The continuation of oppressive colonial ideology through the preservation of heritage sites is stifling social change.
Modernist urban planning arranged along racial and class lines significantly contributed to the post-colonial cities we see today. National and local governments now use heritage sites as an extension of power and control. Broadly conceived, heritage is the use of the past in the present and a locus of power, through the appropriation of which the dominant in society may attempt to control the future by creating historical justifications for contemporary goals . While heritage sites are used as an extension of power in various interesting yet disturbing ways, urban planners are faced with paradoxes—on the one hand, they have to work with politicians who want to destroy the colonial remnants of the past, but on the other—the politicians also use the colonial symbols for economic gains. This is what is referred to as colonial amnesia that thinks it is making a way for urban growth and modernisation, including renaming, demolition, or leaving colonial heritages to crumble, while it also preserves the artefacts of colonial oppression as reminders of a dark colonial history and makes these a source of credibility for new post-colonial political leadership.
Practices through which power operates in post-colonial cities’ heritage sites are discussed here, with the hope that a certain level of conscientising will ensue and promote the use of power to enable effective and constructive social change, free of oppression in post-colonial cities. The Foucauldian and Fanonian discourse analyses provides a solid critical framework in which one can explore power relations in post-colonial–cum–apartheid heritage sites. Furthermore, the analyses is framed from the lens of economic apartheid, and the main argument is that the legacies of the colonial–cum–apartheid spatial landscape have been persistent since 1994 in South Africa, and that the country faces more pressing and enduring challenges because of economic apartheid.
While heritage sites are used as an extension of power in various interesting yet disturbing ways, urban planners are faced with paradoxes—on the one hand, they have to work with politicians who want to destroy the colonial remnants of the past, but on the other—the politicians also use the colonial symbols for economic gains.
Decolonising heritage sites in post-colonial–cum–apartheid cities: Economic apartheid experiences
Nelson Mandela’s houses is an interesting point of reference to highlight how we under-register the causes and effects of the colonial system and its power into post-colonial–cum–apartheid contexts. Two events are worth discussing as they highlight the presence of colonial–cum–apartheid heritage and its pervasiveness in post-colonial heritage contexts.
The first event: The Mandela house in Vilakazi Street, Soweto
Mandela decided to sell his house back in 1998 to a non-profit Soweto heritage company with the objective of creating a cultural precinct in and around Soweto, which subsequently saw the house being turned into a museum. Fast-forward to April 2021, the Mandela Museum was reported to be in a mess and was under the control of joint liquidators.
The second event: The Mandela house in Houghton, Johannesburg
In March 2021, in the Houghton affluent suburb in Johannesburg, where Nelson Mandela used to live, it was reported that his home had overgrown lawns, soaring utility bills, and was decaying into a ghost house. Just a few months later, in June 2021, an announcement was made that Mandela’s home had been turned into a boutique hotel called Sanctuary Mandela. This hotel opened on 1 August 2021 as was planned. The hotel features nine rooms that accommodate up to 18 guests, retreat spaces for reflection, and a personal connection to Madiba’s private life. In the words of the Mandela Foundation’s Chief Executive Officer, Sello Hatang, “The space [will] allow guests to immerse themselves in the legacy of Madiba and draw inspiration from Madiba’s soul, to commune together for the common good of resolving international matters and, lastly, to be inspired by this iconic global leader’s hospitable nature and spirit of service to the people” All this happened, even though it was Mandela’s will that his Houghton home should be occupied by three of his grandchildren, and would be held in the Nelson Mandela Trust, and “it should also serve as a place of gathering of the Mandela family in order to maintain its unity long after death”.
The implications for urban planning in cities with colonial pasts
At face value, it appears as if Mandela’s homes are preserved as heritage sites, but at a closer look, power dynamics embedded in colonial dispossession in a form of economic apartheid can be outlined. In essence, Mandela’s wishes for the Vilakazi house to contribute economically to the communities of Soweto and his Houghton house to serve as a unifying place for his family, did not come to fruition. All Mandela’s decisions regarding these two houses have been nullified after his death. Economic forces are pushing that the heritage sites be privatised for economic gains.
The implications of these actions are that the post-colonial cities are reproducing colonial infrastructures of symbolic violence and insecurity. Making the reminders of what was, is and possibly will be, to loom large—both in mind and in reality. These cities, now inhabited by the poor but designed for the rich middle classes who continue to enjoy privileges at the expense of ‘the other’, ‘spit the poor out’.
Symbolic violence and insecurity manifest from actions that are divorced from the context of everyday struggles in which power operates. Coloniality, indeed, values everything that constructs itself in ways expected in post-colonial contexts, which is to be white and rich. The classic examples are the Mandela houses in Soweto and Houghton, now turned into colonial symbols and objects that produce economic apartheid.
Coloniality, indeed, values everything that constructs itself in ways expected in post-colonial contexts, which is to be white and rich.
Decolonising heritage sites in post-colonial cities: Suggestions
Four critical suggestions have been put forward here if we are serious about decolonising heritage sites in post-colonial–cum–apartheid cities:
- Unless we reject and replace the modernist urban planning approaches towards the preservation of heritage sites in post-colonial cities, there will never be a new ideology aiming at making a difference in people’s lives, because the “new is actually the old ideology”.
- Dispossession in the name of preservation of heritage sites reveals the pervasive nature of colonialism in post-colonial cities, which will continue to hinder the incorporation of social justice in urban planning.
- We need to go beyond technicist top–down approaches to urban planning, but to recognise what really is at play through understanding the complexities of incorporating social justice in cities with colonial pasts.
- Bureaucratic political power relations, infrastructure development, spatial planning policies and legislation, vitally important for urban planning, must be scrutinised. Against a backdrop where modernist planning approaches have failed dismally, it must be rejected so that previously and currently segregated spaces can be transformed.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).