The War On Space

The value of space in South Africa is something that has resonated with me greatly. In the United States, we traditionally don’t give much appreciation to space we are given, and no matter how much we have, it is somehow never enough. Through our time spent in the townships like Imizamo Yethu and Zwelihle, hostels of Langa and more affluent areas like Hermanus, I noticed incredible discrepancies in space. Prior to arrival in South Africa, I never gave much thought to the politics of space. After Kenny took us through the hostel where he grew up in Langa, and I met a woman with a family of 4 sharing one full-size bed in a room with another family, it finally clicked. Space is a great reflection of privilege, while also being a privilege itself.

Being from a larger city that has made efforts to deter our homeless population from living on the streets through legal means, one of the first things I noticed about Cape Town was the physical means they go to in order to prevent the homeless from settling on the streets, particularly in more tourist driven areas. While driving around, I noticed areas under bridges were filled with sharp rocks pointed upwards and cemented in place to deter people from seeking shelter to sleep beneath bridges. Sidewalks, short walls, and more surfaces feature uncomfortable patterns to prevent unwanted settlers. This observation sparked my interest in the politics of space, and the institutional worth of those who occupy it.

Seeing entire communities, some with millions of people, who were placed there because those in power saw the space they occupied as more valuable than those who inhabited it. Meanwhile, these people, forcibly removed from their homes, have been working for years to get their space back, and still haven’t, and space remains monopolized by those in power. Historically, the Apartheid regime is partially characterized by the forced removals of non-whites from their communities. Set in motion first by the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936, races were already strongly divided by communities, but after the National Party began forced removals in 1948, did groups actually run the risk of dispossession (Sato, 1). These forced removals are what landed people who once lived in places like District Six into townships like Langa.

When we visited current townships, places like the District Six Museum, and saw the Kanala production I realized that beyond the mass effect of relocation, the individual consequences of the removals and the continued impact on people today. Upon hearing briefly about District Six before these experiences, I first thought, “well it’s just space, they still have somewhere to go” but once seeing the faces of the people in District Six and how much they were taken from living in homes with space, sent to live in small houses made of tin, crammed together like sardines, I realized my ignorance and the effect that my privilege had on how I viewed their situation. Having a group of people tell you that you are no longer worthy of living where you’ve grown up and raised a family is dehumanizing and something that goes beyond my imagination.

As a result of the oppression, townships not only lack space but empowered people. In A Bed Called Home, author Mamphela Ramphele defines empowerment as “a process of acknowledging the humanity of those people who have been systematically dehumanized, thereby enabling them to stand up and challenge the status quo” (Ramphele, 124). This empowerment comes from places like Tea Bag Designs, Monkey Biz, and other small businesses that employ township residents. What seems like it only impacts where someone lives, impacts so much more. Due to the politics of space, non-whites remain segregated where there are fewer jobs, less access to education and social services, more overcrowding and fewer resources. This puts these people, who were forced out of where they once lived, into a strongly disadvantaged position, with basically no way out. Despite the political landscape of South Africa slowly evolving, the political landscape of space remains the same.

In relation to my group’s topic of advertising in townships, I realized just how valuable space is once again. The space occupied by those flyers spreading information about women’s health, education, drunk driving and HIV/AIDS is a commodity. Often times, public space in townships to advertise is few and far between, so by utilizing this space to spread information about social issues creates a significant impact on people. Space for advertising is often political and economic, as cities are filled with brightly colored ads, selling alcohol, clothing, and food. The use of less physical space does not make it less effective, however, as we found in our research that those ads are quite frequently effective among township populations. The advertisements featuring social issues insight change and lead to action among the township residents, something that professionals in the advertising industry spend a lot of money on, only hoping that their ads for consumer products will make an impact or lead to consumer action.

What has been disappointing, but not surprising, to uncover in South Africa is the barriers, physical, historical and economical that keep people where they are without hope of change. The city would rather have “pretty” empty space than space that people who have nothing could utilize for necessities. It was incredibly powerful to see just how much space is valued, and not in a good way. Instead, space is often valued more than the lives of the disenfranchised and oppressed. Unfortunately, the remedies posed are still elusive. As Alan Dodson said, “the sheer scale of the injustice done demands that the endeavor to find solutions must continue” (Dodson, 32). As people, we must continue to push for the rights of those living in townships. Settling should not be an option. Wars have broken out over land many times, but the war on space continues to rage on.

Have you noticed the war on space present in the United States? Where have you seen it and how does it impact those who are affected?

Written By: Rachel Tinker



Dodson, Alan. “The Natives Land Act of 1913 and Its Legacy.” Advocate 26.1 (2103): 29-32.General Council of the Bar of South Africa. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.

Ramphele, Mamphela. A Bed Called Home: Life in the Migrant Labour Hostels of Cape Town. Cape Town: D. Philip, 1993. Print.

Sato, Chizuko. Forced Removals, Land Struggles and Restoration of Land in South Africa: A Case of Roosboom. Shiga: Ryukoku U, 2007. Web.


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