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  • (D)urban Vortex: South African City in Transition
  • Jeremy Grest (bio)
Bill Freund and Vishnu Padayachee (eds) (2002) (D)urban Vortex: South African city in transition. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

This book is the edited product of a much larger body of papers presented at the City of Durban Project Conference, held in July 1998 at the University of Natal, Durban, under the auspices of the Economic History department. The project brought together many, if not most, of the leading social science researchers working on Durban, for a conference that was most impressive for the depth and breadth of discussion on the challenges confronting a city undergoing multiple transitions.

As is often the case with the publishing of conference proceedings, there has been some delay between the presentation of papers and their publication in edited book form. Nevertheless, the volume is a timely addition to the growing body of work devoted to Durban. It makes the research accessible to a general readership and stands as a benchmark for work being done at a particular moment in Durban's history. It also builds on a long tradition of urban studies emerging from the University of Natal, the last general volume on Durban being the Maylam and Edwards collection, published in 1996.1

The book has 11 chapters and an introduction by the editors. The chapters are grouped into four main themes, each of which is prefaced with some useful introductory comment aimed at unifying the individual contributions. These are generally of a high standard and provide a range of materials which, when taken together, make for a significant body of intellectual work. In their introduction the editors outline the parameters of their project: a political economy of a changing Durban, whose focus is on [End Page 98] problems of economic and social development, rather than on urban culture or urban living in general. As the editors note, the emerging urban literature tends to fall into two broad categories of analysis – one that deals with problems faced by cities in the 'developed world' and another that focuses on the challenges for cities on the periphery. Since Durban, along with other South African cities, displays characteristics from both worlds it presents itself as a fascinating laboratory for the analysis of social change. This work aims to look at Durban in the context of some global trends affecting cities in general, namely the declining importance of secondary industries for city economies, and the changing relationship of cities to national states. At the same time the editors note that Durban's own growth path has given rise to a very specific set of social forces that will, in large part, determine its future possibilities for economic and social development, and these are to be fully explored.

Part One of the book deals with the local state. In an important first chapter entitled 'City Hall and the Direction of Development', Bill Freund provides an overview of the changing role of the local state in economic planning and development. The first section tells the story of how the city council intervened in the local economy from its inception in the mid 19th century until the modern period of municipal government, highlighting what came to be its characteristic features. City growth in the colonial period depended heavily on the development of the port as a point of connection between the world economy and the mines of the Witwatersrand. But the port's management lay with the national South African Railways and Harbours administration, and was not within the purview of the city council – a problematic disarticulation of control, from the local point of view, that has been an enduring feature of Durban's development and is more fully treated by Trevor Jones in a later chapter.

However, the dominant merchant interests managing the colonial city also made strategic investments in land, which enabled them to provide attractive conditions for the development of industry in the 20th century. The city council became a major property owner and speculator in its own right, and strategic investments and tactical budgetary decisions laid the foundations for a financial system that gave Durban substantial capital reserves and made it...


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