- Soweto Now
Over the past few decades, historians, geographers, sociologists, urban development specialists, and political scientists have produced numerous and sophisticated studies of this specifically Southern African social and urban formation called "the township." Most of these studies have dealt with the hypervisible issues of poverty and dispossession, chronic hunger and malnutrition, and expropriation and disenfranchisement in the context of state-sponsored racial violence. Other studies have examined in detail the conditions of social reproduction and political mobilization in the township.
Yet almost ten years after the end of apartheid, we have very few postliberation ethnographies of everyday life in the township. We have even fewer academic or theoretical reflections on its place in the city, its rhythms and senses. That the township both is and is not urban, that it is proximate to the city while at its margins, and that city and township were inextricably linked under apartheid—all these points are incontestable. So is the fact that the township still suffers from a lack of basic amenities, even as it exhibits the extremes of poverty and wealth characteristic of the city. Nevertheless, we are left with a negative definition of this highly syncretic urban formation that is integral to city life in South Africa and deeply embedded in the nation's social imaginary and political unconscious.
The objective of the following conversation with two young black South Africans is to open a small window onto postliberation township life and experience. The questions put to Grace Khunou and Nsizwa Dlamini, both doctoral fellows at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand), begin a conversation about the township within analytical [End Page 499] territories that help to defy ready-made categorizations of this site of extremely complex interconnections. As their responses make clear, Khunou and Dlamini do not hesitate to read township life and experience as a text and as an emblem of the global city. Both of them seem to suggest that in spite of the overwhelming poverty of many of the township's residents, new cultures of commodification are emerging. These cultures underlie new aesthetic forms, of which cell phones, cars, and various registers of fashion are but examples. Both also point to various ways in which the township, although invented by the apartheid state, was and continues to be produced well beyond the apartheid moment. In very subtle ways, they seize on apparently marginal details of everyday life to show how, gradually, township residents are moving beyond the spatialities and temporalities of apartheid.—A. M.
Achille Mbembe: How would you define "the township"? What distinguishes it from, say, the city, the inner city, the squatter camp, or the homeland?
Nsizwa Dlamini: Well, when I think of "the township," I think of it as a largely racialized space created by the apartheid state—and in this sense it differs from the deracialized space of the city. The homeland was the result of the state's creation and definition of ethnic identities and differences. In the township, of course, people of many ethnicities live together in the same space. Squatter camps are different from townships only in a material sense; they are more deprived and are home almost exclusively to the unemployed—those who have come to be seen by society as disposable people. To me, the township is also a space in motion. People are perpetually moving and commuting. This sense of always being in motion is captured in the language of township residents, their dress code, and their music—kwaito in particular.
Grace Khunou: For me, history, politics and culture, and language are what make the city, the homeland, and the township different from each other. To this should be added the fact that in the township everybody knows everybody else, where they come from, how their parents met. The city is a no man's land. Everybody has a stake in the city and can call it home. The city is for passersby. In the township, there is a strong sense of a community, of continuity and certainty. The township has a little bit of the homeland in it in...