Race and the Digital Humanities in South Africa
Posted: 13 Apr 2013
Date Written: April 13, 2013
On the morning of June 16, 1976, Black African students marching to protest the adoption of Afrikaans as the primary language of instruction for schools in Johannesburg’s “South Western Townships” (Soweto) were gunned downed by members of the South African police and security forces. The physical backdrop to these events, the so-called “model native township” of Soweto, was made-up of a series of systematically planned would-be South African garden cities with the primary purpose of reinforcing the powers and capacities of the state system of apartheid. Physical spaces such as these, built under apartheid, have been providing the social, political and economic context for Black urban life since the founding of Johannesburg in 1886 to the present. However, few studies have considered the historical significance of these townships as extant physical artifacts of a difficult past. This is particularly timely as townships now face complex heritage issues and the concurrent pressures of the international tourist market.
Eighteen-months ago I began a collaborative project with three undergraduate students in the Department of Geography at Middlebury College to build a historical GIS database drawn from a collection of thirty-nine largely unseen maps, architectural plans and drawings discovered at the National Archives Repository in Pretoria, South Africa. These documents, developed by architects, engineers, and city planners, and dating from the period of the 1890s to the 1950s and 60s, provide great insights into the design and construction of model township communities for the City of Johannesburg during the apartheid era. That these existing idealized township designs were never realized for a variety of political, social, and economic factors is a topic that no researcher has yet to discuss in the fields of historical GIS and historical geography. This talk explores the making of a historical GIS database, the impact of digital technologies on the study of urban African communities, and a collaborative research process involving both faculty and undergraduate research assistants conducting fieldwork in Soweto, Johannesburg.
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