Kliptown: Soweto’s Cinderella
I wrote last year about the SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth) Foundation and Mighty Evolution Kids Nursery Preschool. (Both are located to the west of the railway line. SKY shown as Kliptown Youth Program on the map below). I spoke about the amazing tenacity of community members and their will to do the best for people against all odds and with very limited resources. Although Soweto as a mini-city has many different levels of wealth – from informal shack developments to the old Apartheid style 4 roomed houses to very upmarket homes – its infrastructure has generally improved significantly post 1994 with more parks and other recreational facilities, upgrades of public spaces, electrification and sanitation, road maintenance, access to shops, etc. This is in deep contrast to large parts of Kliptown.
From tourist showcase to shantytown
TK (Ntokoza Dube) who runs fascinating walking tours of Kliptown, was my guide to go and see Candice at the nursery school. On leaving the Soweto hotel and walking west across the railway line to the residential part of old Kliptown, the poverty, lack of infrastructure and clear lack of investment in Kliptown human settlements really hits you in the gut. Why is there such a contrast between the cold empty space of the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication, the scale of the huge conical monument, the columns of the flanking colonnades, the relative opulence of the Soweto hotel and the run-down houses, piles of garbage, ubiquitous portaloos and clear lack of general infrastructure in residential Kliptown?
First forced removals 1903: from Burghersdorp to Klipspruit
As with all contemporary situations one needs to understand them in their historical context. In 1903 the Johannesburg City Council bought the farm Klipspruit to establish the first gravitational sewerage farm to serve the southwestern parts of the city (this area is seen today in the wetlands and river area of Klipspruit).
However when there was an outbreak of bubonic plage in 1904 in Burghersdrop (later Newtown in Johannesburg), the Johannesburg City Council re-settled the Indian, Coloured and Black residents in segregated tent towns in Klipspruit.
Kliptown was part of Klipspruit
It was the area designated for Indians that was destined to become Kliptown – south of Pimville on the adjacent map (ie Kliptown was a part of Klipspruit). The segregration of races did not work however and Kliptown remained a site of multiracial living and working, with a diverse mix of communities and races including those who had been resettled as well as small scale white farmers and traders. Klipspruit (where the Blacks had been settled) was, like Alexandra and Sophiatown, an area where blacks were allowed to lease property and even own properties (until the 1980s when the West Rand Administration Board expropriated houses and residents became tenants in their own homes). This ownership of property as well as the multi-racial living gave it a very different character from the one which Soweto proper was later to develop.
Development of Soweto proper
Although the Native Urban Areas Act of 1923 enforced urban segregation, and the first official building programme in what was to become Soweto began in the 1930s with Orlando, it was only during the 1950s that extensive government housing was provided in Soweto (only named as such in 1963). By 1956 the Apartheid government had increased the size of Soweto to include zones like Mofolo, Jabavu, Meadowlands, Dube, Diepkloof, Dhlamini, Chiawelo, Zondi and Jabulani amongst others. Many of these residents shopped in the retail node (both formal and informal trading) located along Union St in Kliptown.
And Kliptown gets forgotten
However Kliptown gradually began to decline. By 1994 the majority of Kliptown residents did not have access to basic infrastructure and suffered from high levels of unemployment. Large areas still have no water-borne sewerage, lack pavements and have un-maintained dirt roads. There’s insufficient access to running water, there is no clinic, no school, etc. Why is it no better 20 years into democracy?
According to the Johannesburg Development Agency much of Kliptown’s development has been informed by its geographic location. Lying to the south of Soweto meant that it fell outside the boundaries of the municipality and hence developed more or less independently of the city of Johannesburg. Therefore, unlike the rest of Soweto, where transport networks were designed for greater mobility between Soweto and the rest of Johannesburg (particularly the mines), transport networks in Kliptown were not integrated into the greater region. And economic opportunities were further hampered when Kliptown’s status as a retail node in Soweto was eroded during the 1990s as formal and informal retail activity started to spread throughout the township.
Congress of the People
If one Googles ‘Kliptown’, the first thing that comes up is the Congress of the People and the 1955 signing of the Freedom Charter. It is this iconic event that is linked to Kliptown rather than what I have written about above or will mention below. In addition it is this history and the Square which is the focus of Soweto tour groups. Some time ago I went with guests from Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse on a Soweto tour and the only part of Kliptown where we were taken was to the Square. As is well known, in June 1955, 3,000 people met in Freedom Square for what became known as the ‘Congress of the People’ organised by the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress. This Congress saw the adoption of the Freedom Charter which set out 10 principles that were to loosely form the basis of the 1996 Constitution.
JDA’s upgrade of Kliptown
Enter the Greater Kliptown Development project which was first conceived in 1996 but only implemented from 2001. R375 million was allocated by the Johannesburg Development Agency for major redevelopment plans in the areas of infrastructure: housing, services, transport – upgrade of the Kliptown Railway Station and a 250 bay taxi rank; environment: upgrading of open land along the Klipspruit River; and economic growth and empowerment.
However it seems that the redevelopment project for Kliptown centred on the heritage site of Freedom Square (at a cost of 160 million?) which was even renamed in 2002 to the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication. [WSSD]. Out of 35 designs that were submitted for consideration, the design by StudioMAS Architecture and Urban Design was selected. It comprised a monument, a museum, two long narrow colonnaded buildings to house informal and formal retail activities and an open-air area for community gatherings.
When they announced the winner in June 2002, the judges described it as an “exemplary design on a bold scale, with the potential to change Soweto into a city”. Construction began in June 2003 and the monument was opened on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Charter in June 2005.
Loses its character and becomes a sanitized space
While the Greater Kliptown Project developers aimed to establish Kliptown as a prosperous, desirable and well-managed residential and commercial area and a major national and international heritage site, it simply did not work. It seems that a lot of planning, money and resources went into regeneration of the Square at the expense of the infrastructure in the surrounding area. And furthermore, very sadly, the social fabric, character, human scale and vibrant atmosphere of the trading hub – the formal and informal trading along Union St. – was destroyed.
In 2004 in ‘Re-envisioning Greater Johannesburg’ (African Arts vol xxxvii no 4), I wrote that the plans for Freedom Square showed a real danger of transforming it into a purified space, one that imposes a sense of social order rather than one which allows real people to intermingle in lived spaces in a vibrant colourful workable option. And indeed what transpired was a large characterless authoritarian space which as a result is often unused, empty and soulless. The ‘formalization of the informal sector’ simply produced a bland sameness with somewhat brut concrete architecture as opposed to human scaled higgledy-piggledness. Furthermore, despite the Soweto Hotel on the Square, the tourist spend in the area has simply not materialized.
Yet another round of upgrades
When the authorities and politicians acknowledged this, a further round of upgrades began. In June 2015 Joburg Executive Mayor Parks Tau announced that, although the City of Johannesburg and Gauteng provincial government had spent R802-million over the past decade on redeveloping Kliptown, they would be investing a further R677 million over the next 3 years. Local residents are cynical – they see the Square being repaved and Union St in chaos (it is being revamped again with much of it currently closed to traffic) with little evidence of benefits for them in terms of upliftment and infrastructural development.
It’s people that make spaces live
Will local government finally invest in the basic infrastructure of the residential side of old Kliptown ? Until it does, it is left to civil society and community-minded individuals to provide services and keep the public spaces clean. Bob Nameng showed me the street spaces outside SKY Foundation where he and Foundation members clear rubbish, repaint buildings, encourage public art in the form of graffiti and have plans to develop a community market.
It is people who bring spaces alive and make them livable, not the grand conceptual plans of urban designers.