Readers outside South Africa might be astonished at the scale and range of academic and artistic work on the South African city, or even at the fact that most South Africans now live in cities. So much of Africa is rural, both in the academic and the literary imagination, that the tropes of urbanism are not considered to be as central as those of grueling peasant lives, precarious semi-urban existence, and rural big men. Vivian Bickford-Smith has given the reader a comprehensive view of this literature and more in The Emergence of the South African Metropolis: Cities and Identities in the Twentieth Century, a masterful survey of the origins, history, and cultural meanings of South Africa’s three major cities—Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban—over a period roughly starting in the mid-1900s and ending in the mid- to late twentieth century. Bickford-Smith begins his book by outlining the complex and varied ways in which Britishness imposed itself on each of these cities in the most crucial periods of their formation. All three cities had existed at least in some form prior to British rule but from the nineteenth century in the case of Cape Town and then Durban and the twentieth century in the case of Johannesburg began to be shaped to reflect British urban values, architecture, and signifiers in everything ranging from the building of schools, churches, city halls, clubs, and war memorials, to street names, to the very layout of streets and suburbs and the establishment of city government. But this is no top-down history of British imperialism. Once Bickford-Smith has set the scene of a Britishness that aspired to hegemony, he moves to his splendid third chapter, “More Babylon than Birmingham?,” and gives us a rundown of the many ways in which the emergence of the truly urban created zones of anxiety and danger. The myths and fantasies of respectability clashed with the city as it really was—a place teeming with cultural and political life, filled with a range of people of multiple origins, from African, “Coloured,” Indian, and Malay to European and American, and enormously turbulent. Moral panics, cultural inventions, social movements, original imaginaries, new forms of activity and political upheavals are all touched on and explored amid portrayals of poverty and unease. And woven through it all are the racial constructions that arose within these experiences—ideas of racially defined moral degeneration, sexual predation, criminality, and disease. At first, all of these occur at once within the city itself. It is only later that the ever-present ideas of segregation developed more fully, and the urge to push the “unsanitary” and “unrespectable” out onto the periphery began to grow. A great strength of this book is that it is enriched throughout by a serious consideration of the role of art, literature, poetry, architecture, and cinema in creating and/or mediating this difficult world. Early Dutch and Afrikaans literature portrayed the city as a hellish place, and contrasted it with the “Boer paradise” many had left behind. Xhosa and Mozambican songs and dances bemoaned the harsh conditions in the mines and the suffering of the city. Tropes of respectability and lamentations of despair often existed side by side, as in the Carnival of Cape Town. Portraits of despair were challenged by other discourses as the cities evolved in the mid-twentieth century. The selling of South African cities as “sunlit utopias” where tourists from battered postwar economies could seek relief from gloom began to emerge in film, newsreels, photographs, paintings, and other promotion mechanisms. This was accompanied by vigorous efforts to “tame” the disorderly city through the building of homes and compounds, the introduction of “passes” to restrict movement of the black poor, the reemergence of segregationist thinking, and the rise of an ideology of “respectability” promoted by Christian “liberals,” as they called themselves, who supported segregation and created sports clubs, Boy Scout associations, schools, and social clubs. The tourist gaze was offered a taste of the “disorderly” side of things through the increasing objectification of the “ethnic,” or of cheerful “local colour” (161), putting, as Gareth Stedman Jones has described it, “the popular in its place” (“The ‘Cockney’ and the Nation, 1780–1988,” in David Feldman and Gareth Stedman Jones, eds., Metropolis London: Histories and Representations since 1800 , 272–324, here 301). By now thousands of blacks and “Coloureds” had come to think of themselves as urban dwellers. However, the concept of the dangerous and undesirable “slum” persisted in two ways—the ongoing promulgation, and indeed strengthening, of segregationist thinking, the idea that the city was and always would be a temporary stopping point for black people. And the international appeal of such works as Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), which sold 15 million copies worldwide, perpetuated the idea, on a grand scale, that the dark and dangerous world of the city was an uncomfortable and unacceptable one, and demonstrated that there was a massive market for portraying black “slums”—a market that persists to this day. However, by the 1950s, alongside this negative image of black urban life ran a contrary strand—that developed by the black urbanists—artists, musicians, poets and novelists—who, while they condemned the hardship to which they and their communities were subjected, embraced creativity and adopted a tone of cynical affection for their difficult city lives. Artists such as Can Themba, Peter Abrahams, Ezekiel Mphahlele and many others wrote of modernity rather than rural nostalgia while they treated the city with urbanity, irony, moral toughness, and a detachment that Bickford-Smith compares to the work of Charles Baudelaire or the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. This relative optimism and denial of the “slum” was possible, Bickford-Smith suggests, because in the 1950s the urban black elite had not yet been subjected to the true harshness of what was to come—the vicious segregationism of the “high” apartheid era, which fully entrenched itself only in the 1960s. The Sharpeville massacre of March 1960 and the forced removals of many urban communities to outlying and barren new “townships” rang the death knell of this urbanist renaissance, and many of the most creative and powerful writers and thinkers of the period were forced into silence or exile. The optimism turned to nostalgia, and from that period onward this dictated the tone and nature of writing and thinking about urban communities, particularly the most famous—Sophiatown and District Six—of those destroyed and removed. The book’s denseness does present a problem to the reader. There is no time or space to consider any one of the author’s arguments before he moves rapidly to the next one. Publishers who insist on harsh word limits for academic books create this problem. But Bickford-Smith’s portrayal of the city as a multilayered combination of design and meaning, structure and symbol, state and people, the hegemonic and the insurgent is a major contribution to the field. It also provides an enlightening and sophisticated introduction to an important body of history, analysis, and literature for those not in South African or African studies. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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