Dissertation Project Summary | Spring 2016


My dissertation is a historical geography of public housing in Johannesburg’s Western Areas under segregation and apartheid. By tying together three critical turning points that shaped the Western Areas over six decades, I show how public housing sought to re-establish stability in the face of social crisis by “fixing” race, gender, and class difference in place while simultaneously reinforcing and naturalizing the hegemonic norms, values, and moral principles of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. My project examines the origins, implementation, and impacts of public housing, along with key points of contention around the meaning and value of domestic space, in order to provide historically and theoretically grounded insights into the relationship between space, power, and identity. 


This project addresses the central questions of why and how public housing became a cornerstone of urban policy and a multi-dimensional terrain of struggle through an examination of three critical turning points between the 1930s and 1990s. I suggest that state interventions in the domestic landscape were conceived as a comprehensive “spatial fix” for a wide range of political, economic, and social issues rooted in contradictions inherent within South African racial capitalism and white supremacy. Specifically, I argue that housing and town planning programs were designed to reinforce particular forms of domesticity and family life as a means of producing racially-differentiated populations upon which social control could be more easily exercised. 

South African politics is undeniably a politics of home. As access to housing and basic services has remained one of the most salient political issues of the past two decades, the neoliberal policies embraced by ANC leadership continue to shift social burdens onto individual households and families, contributing to what scholars describe as an acutely gendered "crisis of social reproduction" [1]. At the same time, national political discourse and public debate are infused with notions of home and conflicting nostalgias for a lost domestic past. While prominent state leaders continue to garner support by drawing on the semiotic resources of the traditional Zulu homestead [2], the racially segregated townships of the apartheid regime have become an unlikely touchstone for a generation of urbanites frustrated by the unrealized promise of the anti-apartheid struggle [3].

My research is organized around three turning points, or “critical events,” in the production and management of Johannesburg’s state housing infrastructure. I begin by looking at the invention of national housing policy as a response to the “poor white problem” in the early 1930s. Next I consider the mass expansion of Black urban and peri-urban townships under the increasingly authoritarian apartheid regime. Finally, I examine the implementation of a “desegregated” national housing policy in conjunction with the project of “orderly urbanization” and securitization in the 1980s and 1990s. 

My research is focused on racially segregated family housing schemes, defined as residential spaces planned explicitly for occupation by heteropatriarchal, nuclear families. While the bulk of my research is focused on Johannesburg’s Western Areas, this is a multi-scalar and multi-sited project through which I hope to explore the history of state housing and domestic ideology as unfolding across multiple spatial and temporal locations.

Recent scholarship has demonstrated that attention to the reproduction of gender hierarchies is essential for understanding the historical development of South Africa’s racial infrastructure, both material and ideological [4]. From the initial consolidation of a national welfare system in the early 1930s, state-funded family housing has been the cornerstone of a twinned program of social assistance and residential segregation that continues to bear on the physical, cultural, and political landscape of South African cities [5]. Despite its essential role in perpetuating discourses and practices of racial and gendered violence, family housing was one of several essential resources that poor urban residents (mainly women, both white and of color), historically depended on for survival [6]. As a result of this evolving contradiction, I argue that a study of family housing is an ideal point of entry for exploring the complex spatiality of racial-sexual oppression in 20th century South Africa, for examining the material and ideological relationship between multiple racial identities, and for establishing links between local and national struggles for identity and space.

Stuart Hall’s concept of “articulation” provides a methodological framework through which to chart changing discursive configurations of home, family, identity, and space. This framework’s emphasis on process and change over time allows me to engage with the domestic landscape as a material and cultural palimpsest produced through ongoing processes of writing, over-writing, and erasure [7]. I further mobilize the notion of palimpsestic landscapes to enable a reading of ostensibly distinct spaces, historical periods, and modes of power as temporally and geographically co-existing, with the “new” constantly structured through the “old” while the “old” remains partially visible in the present order [8]. 

[1] Fakier, Khayaat and Jacklyn Cock. 2009. “A Gendered Analysis of the Crisis of Social Reproduction in Contemporary South Africa.” International Feminist Journal of Politics, 11 (3): 353–71; Goebel, Allison. 2011. “‘Our Struggle Is for the Full Loaf’: Protests, Social Welfare and Gendered Citizenship in South Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies, 37 (2): 369–88. 

[2] Hunter, Mark. 2011. “Beneath the “Zunami”: Jacob Zuma and the Gendered Politics of Social Reproduction in South Africa.” Antipode 43(4): 1102–1126.

[3] Dlamini, Jacob. 2009. Native Nostalgia. Auckland Park: Jacana Media; Healy-Clancy, Meghan and Jason Hickel (eds). 2014. Ekhaya: The Politics of Home in KwaZulu- Natal, South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: Univ. of KwaZulu-Natal Press. 

[4] Elder, Glenn S. 2003. Hostels, Sexuality and the Apartheid Legacy: Malevolent Geographies. Athens: Ohio Univ. Press; Bank, Leslie J. 2011. Home Spaces, Street Styles: Contesting Power and Identity in a South African City. Johannesburg: Wits Univ. Press. 

[5] Robinson, Jennifer. 1996. The Power of Apartheid: State Power and Space in South African Cities. London: Butterworth-Heinneman; Huchzermeyer, Marie. 2003. “A Legacy of Control? the Capital Subsidy for Housing, and Informal Settlement Intervention in South Africa.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27 (3): 591–612. 

[6] Willoughby-Herard, Tiffany. 2015. Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. 

[7] Schein, Richard H. 1997. “The Place of Landscape: a Conceptual Framework for Interpreting an American Scene.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87 (4): 660–80. 

[8] McKittrick, Katherine. 2011. “On Plantations, Prisons, and a Black Sense of Place.” Social and Cultural Geography 12(8): 947–963.