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Territories and urbanisation in South Africa

Frédéric Giraut
Céline Vacchiani-Marcuzzo


A georeferenced database covering one century of demographic and administrative follow-up of all South-African localities and territories

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1South Africa, the first economic power in the African continent, has a population of nearly 50 million inhabitants, of whom more than 60 % were urban in 2008. The country has a long-standing network of metropolises (cities), towns and localities (places). These have developed and become hierarchised in the course of a history where population settlement and its distribution have been markedly influenced by colonisation, segregation, industrialisation and globalisation.

2An outstanding set of statistics on population distribution, dating from the start of the 20th century is available for South Africa. This data was however compiled and presented in a succession of post-colonial contexts each very specific in nature: first the Union of the British ex-colonies and the Boer Republics, still very colonial in style, then the apartheid regime, and finally post-apartheid South Africa. These successive periods led to creations and redefinitions of social categories and spatial frameworks: segregationist “engineering” in the territorial, social and political fields, to which statistical data and its processing were subordinated until the end of the apartheid system; territorial reforms aiming to abolish segregationist legal regimes and to reinstate the country and its cities within the globalisation process.

  • 1 With the scientific collaboration of Ryad Ismail (University of KwaZulu-Natal) and François Moricon (...)

3Thus collating and inter-relating data from census information since 1911 makes it possible to retrace the history of one century of settlement distribution, urbanisation and territorial engineering in South Africa. The Dysturb database available on the CD-Rom and with the set of maps and commentaries derived from this data are the result of this geographical-historical enterprise.1 The database collates, harmonises, geo-references and inter-relates in time firstly all the political and administrative maps for districts, urban agglomerations and places, and secondly the population figures for all these South African entities, both urban and rural, since 1911. In addition, it determines the boundaries and the makeup of the urban entities for each census on a functional basis, moving beyond the administrative divisions and official definitions.

  • 2 The database is allied to different productions that constitute references in the field of spatio-t (...)

4The demographic and administrative datasets according to the entity considered can thus be processed in the long term, and re-aggregated in constant, present or past functional and administrative spatial frameworks.2 Thus it is the whole spatial and territorial archaeology of South Africa that this tool makes it possible to apprehend in the full diversity of its different modes. The commented geo-historical database Dysturb is compatible with the geographical information systems (GIS) proposed by Statistics South Africa (​) for the last two censuses (which afford access to all census data according to localities subdivided into enumeration areas); it is also compatible with the municipal GIS SA Explorer (developed by the South African Municipal Demarcation Board: which enables access to socioeconomic data for the new municipalities.

The challenge of shifting categories

5Throughout the past century to the classic changes in borders and nomenclature were added changes in category and distinctions in terms of status that were applied to entities of one and the same nature. Paradoxically, the distinctions among individuals on the basis of race and origin, forming the basis of the racist political order until the end of apartheid, generate only minor difficulties in statistical follow-up. Indeed, these distinctions, already present in the colonial era, were maintained, refined and made more rigid in the apartheid period. Thus for the censuses, they were implemented in fairly stable manner, although there were some changes in denomination. An under-estimation of the black population should however be noted at the time of the 'grand apartheid' policy, culminating with the census of 1985, which is not retained in this database for reasons of data reliability.

  • 3 The Group Areas Act (1950) obliged the local authorities to allocate separate quarters ro the diffe (...)

