Abstracts for 'Imagining the City' Seminar, 30 April 2010, Birkbeck


South African Cities in film: Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban from the 1890s to the 1960s
Vivian Bickford-Smith (University of Cape Town and Institute of Historical Research, University of London)

This paper stems from a project that looks at the perceptions of South African cities in the twentieth century, and the consequences of those perceptions. The focus of the paper is on what filmic and literary sources reveal about both insider and outsider perceptions of the peculiarities and commonalities of South African cities compared to those in other parts of the world. Such sources – including feature films, travelogues, newsreels or films commissioned by municipal authorities – implicitly or explicitly suggested ways in which Johannesburg, Durban or Cape Town were similar to European or North American cities. But they also suggested or demonstrated differences, either in hopeful or worrying terms. This paper will argue that filmic depictions of South African urbanity in the 1920s and 1930s were largely utopian. But after the Second World War the likes of Civilization on Trial in South Africa (1950) and Cry the Beloved Country (novel 1948, film version 1952) were dramatically dystopian. The paper explains how and why this happened, and why such representations were part of post-war domestic and international debate on the nature of South African urban problems and possibilities, not least over the conditions and experiences of urban Africans. It also suggests ways in which this debate, and therefore visual and literary depictions of cities, evolved in the course of the 1950s and 1960s and with what consequences.


‘I have seen the illness. We have found the medicine.’ From Local Struggles to National ‘Imagination’ (and back again): Langa and Nyanga, 1959-63
Oliver Murphy (University of Oxford)

This paper is an investigation into the way in which Cape Town’s African locations of Langa and Nyanga acted as a nexus of localised political resistance and ideas of a wider ‘national’ struggle.  It is an examination of the interplay between the activists of the PAC, and both the rural and urban poor. I seek to argue that it was in the urban ‘melting-pot’ of Langa and Nyanga that highly localised rural struggles meshed with ideas of ‘the Nation’ expounded by the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). It is here, among migrant workers from the Eastern Cape and in the form of the ‘Poqo’ Movement that one sees a fusion of both the ideology expounded by the PAC and elements of a tradition of rural resistance. This form of resistance was quite unique. It was characterised by grass roots mobilisation, violence, a suspicion of ‘educated’ nationalist organisers, and the infusion of rural social, political, and cultural conceptions. This was a form of resistance that was not contained solely within Langa and Nyanga, but one that its exponents sought to export back to their rural locations. I approach this by examining firstly, the activism of PAC cadres in Langa and Nyanga prior to the banning of the PAC in 1960, and secondly, the ways in which the residents of these locations continued to struggle against the State after the bannings, in both urban and rural contexts. I conclude by suggesting that the political upheaval of 1960s Cape Town is better understood in the context of the political culture and tradition of rural resistance in the Eastern Cape, rather than as a logical but tragic step in the teleology of elite African Nationalism in South Africa.


Listening to and Imagining Others` Whereabouts at the Catholic Mission in Luanda: An Ethnographer`s Perspective
Madalina Florescu (SOAS)

This paper draws on my ethnography of the Catholic Mission of Luanda where I did fieldwork between 2006 and 2007 through the lens of the Bakhtinian notion of “dialogic imagination”. But instead of reading, it is through listening that a social space was constructed among strangers, the ethnographer and her informants, who only shared their curiosity about one another. It is about the imagination of what anthropologists have called “context of situation” from within the narratives that were assembled in a building that within the span of time of a generation had underwent considerable changes of usage, as it had moved out from within the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church into that of an Atheist State and back into that of the Church. These changes in function and ownership were reflected in the speech and perception those who lived or worked there had of one another and of their surroundings. This in turn positioned the ethnographer in unusual ways that affected her imagination of the wider, narrated context the building was made part of. Starting with questions about children accused of witchcraft and moving onto jokes and confessions, I was renamed within a social and cultural structure from where an otherwise unavailable perspective opened up to me by tuning into what my commensals and co-lodgers said as they remembered, laughing, their whereabouts.


AIDS and the City – Shared Spaces of Infection
Lizzy Attree

The continuing associations that cities have not only with disease but also with the corruption and dissolution of Western modernity have striking resonances in the fiction of African modernity.  Yet it is in these cities that many modern Africans are re-formulating their identities.  Achmat Dangor recently acknowledged that city writing comprises a new direction in African literature: “African writers are starting to reclaim the African city from the colonialists who… poisoned it as a centre of culture and ‘dark, gleaming light’.  African literature can only be enriched by this.”  The modern preoccupation and centrality of the city stems from its growing importance in African life.  Soon, cities will contain the largest percentage of African populations, so that the weighting of writers’ concerns in this fascinating growth area is entirely justified.  The relative freedom and space of rural areas cannot help but be juxtaposed with the cramped, densely populated lives of urban Africans.  The spread of HIV/AIDS in tandem with this unprecedented urbanisation runs parallel to these momentous changes in African lives. 

 With reference to national culture, Homi Bhabha states that the internal and the external define each other: this is the result of a state in which there is ‘incomplete signification’, which leads to the turning of boundaries and limits into the in-between spaces through which the meanings of cultural and political authority are negotiated.  In the context of disease, these liminal states, or border spaces, in which one risks contamination, produce meaning and narrative.  One ‘in-between’ space is the city, which in the past, has often been emblematic of “diseases of the social body”.  But, more literally, than metaphorically, the body becomes a ‘discursive formation’, imbibed with meaning and potential consequences.  The body moving through the city is at risk of infection, anonymous and lacking definition it is in a limbo state in which it is neither ‘infected’ nor ‘diseased’.   Literature provides us with a means through which to inscribe meaning, comment and meditate on these intimate, fluid, mobile, urban relationships.  In this paper I examine whether narratives of HIV/AIDS are considered to be local, urban-based phenomena, forming part of a literary tradition of city-spaces and what effect the HIV/AIDS and the city has had on South African and Zimbabwean authors in the last twenty years.