Reconstructing South Africa's cities 1900-2000: A prospectus (or, a cautionary tale)

Mabin, Alan
Smit, Dan
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If the title of this paper appears a trifle ambitious, readers may rest assured that the authors recognise the possibility that so broad a sweep as a survey of a century - including, not least, some thoughts on a decade of that century which still lies in the future - may unsettle an audience more accustomed to better focused and more compressed topics. Nevertheless, the paper is offered to the African Studies seminar as one of the first fruits, wizened though it may be, of a project which has long struggled to yield products of any kind. The reasons for this slowness may become apparent in the concluding sections. The intention of this paper is to outline the account which our research has led us to form, and thereby to gain some response from within and beyond the seminar on the viability, suitability and acceptability of our present conception of our work. The burden of the present weighs heavily upon the account to follow, for the inspiration of the project of which it represents a partial fruit lies largely in the present fervour of reconstructionist thinking which surrounds and permeates South African society today. The story to be told here may be captured almost entirely in the following six sentences. During each period of extreme stress and turmoil in our past ninety years, the idea of reconstruction has loomed large. A primary tool of reconstructing society has equally been presumed, by many parties, to lie in urban planning. As less turbulent times return, governments have attempted to reshape the society, and more particularly the cities, by developing new institutions, laws, visions, systems, personnel and plans. In each major case, however, the programmes of progenitors of such ideas have been overtaken by the accession to power of new regimes - at government or merely planning system level - which have coopted the new institutions, etc., to their own programmes; or they have, less spectacularly, faded away as the complexities of government overwhelm initially exciting but idealistic visions. At present, urban planning is being wheeled out, dusted off and reformulated as a primary instrument of remaking South Africa, much as it has been several times before. The paper sympathises with these moves, but sounds a cautionary note in the midst of the prevailing enthusiasm for a fourth great reconstruction of our cities.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 18 May 1992
Cities and towns. South Africa. 20th century