A township is the land formally allocated to hosting the site of a town; the word township legally refers to both residential and industrial sites. Possibly the most famous townships are in South Africa and were a creation of the apartheid system and its predecessor regimes of white rule.
Apartheid was formally instituted as state policy in 1948, but dating from the white settlers’ permanent landing at what is now Cape Town in 1652, racial segregation was formal practice. The townships were racially discriminatory in that “black” African, “colored” (mixed-race), and “Indian” people were ordered by the Land Act of 1913 and the Group Areas Act of 1950 to live separately. Even within black townships, ethnic groups were often segregated into separate areas for Zulus, Xhosas, Sothos, and others. These laws existed until the early 1990s, and since then there has been only gradual desegregation of formerly white, colored, and Indian areas.
In the area surrounding Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest metropolis (founded with the discovery of gold in 1886), the best-known townships are Soweto (an acronym for “South Western Townships”) and Alexandra. Others include Bosmont (largely colored), Daveyton, Diepsloot, Duduza, El Dorado Park (colored), Etwatwa, Evaton, Ivory Park, Kagiso, Katlehong, KwaThema, Lenasia (Indian), Orange Farm, Tembisa, Thokoza, Tsakane, Vosloorus, and Wattville. These stretch more than 30 miles (50 kilometers) east–west and north–south, and they fuse into other townships near Pretoria and the Vaal River. The area constitutes a vast peri-urban expanse with more than 10 million residents in Gauteng Province. Of the townships, which together host more than half the population, only Alexandra is relatively well located, and hour-long commutes from the distant townships to work are common.
Townships originated from South Africa’s unique economic requirement for inexpensive migratory labor, and they were managed using brutal policing systems as well as British municipal administrative traditions. Debates have raged between social scientists and policy advocates since the 1980s about whether to view townships through the lens of collective consumption (as do Jeffrey J. McCarthy and Daniel P. Smit, following Manuel Castells), the urban accumulation of capital (Patrick Bond, following David Harvey), administrative and spatial power (Jennifer Robinson, following Michel Foucault), or urban efficiency (the Urban Foundation, following the World Bank). Townships also give rise to debates about South African race and class (Harold Wolpe), activist political agency (Mzwanele Mayekiso), social history from below (Charles van Onselen), and gender relations (Belinda Bozzoli).
Although Cape Town and Port Elizabeth had townships dating to the early nineteenth century, the first modern, formal townships were in Kimberley, where migrant workers came to work in the mines following the discovery of diamonds in 1867. In these early townships were the infamous hostel systems that typically housed sixteen workers per sleeping room for eleven months of the year, with a one-month break to visit families in the Bantustan homelands. Indigenous black people were lured or often forcibly compelled to move from rural areas through a variety of means common to colonialism: the dispossession of good farmland, the expropriation of livestock, “hut taxes” forcibly paid through labor, periodic wars, and other forms of manipulation. Indian workers brought to the seaport city of Durban in the nineteenth century as indentured labor for the sugar estates gradually migrated to cities.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the South African War—also known as the Boer War—was responsible for uprooting large rural populations, including white Afrikaners (people of Dutch and French origin). After gold was discovered in Johannesburg in 1886, a “poor white problem” emerged in the area during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Housing shortages, sanitation crises, and public health epidemics such as an influenza outbreak fed into racial and moral panics about the proximity of black workers, who lived in the same urban neighborhoods as whites for a time. Water-borne sanitation was first introduced in Johannesburg around 1908, but the disposal of excrement for the entire city occurred close to the black locations.
There followed in 1922 a major labor revolt, the Rand Strike, by white gold miners concerned about the erosion of racial privileges as more black workers came to Johannesburg. (By 1946 blacks had become the majority urban residents.) As white workers and farmers gained increasing influence over government policy, more laws were passed to delineate the white cities from township sites for “temporary sojourners” (i.e., black migrant workers) who lived in urban areas so long as they had a job and a passbook to comply with the Pass Laws.
Real-estate property ownership by blacks was forbidden except in two townships near central Johannesburg that preceded the 1913 Land Act, Alexandra and Sophiatown. The latter, renamed Triomph, was destroyed in the 1950s, and residents were forcibly moved to Soweto. The Public Health Act of 1919 gave local administrative powers in some townships to the Department of Health. The Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923 provided for formal township (also known as “location”) planning, and the Slums Act of 1934 provided for urban forced removals.
Townships sprouted across Johannesburg and the other main urban centers—Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, East London, the Vaal, Bloemfontein, and Pietersburg—as firms sought an unending stream of black workers during the high-growth era of the 1930s through the 1960s. Housing, transportation, and rudimentary health facilities were built by mining companies and other large employers.
