Kliptown: the forgotten stepchild of Soweto

Kliptown: Soweto’s Cinderella

Candice Madondo outside Mighty Evolution Kids Nursery Preschool
Candice Madondo outside Mighty Evolution Kids Nursery Preschool Liz at Lancaster 2016

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.

SKY shown as Kliptown Youth Program can be seen in the upper left corner of the map
SKY shown as Kliptown Youth Program can be seen in the upper left corner of the map

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 area north of Union St and that to the South. To the north is: 

  • the cold empty space of the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication
  • the large scale of the conical monument
  • the bland repetitive columns of the flanking colonnades (which never worked in replacing the individual hawker’s stalls)
  • the relative opulence of the Soweto hotel

and to the south are: 

  • run-down houses
  • piles of garbage
  • ubiquitous portaloos
  • and clear lack of general infrastructure in residential Kliptown?

Rubbish alongside railway line Oct 2015
Rubbish alongside railway line Photo: Liz at Lancaster Oct 2015
Informal Settlements Oct 2015
Informal Settlements Photo: Liz at Lancaster Oct 2015

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).

Map showing the farm Klipspruit South West of Johannesburg. Source: By Vaaljapie - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496835
Map showing the farm Klipspruit South West of Johannesburg. Source: By Vaaljapie – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496835

However when there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1904 in Burghersdrop (what is now part of Newtown), the Johannesburg City Council re-settled the Indian, Coloured and Black residents in segregated tent towns in Klipspruit.

Kliptown was part of Klipspruit

Image from Johannesburg In Your Pocket no 7 p 50
Image from Johannesburg In Your Pocket no 7 p 50

It was the area designated for Indians that was destined to become Kliptown – south of Pimville on the map above (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

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. However it was only during the 1950s that extensive government housing was provided in Soweto. And Soweto was only given its name 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.

BUT… Kliptown gets forgotten

Cobbler's stall October 2015
Cobbler’s stall. Photo: Liz at Lancaster October 2015

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. Its postion 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.

Aerial View Kliptown June 2004 showing street traders, houses. Union Street runs horizontally across the image. Source: JDA
Aerial View Kliptown June 2004 showing street traders & houses. Union Street runs horizontally across the image.  Old Kliptown Road and Beacon Rd were both subsumed into the newly conceived Square seen on the right.  Source: JDA
Working design for Square showing 2 colonnaded structures, the voting crosses symbolic of the 9 provinces. Union St is on the left/south of the colonnaded market building
Working design for Square showing 2 colonnaded structures, the voting crosses symbolic of the 9 provinces. Union St is on the left/south of the colonnaded market building.  10 pillars at the east end support statues representing the 10 principles of the Freedom Charter. Computer generated image StudioMAS Architecture and Urban Design

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 large conical monument 
  • a museum
  • two long narrow colonnaded buildings to house informal and formal retail activities
  • and an open-air area for community gatherings.
Plan of core area from StudioMAS presentation to SA Heritage Resource Agency 2003
Plan of core area from StudioMAS presentation to SA Heritage Resource Agency 2003 Shows Union Rd on south and footprint of  Old Kliptown Road and Beacon Road crossing the square from south to north. The site where the Congress was held is located at the western part of the square

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

Conical monument contains the 10 principals of the Freedom Charter engraved in Bronze Source Gauteng.net
Conical monument contains the 10 principals of the Freedom Charter engraved in bronze. Source Gauteng.net

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.  

The new location for traders' stalls
The new location for traders’ stalls now under reconstruction 10 years on
Street side hawkers October 2015
Street side hawkers Photo: Liz at Lancaster October 2015

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.

Further upgrading of Union St Aug 2016
Further upgrading of Union St. Photo: Liz at Lancaster Aug 2016

It’s people that make spaces live

Houses on St which SKY foundation have recently painted
Houses on Station St which SKY foundation has recently painted. Photo: Liz at Lancaster 2016
Local artists are encouraged to produce public art
In 2014 well-known graffiti artists Falko and Rasty made a number of murals in Kliptown. Photo:Liz at Lancaster 2016

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.

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