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HomeEditorial teamApartheid’s Lethal Love Affair with Modernism

Apartheid’s Lethal Love Affair with Modernism

A case study of Cape Town

If you know Cape Town exclusively from a tourist’s perspective, you will likely have certain images that come to mind, like the stunning beaches, mountain views, unique flora, penguins, sunset cruises and trendy eateries. Due to the South African Rand being a cheaper currency, you may also experience quite a change in buying power while visiting. Suddenly, you may be able to afford accommodation with an ocean view, eating out each meal and buying the most expensive wine on the menu.

One can paint a rather romantic picture of Cape Town, but this is also a picture of a lifestyle and experiences that most city residents will never experience. Many tourists are faced with this reality in the car ride from Cape Town International Airport to their accommodation because upon exiting the airport, you are greeted by views of the informal dwellings of Gugulethu – a township where thousands of people live without running water in their homes and where violence is part of everyday life. However, the tourist will likely arrive at their accommodation in a suburb like Camps Bay, where the median property is sold for R12 750 000 compared to Gugulethu’s mere R360 000 (around 605 000 and 17 000 euros, respectively).

Current racial separation in Cape Town

While the 20-minute car ride the tourist took is hypothetical, it does, however, demonstrate a broader phenomenon in the city: the extreme wealth and racial divide. According to the IMF, South Africa is the most wealth unequal country in the world, with 20% of the population holding 70% of the wealth. Wealth inequality is also heavily racialised, and Statistics South Africa found that in 2017, the annual median expenditure for whites was more than ten times higher than that of black Africans.

The broader context of racial injustice in South Africa during the Apartheid era

Apartheid was a system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the South African government from 1948 to the early 1990s. Under the system, people were categorised by race and received rights based on this categorisation. The white minority enjoyed a privileged position, while people of colour were systemically oppressed and denied political rights. Apartheid translates to “separateness”, and the government relentlessly and violently enforced the separation of people of different races by introducing laws like the following:

Group Areas Act (1950)

This act assigned specific residential areas to different racial groups. This law resulted in the relocation of millions of people of colour, sometimes with brutal force – tearing them from their communities and largely locating them to the edges of cities where they experienced limited economic opportunity and a lack of infrastructure, services and amenities.

Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953)

Different public facilities like parks, beaches, hospitals and public transportation were assigned to be used by different race groups. The facilities available to people of colour were limited and inferior to those offered to white people.

Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949)

Marriage between white and non-white individuals was prohibited. This act ended up tearing families apart, and this law’s social effect is still felt today.

The Apartheid government’s attraction to modernism

The National Party (NP), the political party in control from 1948-1994, was attracted to modernism for several reasons. Firstly, The NP was attracted to modernism as a global movement because it was associated with the developed world and the white Western culture they admired. Secondly, modernism was associated with efficiency and rationality, which fit well into the NP ideology of white supremacy and modernisation. Lastly, the apartheid government could use modernistic ideas to justify and legitimise their implementation of racial separation – a good example of such an idea is that of Le Corbusier, who offered a vision for the physical separation and zoning of different functions within the urban fabric. The apartheid government would simply argue that offering “separated development” for different race groups is just more “efficient” and “organised” due to the differences in language and culture.

Cape Town Civic Centre in Hertzog Boulevard, Cape Town

How modernism shaped Cape Town in three different areas

City centre

Following the principles of modernism, several large-scale changes were made to the Foreshore area in Cape Town. Large, monolithic buildings replaced historic buildings, and two major highways were built to connect the city centre. Still today, one can see the stereotypical modernistic picture of high-rise buildings that stand in contrast with large open spaces – urban design commonly criticised for its lack of human scale.

Forced removals in certain neighbourhoods

As previously mentioned, the apartheid government did not want people from different race groups to mix; they also wanted to keep prime locations in cities “clean” (white). This resulted in the forced removal of an estimated 3,5 million people in South Africa from 1960 to 1983. In Cape Town, the most well-known example of a neighbourhood destroyed by forced removals, is District 6.

“And you will find those areas are all areas of prime property importance, because what had happened was when an area has been proclaimed as a white area, people of colour of course, had to get out. And if you owned property in those areas, the government would make an offer for your property which was way below market-related prices. And if you refuse to sell it, they would take your property, and the word they use ‘expropriate’. Then they would give you what they thought it was worth, which was even less than what they offered you in the first place. And then they kick your butt out of there.”

Joe Schaffers, a former resident of District Six and one of the founders of the District Six Museum

District 6 was a vibrant neighbourhood where people from many races, cultures and religions lived together until it was designated as a “whites-only” area under the Group Areas Act. In 1966, the apartheid government began removing residents and bulldozing their homes and business to make way for new, modernist developments like office blocks, highways and apartment buildings. The forced removals continued until 1982, and over 60 000 people were displaced. Former District 6 residents can still paint clear pictures of the destroyed community’s heartbreak and trauma. They share stories of seeing their parents cry for the first time and the suicides committed by some of the people affected.

“In 1970, the government sent in the first bulldozer. Then, they started demolishing all our homes. In fact, it took them 11 years to do that. Gradually, street by street. You know, many people died of broken hearts. My father was also in his early 60s when he had to leave his home in 1974. I still remember how my father cried. He didn’t want to go because District Six was his home.”

Noor Ebrahim, a former resident of District Six and one of the founders of the District Six Museum

Residential areas on the outskirts of the city

The apartheid government created large-scale, high-density residential areas on the outskirts of cities for the non-white population. These areas are called “townships” and were also separated by racial group. They were meant to accommodate the growing non-white population while keeping the inner-city areas reserved for white people. Townships are characterised by a lack of public amenities like parks, schools and healthcare facilities while also limiting access to economic opportunity as they are located far away from the CBD and do not have suitable transport options. This is the answer if you were wondering where the former District 6 residents were forced to move to. They were usually placed into cheaply built accommodations, but some people also received no housing and ended up living in informal settlements where they had to make makeshift shelters.

The townships still live on today, and while government efforts are made to improve them, they are still vastly underserved and riddled with crime. Gangs are prevalent in especially the Cape Flats, and in 2018, it was estimated that 100 000 were members of gangs in this area alone.

The Fall of Apartheid

The regime started showing cracks in the late 1980s. Various factors contributed to the ultimate demise of apartheid, including the tireless efforts of anti-apartheid activists (both within South Africa and internationally) and international exclusion. The 1990s were characterised by several transformative and hopeful events like the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, his democratic election in 1994, the country hosting and winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), also in 1995. The TRC provided a platform for victims of human rights abuses during apartheid to share their stories and seek reconciliation.


Today, South Africa is rather different to what it used to be during the apartheid era, and the Constitution is widely
regarded as one of the most progressive and inclusive constitutions in the world. Even though significant improvements have been made, South Africa is still far removed from what the Constitution describes it should be.

“The democratic South Africa that celebrates its 26th birthday today is not the fair and just country that it should be – that many in 1994 dreamed it would be.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2020

Cape Town still serves as a case study of how oppressive powers can use modernistic planning to leave a large-scale impact on urban environments and how, despite having a reformed political system, the effects will be felt by generations to come.

Lo Muller
Lo Muller
I'm the chief editor of Girugten, the magazine of the Faculty of Spatial Science at the University of Groningen. I eagerly joined the magazine in 2023 and have enjoyed the outlet for a different writing style compared to the academic assignments assigned to me. I am studying Human Geography and Planning and would eventually like to narrow my interests enough to specialize academically. Feel free to review what I've written below and reach out if you see value in some discourse.


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