In this process, several kinds of divisions endemic to South Africa and southern Africa were exacerbated, including class, race, gender, and rural-urban. In particular, women suffered in rural areas across the region by helping to inexpensively reproduce cheap labor through the Bantustan system and migrant labor. Women in these areas provided the kinds of child care, home schooling, home-based medical aid, and care for the elderly that ordinarily would have been provided by tax-based or benefit-based public and private educational, medical, and pension systems in a normal capitalist labor market. Because the women tended to remain in the rural areas caring for their families and communities, the townships had a much higher proportion of male dwellers, and firms were able to keep wages and employee benefits at inordinately low levels.
There were many important anti-apartheid protests in townships, including the famous 1955 Bus Boycott that required long walks by black workers into white towns. Many protests targeted living conditions. The typical township house was a “matchbox” of 430 square feet (40 square meters) with rudimentary plumbing but, until the 1980s, without electricity.
One reason for the adverse socioeconomic conditions was the inadequate tax base—often just beer-hall revenues—for the administratively distinct black townships. In contrast, black workers labored in white cities where employers paid taxes to white authorities, which offered first world amenities to white residents. In protest, community activists raised the demand, “One city, one tax base!” during the 1980s and insisted on integrated metropolitan authorities, in contrast to those who intended to maintain geographical segregation using U.S.-style suburban planning techniques.
Although the June 16, 1976, Soweto uprising against Afrikaans language education in the schools was the iconic moment of township protest, the nationwide mass uprisings from 1984 to 1986 and from 1989 to 1993 finally gave rise to South Africa’s democracy, born in 1994. The apartheid-era black councilors chosen by white provincial authorities, especially between 1983 and 1994, were universally considered puppet collaborators, and many were forced to resign by anti-apartheid activists. At the same time, late-apartheid policymakers turned to the World Bank and the pro-business Urban Foundation for central advice on privatization of urban-housing stock and services. Public-housing construction ground to a halt by the early 1980s in black townships.
Even after apartheid was overthrown, however, restrictive macroeconomic conditions and neoliberal microeconomic policies meant that living conditions remained uncomfortable in most black townships. Statistics South Africa released a report in October 2002 confirming that in real terms, the average black household income declined 19 percent from 1995 to 2000 while white household income increased 15 percent. The official measure of unemployment rose from 16 percent in 1995 to 31.5 percent in 2002. Add to that figure frustrated job seekers, and the percentage of unemployed people rose to 43 percent. Moreover, at least 10 million people had their water disconnected for nonpayment, and a similar number experienced disconnection for not paying electricity bills.
The first post-apartheid housing minister, Joe Slovo (1926–1995), adopted World Bank advice that included smaller housing subsidies than were necessary and more reliance upon banks for credit. The policy was to give developers $2,000 per unit, leaving scant funds for good building materials, sound construction, and full services. Ironically, due to such neoliberal policies, the new township housing provided by the government in the early 2000s was half as large and constructed with flimsier materials than during apartheid, was located even farther from jobs and community amenities, and had lower-grade state services, including rare rubbish collection, inhumane sanitation, dirt roads, and inadequate storm-water drainage.
By the early 2000s, there were more protests per person in South Africa than in any other country: more than 5,800 counted in one year by police, mostly in the townships. A new set of urban social movements arose in Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town that were reminiscent of the civic associations of the 1980s and 1990s.
SEE ALSO Apartheid; Boer War; Coloreds (South Africa); Diamond Industry; Discrimination, Racial; Gold Industry; Migration; Mining Industry; Protest; Segregation, Residential; Separatism; Social Movements; White Supremacy; World Bank, The
Bond, Patrick. 2000. Cities of Gold, Townships of Coal: Essays on South Africa’s New Urban Crisis. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Bozzoli, Belinda. 1983. Marxism, Feminism and South African Studies. Journal of Southern African Studies 9 (2): 139–171.
Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage.
Harvey, David. 1985. The Urbanization of Capital: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist Urbanization. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Mayekiso, Mzwanele. 1996. Township Politics: Civic Struggles for a New South Africa. New York: Monthly Review Press.
McCarthy, Jeffrey J., and Daniel P. Smit. 1984. South African City: Theory in Analysis and Planning. Cape Town, South Africa: Juta.
Robinson, Jennifer. 1995. The Power of Apartheid. Oxford and Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Urban Foundation. 1990. Regional Development Reconsidered. Policies for a New Urban Future Series, no. 3. Johannesburg, South Africa: Urban Foundation and the Private Sector Council.
Van Onselen, Charles. 1976. Chibaro: African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1900–1933. London: Pluto.
Wolpe, Harold, ed. 1980. The Articulation of Modes of Production: Essays from Economy and Society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
World Bank. 1991. Urban Policy and Economic Development: An Agenda for the 1990s. Washington, DC: World Bank.