There are few places in the World where space is historically so politically loaded as South Africa. This is common knowledge: one of the cornerstones of Apartheid (a synonym of ‘separated-ness’) was the organization, division and regimentation of the public and private space of people on grounds of their ‘race’. ‘Whites’, ‘coloreds’, ‘blacks’, ‘Indians’, etc. all lived in distinct zones, separated from those of other groups by natural or man-made boundaries such as stretches of no-man’s land, highways, walls and barbed wire fences. Consequently, the space in which you lived defined who you were, and it defined your position in society, your rights and duties, your life trajectories, your cultural and social outlook on life. Apartheid space determined people.
The end of Apartheid meant the end of that strict spatial demarcation, and its most immediately visible effect was a gigantic wave of internal migrations, from rural areas (the so-called ‘homelands’) to the urban zones of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. While space had officially been ‘democratized’, such migrants obviously landed in a non-neutral space. They found their way to mushrooming shantytowns around the cities, which now extend for miles and miles and form a huge zone of poverty and marginalization around the cities. Living in a shantytown, again, determines people: it determines them as poor, under-educated, and with meager prospects for upward social mobility. The UN estimates that by 2050, the Cape Town area will count about 15 million people. 14 Million of those will, in all likelihood, be desperately poor, and they will never make it beyond the confines of their marginal spatial allotment: the lower-class township. Space is historically determined in this country, and it will continue to determine people’s lives for many years to come. There is no politically and historically neutral space in South Africa, and large-scale urbanization projects such as those undertaken in view of the World Cup Football in 2010 are not likely to fundamentally change this. They are more likely to highlight the tensions and inequalities in urban space, and they already do. Improving the roads and the public facilities in the vicinity of the sports facilities is one thing; bringing roads, water and electricity (and schools, hospitals, job opportunities, and so on) to the millions in the shantytowns is quite another. A globalized mega-event such as the World Cup, thus, creates one additional layer of conflict over and contest about the ownership, legitimate use and right of entrance or passage in urban space. It creates ever more political sensitivity for spatial organization, planning and use.
It is in this highly sensitive environment that Bert Danckaert captures and sets his Cape Town images. And while the images articulate a calm, synchronic, almost geometrically organized spatial environment (a ‘simple present’, to use Danckaert’s own words), we should be aware of the political and historical load that is carried by these synchronic patterns of spatial organization. The forms captured and highlighted in Danckaert’s pictures – the geometry of everyday, almost unremarkable space, are political forms. We can see this clearly when we look at certain details: the iron bars behind windows and doors, the lining of barbed wire on walls – all traces of ‘no go’ zoning in Cape Town. These are all forms that tell us a story of entitlement to space, of wanted and unwanted occupants of space, and in a wider sense, of the continuity of social and political spatial demarcation in a historically loaded place such as Cape Town. Danckaert’s aesthetics, his focus on the almost abstract forms that organize this urban space, is thus iconic of the space itself: space in Cape Town is a formal given, something that operates along strict lines of separation, inclusion and exclusion. The present, consequently, is never really ‘simple’. In places such as Cape Town, the present of space extends its history and perpetuates its political function. This, of course, leads to increasing contestation and to more conflict – the demarcation of space now doesn’t contain the clear population categories of Apartheid, but organizes a more diverse population distinguished, essentially, by a widening gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. The point is, however, that this slow socio-cultural transformation still refers to old, effective instruments of spatial regimentation to guide its course and to give it its concrete material shape. The forms of urban spatial organization provide a politics of social division for the new South Africa, very much in the way it did in the older South Africa.
Formalism is a dirty word. It carries connotations of High Modernity, extreme structuralism and Soviet-style top-down aesthetics. If we see Danckaert’s work now as ‘formalist’, we should bear in mind that this formalism is documentary, that it accurately describes the particular role and function of space in that place. Cape Town is in many ways spatially organized in formalist fashion, with clear lines, itineraries, boundaries and points of entrance and exit. This formalism is at the heart of Cape Town space, it defines the politics of space there, and it makes this space into a zone of struggle. The fact that Cape Town is at the same time undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and that the outsider would quickly be captured by the idyllic as well as spectacular features of that place is likely to draw attention away from the more sinister sides of space in Cape Town. Danckaert’s camera has brought these to the surface, and his pictures now formulate complex questions about Cape Town – questions not usually addressed in tourist brochures, and avoided by local authorities trying to commodify the splendor of their city. Reflecting on the ‘simply present’ form of space now compellingly invites reflections on its origins, its history, and its political (ab)use.