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Violent Designs: Making Home in a Divided South African City

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This dissertation examines the politics of experimentation with housing design in former black townships in Cape Town in relation to broader shifts in racialized property relations and activist practice post-apartheid. In South Africa, local governments have embraced densification as a guiding framework for transforming spatial apartheid and creating more equitable, sustainable urban futures. Policies, models, and metrics surrounding urban density would seem to be the stuff of dull technocracy. But issues surrounding densification touch at the heart of the country’s history of racial violence and fundamental questions of the right to the city. Against a backdrop of modernist mass housing projects and older, more rigid approaches to governance, experiments in densification are often conceptualized in terms of a progressive shift toward more innovative design thinking. Whereas sprawl operates as a metonym for social fragmentation, densification is mobilized by state and non-state actors alike as an organizing logic for a range of new models for slum redevelopment and government-subsidized housing projects.

Through sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork and archival research into the way these housing projects unfold on the ground, I situate urban density—the preoccupation with the concentration of people in space—within South Africa’s deeper history of settler colonialism, arguing that townships have always been sites for continuous experimentation in racial containment, animated by white anxieties around minority status. I demonstrate that although modalities of experimentation can create opportunities for residents to have a greater say in the aesthetics and form of their communities, in many ways these practices also replicate longstanding patterns of marginalization, reinscribing external hierarchies of value on space while excluding autonomous political organizations. Further, I analyze the work of residents and activists who are dissatisfied with legally mandated forms of engagement in the housing development process, and instead choose to organize alternative platforms for political participation and collective deliberation over the meaning and value of urban space. This ethnography therefore queries emergent forms of urban planning in the Global South while scrutinizing design as a tool for development in contemporary debates about racial inequality and the right to the city.

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This item is under embargo until September 5, 2027.