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Reconstructing South Africa’s cities? The making of urban planning 1900–2000

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During each period of extreme stress and turmoil in South Africa’s past century the idea of reconstruction has loomed large. A primary tool for reconstructing society has been presumed equally, by many parties, to lie in urban planning. As less turbulent times return, governments have attempted to reshape the society and, more particularly, the cities by developing new institutions, laws, visions, systems, personnel and plans. In each major case until the present, however, the programmes of progenitors of such ideas have been overtaken by the accession to power of new regimes, at government or merely planning system level, which have co-opted the new institutions, etc., to their own programmes; or such programmes have, less spectacularly, faded away as the complexities of government overwhelm initially exciting but idealistic visions. The paper describes aspects of the emergence and reformulation of planning at several of these stages: after the South African War, beginning in 1901; after the First World War, from 1918; arising from the depression of the thirties; eclipsed by the much more explicit and optimistic reconstruction movement during and after the Second World War, from 1943 onwards until turned into the era of apartheid. Further phases are described, one beginning from the Soweto rising of 1976, and another that of ‘late apartheid’ after 1985. Following the turmoil and recession of the later eighties, urban planning is now being reformulated as a primary instrument for remaking South Africa, much as it has been several times before albeit under different political conditions. The paper sympathises with these moves, but sounds a cautionary note in the midst of the prevailing enthusiasm for a further great reconstruction of our cities.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: April 1, 1997

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