Photography by:
  • Amanda van der Walt

Histories & Futures

This programme of research focuses on relevant histories of the Gauteng City-Region, as well as possible futures, in comparison to other regions in other parts of the world. There are two key dimensions to this programme of research. First, by asking what makes this city-region similar to or different from other large urban formations elsewhere, we are better able to theorise what constitutes this area as a city-region, and in turn, understand the trends and dynamics shaping its progress. Secondly, we are interested in how potential futures might be constrained by path dependencies, given the particular histories of this region. And in light of this concern, we hope to learn how other city-regions elsewhere are reshaping their futures by addressing constraints inherited from the past.

While potentially contestable, there are some urban projections that envisage that African cities like Lagos may grow to some 80 million people in the next century. Urban formations of this size enter the realm of science fiction; they are almost beyond the horizon limit of what we can conceive. Such projections are usefully provocative, however. They force us to ask: what will the GCR look like in 100 years? What would it be like to live in it on a day-to-day basis? What would it take to sustain it? What would it mean to govern it? In turn, they oblige us to confront some key questions about what we are doing to understand and shape present trends and dynamics given what we have inherited from the past.

Given our history, and the way this weighs on current trajectories, what could we do to shape a different urban future? The question is not only applicable to apartheid spatial planning. It could be asked of any number of domains. Can we ward off the ‘jobless city’? Can we avoid a future of overconsumption and dire resource constraints? In a context of apparently ever-deeper and -wider social schisms, can we create new bases for commonly held identities and associations? In light of mounting evidence of state weakness, if not failure, what prospects are there for new, more just, human and effective modes of governmentality?

A key component of this focus area is comparative research with two main objectives. The first is to position the GCR as an object of study within the academic discourse and as part of this inquiry, to critically challenge the ideas around South African exceptionalism that still pervades rhetoric about South Africa’s status in relation to the broader sub-Saharan African region. The second objective is to theorise more deeply the ‘city-region’ in and of itself and in so doing, contribute to international debates on urban theory.In its first five years, GCRO undertook some research into the histories of the GCR and some into options for future growth modelling. But there is a need to expand and deepen analysis of where the city-region is ‘evolving to’. This requires a better sense of the region’s history, and therefore its path-dependencies, and how it compares to other places elsewhere in the world.

There is a two way conditionality here with the need to theorise more deeply the ‘city-region’ (rather than just the trends and dynamics that are shaping it). On the one hand, understanding what defines the GCR as a ‘city-region’ – as opposed to a mere cluster of cities, or a mega-region – is a condition for understanding it in comparison to similar formations elsewhere in the world, and in knowing what to look for in projecting future directions. On the other hand, being able to view the GCR’s historical development paths and future possibilities in comparative perspective with those of similar places elsewhere is a condition for more adequate theorising of its ‘city-regioness’. This gives ‘benchmarking’ a deeper meaning beyond the mere tabulation of comparative data on key indicators.

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