998. Undisciplined practices: Architecture in the context of freedom. In Blank : Architecture, apartheid and after, edited by Hilton Judin and Ivan Vladislavic . Rotterdam: NAi. Minkley, Gary. 1998. Corpses behind screens: Native space in the city. In Blank : Architecture, apartheid and after, edited by Hilton Judin and Ivan Vladislavic . Rotterdam: NAi. Noero, Jo. 1999. Red location: A cultural experience. South African Architect, June, 19.

Figure 1 Aerial photograph of Freedom Square, 2000 Figure 2 StudioMAS, plan Figure 3 The Freedom Charter Figure 4 Le Roux, photomontage Figure 5 Feral Gathoo, drawing Figure 6 Feral Gathoo, drawing Figure 7 StudioMAS, perspective All images property of and used with the permission of the Johannesburg Development Agency.