6The spatial frameworks within which the censuses were compiled are far less stable. Enumerations were conducted within heterogeneous frames with major changes not only in the delimitation and the number of entities up to 1970, but also in their nature and status. Three distinct periods need to be distinguished to apprehend the main changes: the period during which the apartheid system was established at the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s, the 'grand apartheid' period (from the start of the 1970s), and the end of apartheid (in the mid 1990s). Apartheid, and in particular the Group Areas Act3, does indeed appear as being fundamental in the systematisation of urban segregation and the differentiation of quarters and localities on a racial basis. On a different scale, the 'grand apartheid' system created what were termed homelands alongside the four historical colonial provinces, with their own districts formed on an ethnic basis. It is also the period during which the urban localities taken into account for the census enumerations were particularly numerous, in particular with the appearance of the townships that were distinct from white areas. Finally, since the end of apartheid, a complete reorganisation of the spatial reference frames and of statistical compilation methods has occurred. Provinces (since 1994), districts and basic municipalities (since 2000) form exhaustive territorial grids that systematically associate spaces corresponding to the former homelands and non-“municipalised” spaces with the spaces corresponding to the former provinces and municipalities. In addition, these entities include the whole population, irrespective of any distinction between urban and rural.

The blacks, the whites and the others the categorisation of individuals under apartheid
The main racial categories used in the censuses were:
- the "Bantus," also referred to as "Blacks" or "Natives," referring to the original African population, and more specifically those considered as being of Bantu origin, that is to say the sedentary black populations that the European colonisers encountered as they penetrated the interior beyond the sparsely populated arid territories in the hinterland of Cape Town;
- the "Whites," or "Europeans," referring to populations derived from colonial settlement from Europe, with their two main groups, the Afrikaners, of Dutch origin, and the British. These two groups arose from separate phases of colonisation, and distinct modes of integration into the South African space. Thus at the end of the colonial period, for the Afrikaners, also known as Boers, it was mainly the rural interior that was occupied, with an autonomous organisation cut off from its European base, while the British implantation was more urban, in the provinces open to the outside world, and in particular towards the British colonial Empire.
There were also two categories to refer to "Non-Whites" or "Non-Europeans," and these were formalised in the apartheid period. They were less stable, and have sometimes been confused:
- the "Asians" or "Indians," referring to South Africans of Indian origin whose ancestors had often arrived as indentured workers or by free passage, in particular at the end of the 1 9th and the start of the 20th centuries;
-the "Coloureds" or "Others" who formed a heterogeneous group including persons of mixed blood, and those who did not fit into the above categories.
This classification, derived from the British colonial period and already present in the 1911 census, played an important part in the construction of identity. While condemning the system that designed it, researchers still use it widely, and contemporary censuses enable the follow-up of these categories, even if responses on ethnic origin are today non-compulsory. Certain other terms require definition: Indians, Africans and half-casts were collectively referred to as "Non-European" –which was a rather derogatory term used in the apartheid period– while they might have referred to themselves as "Blacks."
(from Myriam Houssay-Holzchuch, note in Giraut F. et al., 2005).

7Concerning urbanisation and the task of tracing its history, South Africa is a rather unique challenge. This arises in part from the practice, subsequently becoming an inherited feature, of physically separating quarters by means of buffer zones that introduce morphological discontinuities within urban areas; it also arises from the practice of “displaced” (resettled) urbanisation beyond the boundaries of the former bantustans, which raises the issue of the nature of isolated but dependent urban agglomerations, and of where they belong.

Dysturb: The three scientific objectives

8By way of its design, Dysturb mainly serves three scientific objectives and domains:

Historical demography and contemporary spatial frameworks placed in perspective

  • 4 See A. J. Christopher (1976, 1994, 2001) for his pioneering work on the scale of the national terri (...)

9The database enables novel processing of demographic and administrative data according to locality over a period of one century. The data can be aggregated into stable spatial frameworks, both functional and administrative, past and present. This enables research or demographic history, and makes it possible to put data in perspective in the long term and on different scales, ranging from the local scale of village and quarter to the national scale, via the intermediate scales of district, municipality, province and former bantustan. Work on historical demography4 appears fundamental in the context of the recent reorganisation against a backdrop of colonialism, urbanisation, migratory flows and forced removals, and the ensuing freedom of movement.

An observatory for spatial and territorial archaeology

  • 5 G. Toal (1996) defines “geo-power” as “the functioning of geographical knowledge not as an innocent (...)

