Call for Contributions – Representing South African Cities

Culture anglo saxonne

Representing South African Cities / Conference, 27-28 November 2013

University Paris Ouest Nanterre la Défense

Organised by

Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes (CAS, EA 801, Toulouse)
Centre de Recherche Anglophones (CREA) et Centre Espaces/Ecritures (EA 370, Nanterre)

In parternship with the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (Cape Town)

As part of the Season of South Africa in France


In 2006, Stephen Watson claimed that he experienced “a certain sense of deprivation. Though books on Cape Town abound,” he explained, “there ha[d] been none to date that ha[d] addressed itself to the particular spirit of the place, the genius loci that is inalienably Cape Town’s own and like no other on this planet”(Watson 2006, 97). He had therefore suggested that twenty writers write about the so-called “mother city” – although two years later, however, Niq Mhlongo’s answer in an interview seemed to contradict the narratives therefore put together. For this Johannesburger, Cape Town seemed, he recalls, “not ‘motherly’ at all” (interview with Laura Arenschield quoted by Murray 2011, 78), and during his stay in Cape Town he paradoxically missed what constituted life in his beloved township of Chi. Chiawelo does not get much space in Vladislavić’s Portrait of Johannesburg, published in the same year as Watson’s collection, but it can be said that its 138 sections offer just as many views and representations of this multifaceted, “tentacular” city (Verharen).

Those concomitant publications and growing interest in the representation of the South African city, or rather, cities, draw attention to the importance of the act of representation itself and the “imagined” views of the cities which are projected onto it, while any discourse on them, and particularly of an artistic nature, as both Watson and Vladislavić remind their readers, in turn contribute to shaping them.

Of course, they also echo previous writings about those cities, and Vladislavić names quite a few when he recalls in particular Bosman’s essays or Lionel Abrahams’s poems on Johannesburg. Yet what those very references and what those writings and debates further suggest is that South African cities have changed dramatically since those times. Chris van der Merwe, for one, underlines the unprecedented rate of urbanisation which South Africa as a whole, but mostly its already major urban centers, has experienced, when he notes that “[b]y the 1990’s [sic] over 90% of whites and Indians lived in towns, but whereas in 1960 only 30% of Africans were urbanized, by 1990 that percentage had almost doubled” (Van der Merwe 2001, 8). The rate is higher still a little more than a decade after the publication of Van der Merwe’s study, and points to the need to analyse the major changes thus experienced by South African cities, after what one could in a sense call, like Vladislavić’s character Tearle in The Restless Supermarket, incidentally published in the same year as Van der Merwe’s study, “[a]n historic migration” (Vladislavic 2001, 129), of South Africans, among whom many black people, but also of people coming from outside South Africa’s borders.

The question of defining the cities’ inhabitants’ identities so as to define the directions to take in the organisation of South Africa’s “build environment” was thus at the heart of a series of lectures given by architects, environmentalists and archaeologists during the Think Fest programme of Grahamstown Arts Festival in July 2012, and no doubt architects and urban planners take note of imagined representations of the city such as the one offered by Vladislavić’s book, if one is for instance to believe the list of “Top Ten Reads by Architects” established by Finuala Dowling in her review of 2007 (Dowling 2007, 140). There has indeed recently been a growing body of publications by geographers, urban developers, political scientists or sociologists which do not just simply focus on an analysis of the growth of South African cities, but take into consideration as well the perception people who reside there or elsewhere may have of them. The question of the representation of the South African city is indeed an issue in itself, as it relates to questions of identity and belonging. Such were for instance the questions raised by the seminal work of Mbembe and Nuttall on Johannesburg, or of the exhibition set up at the African Media Matrix in Rhodes University in July 2012. Even more recently, GIPCA invited thinkers to reflect on those multifaceted perceptions of the city as indirectly affected by representations of it, or performances in and about the city, in its multidisciplinary event “Thinking the City” which combined discussion sessions, film screenings, exhibitions and performances.

GIPCA’s programme in Cape Town is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious so far, yet all of those studies remain rather limited in scope, focusing – legitimately – on the local area of Grahamstown and the larger Eastern Cape, or on the symbolic capital of the country, Johannesburg or its alter ego at the tip of the continent. Despite the latter books’ attempt at raising both the issue of urban planning and the question of representation and the imagination projected on the city, little has yet been done, however, to engage in a real dialogue across disciplines and across the country. Some books have been published which include viewpoints from various specialists, such asJoburg circa now, but such a dialogue should probably not remain within the covers of a book and at a distance, as it were. Setting up a collaboration with GIPCA, our joint teams of researchers seek to enlarge the latter’s scope by inviting contributions and outlooks on all South African cities to engage in a dialogue across regions and disciplines. This conference therefore proposes not only to present the latest developments in the research on South African cities, but to offer an opportunity for academics from various fields to compare their respective analysis and their theoretical conclusions with the imaginative, artistic representations of the cities of South Africa. Some major actors of the literary and art scene will be present to expose their views and discuss their works with researchers as well as with a wider, more general audience. The convenors therefore not only invite researchers from all fields to come and present their latest work on South African cities, but also strongly encourage papers which offer a cross-disciplinary approach, or joint presentations between researchers from various fields or academics and artists (writers, directors, photographs). Presentations can focus for instance on the growth of Johannesburg and the renovation of its city center and its urban and social consequences, and the artistic reflection led for instance by the photographer Mikhael Subotzky, and/or how his work may contrast with Jodi Bieber’s latest album on Soweto. If an artistic look at the evolution of South African cities is thus much welcome, so is its counterpart, and interventions on cultural representations of the city (including literature and films) are also welcome from sociologists, geographers, urban developers or architects.

Proposals for presentations (500 words maximum; presentations not to exceed 30 minutes) together with a brief bio-biographical note should be sent before June 25, 2013 to Mathilde Rogez ( The languages for the conference will be English and French.


Works cited:

Dowling, Finuala, “Top Ten Reads by Architects”, Books and Leisure, Issue 2, March-May 2007, p. 140.

Kurgan, Terry, and Ractliffe, Jo, eds., Johannesburg circa now: photography and the city, Johannesburg; The Authors, 2005.

Mbembe, Achille and Nuttall, Sarah, Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis, 2008.

Murray, Sally-Ann, “On the Street with Vladislavic, Mhlongo, Moele and Others”, in Michael Chapman and Margaret Lenta, (eds.), SA Lit beyond 2000, Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011, p. 69-96.

Van der Merwe, Chris, (ed.), Strangely Familiar: South African Narratives in Town and Country, Stellenbosch: Content Solutions Online, 2001.

Verharen, Emile, Les Villes tentaculaires, Gallimard, 2006 (1895).

Vladislavić, Ivan, The Restless Supermarket, Cape Town: David Philip, 2001.

Vladislavić, Ivan, Johannesburg: Portrait with Keys, 2006

Watson, Stephen, « A City Imagined », New Contrast 131 34(1), 2006, p. 97-104.