10It is known that systematising census operations, with the social and spatial classifications upon which this is based, underpins national control strategies in settlement colonies, and this has been studied in particular for the United States (Hannah, 2000). More generally speaking, political geography has explored and used the work by Michel Foucault on “gouvernementalité” and related technologies (2004 a and b) to study the implementation of “geo-powers”5 (Toal, 1996; Rose-Redwood, 2006). In the case of South Africa, this process has been characterised by breaks and marked changes in the spatial categories used, which reflect the successive political systems and governing technologies.

11The database enumerates the succession of divisions, denominations and statuses of places and areas on all scales. These are given for the post-colonial period, for the apartheid period, for the ‘grand apartheidֹ’ period, and the post-apartheid period, each of these periods seeing intense, extremely characteristic territorial engineering activities aiming to manage and use the various spaces for different purposes, colonisation, segregation or reunification. Dysturb enables study of this succession of practices in the division and allocation of spaces, with respect to their general principles and their various modes of implementation according to scale, environment, heritage and opportunity. Beyond the fairly well-known general trends, it is possible to trace the diversity of the different modes of application. Any exceptions identified can take on meaning by way of comparisons with other situations. Finally, it is also possible to cast light on the issues of the status of localities or quarters, and their names, i.e. the toponymy, which is an ongoing concern in South Africa today, by tracing creations and changes of place names in the censuses collated in this database, whether from a monographic viewpoint or with respect to trends.

Study of urban dynamics in the long term

12The database provides a long-term follow-up of the urban entities, from their establishment and through the advancement of the successive waves of the urban frontier, the growth of the population in the 20th century, and the evolution of the urban contours, both morphological and functional, for each census. Thus the database enables all the localities involved to be linked up, and therefore affords the opportunity to work on South African agglomerations independently from the official definitions in force for each period.

13The population database for these urban entities does not escape the difficulties generated by the statistical sources in South Africa. But it does enable a refinement of the definition of the South African city, viewed as a geographical entity, since it does not reduce it to a mere legal or administrative definition.


1 With the scientific collaboration of Ryad Ismail (University of KwaZulu-Natal) and François Moriconi-Ebrard (CNRS-UMR SEDET) for the initial development of the base.

2 The database is allied to different productions that constitute references in the field of spatio-temporal databases enabling places and territories to be followed over a series of censuses:

  • the Great Britain Historical Geographical Information System (GBHGIS) developed by the University of Portsmouth ( which, like Dysturb, makes it possible to collate and interrelate administrative maps and successive censuses according to locality and district;

  • the China Historical GIS on the Harvard University website, faculty of Arts and sciences: ( This is an even wider project, since it goes down to finer scales and integrates spatial, environmental, and socio-economic data in addition to the census data;

  • “L'Europe des populations” comprising 130 000 spatial units (communes or equivalent) for Europe overall: Moriconi-Ebrard E, Hubert J.-P., Strauch G.-A., Cohen R., 2007, Europe des Populations Version 2, cédérom Arctique, Tours, 2007, (new edition revised and augmented) (;

  • the Africapolis database “Formes et dynamiques de l'urbanisation en Afrique de l'Ouest, 1950-2020: approche géo-statistique” developed in 2008 for AFD by SEDET headed by Eric Denis and François Moriconi-Ebrard;

  • the NHGIS (National Historical Geographic Information System), set up bv the University of Minnesota: this is a project to make available all census data for the American population from 1790 to 2000 within spatial frameworks ranging from the finest (census tract if available, if not counties) to the states, and also offering all related cartographic material. This data has been available in various formats since March 2007, after 5 years' work (

3 The Group Areas Act (1950) obliged the local authorities to allocate separate quarters ro the different racial groups, banning any mixed quarters.

4 See A. J. Christopher (1976, 1994, 2001) for his pioneering work on the scale of the national territory and the main cities.

5 G. Toal (1996) defines “geo-power” as “the functioning of geographical knowledge not as an innocent body of knowledge and learning but as an ensemble of technologies of power concerned with governmental production and management of territorial space.”

© IRD Éditions, 2009

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