Daily Podcast #22 Mpho Matsipa /// Post-Apartheid Spatial Futurities



Mpho Matsipa received her PhD in Architecture from UC Berkeley. She is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at Columbia GSAPP and faculty in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. She is a researcher at WiSER and co-investigator on an Andrew Mellon research grant on Urban Mobilities. She has written critical essays on art and architecture and curated several exhibitions and discursive platforms, including the South Africa Pavilion at the 11th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice Biennale (2008), African Mobilities at the Architecture Museum, Pinakotheque Moderne in Munich (2018),which will travel in 2019-2020  and Studio-X Johannesburg (2014-2016). She was the guest of a longer Funambulist podcast episode in November 2019.


As many of us are confined in many places of the world, we wanted to provide you with a daily podcast in partnership with Radio Alhara emitting from Palestine. Our ambition for it is to not add to the saturation of information we are currently experiencing but, rather, to propose a daily extension 15-minute of our political imaginaries.

The concept is very simple. Every day, we ask one person the same question: “what is for you a moment of true decolonization?” The answer can be a historial moment or something they witnessed; something heroic and grandiose, or rather discreet and mundane; a durable blow to the structures of colonialism or a short instant of liberation.

While we are recording this podcast in privileged conditions of confinement, we keep in our thoughts the multitude of people around the world who do not share similar conditions or have no choice but to risk being affected by the pandemic because of criminal policies that have to do with neoliberalism, carceralism, or colonialism

We thank you for listening and wish you and your loved ones the very best wherever you are.

(music by hooksounds originals)

Radio Alhara The Funambulist

NB. The Funambulist daily podcast is also played every day at 3:30PM, Palestine time, on  راديو الحارة Radio Alhara, a new radio produced from locked-down Bethlehem and Ramallah, along with another 15-minute production about worldwide solidarity, created specifically by The Funambulist for the purpose of this show. 




Mpho Matsipa: I think that one of the questions that I really had, in relation to this question was: when was the decolonial? And part of that has to do with having grown up in Apartheid South Africa, and going to bed one night in one country that was largely shaped by White Supremacy and capitalism and waking up on a different day, in 1994, to find that we had emerged into a dispensation that was supposedly very new. This kind of imagined rupture between the past and the present was something that I really struggle with, because a lot of the conditions that have produced Apartheid landscapes persist in the present, so that the past is still very much part of the present. Which brings me to what decolonization might mean to me and, and also what a project of decolonization might mean, in the way that I think about architecture, planning and spatial practice.

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of hosting an African American landscape architect at the School of Architecture and Planning in adverts University called Walter Hood. He gave an incredible presentation about landscapes of slavery in North America. The thing that was really striking for me about this was the way in which he was very actively engaged in landscape design as an act of remembering, right so it was an act of radical historiography where he was reclaiming landscapes, that were largely produced similarly out of a long history of white settler colonialism, but also dispossession and erasure of the presence of Black people within that landscape. And it started making me think, in much more explicit ways about my own fraught relationship to architecture, where I hadn’t understood until very recently – it might seem strange –  as somebody who grew up under Apartheid -, the relationship between architecture and property. There’s a fraught relationship that I bring to it as a Black woman in the design profession where my relationship to landscape is one of dispossession. When I was an architecture student in South Africa in my undergrad, we had classmates, white classmates who had these very grand landscape projects, and these grand visions about how they were going to transform landscapes. They had an imaginary of themselves as the custodians of landscape as the people who were best equipped to preserve and conserve particular sorts of natural habitats. And that was a position that I never, ever assumed for myself. I had always assumed that landscape design, or grand visions of landscape were a white pursuit. But I hadn’t understood the relationship between those custodial relationships to landscape and my own relationship to land, which is a relationship of racialized dispossession.

One of the things that has been a very meaningful thought exercise and a practice is beginning to think historically about the way in which our landscapes are produced and the relationship between landscape and racialized dispossession. That demands a re-engagement with history in order for us to be able to offer myself to be able to imagine a radically different spatial future. But in order to do that, I had to go back to the history of racialization, and segregation in South Africa that didn’t begin with apartheid, (which was in 1948), but actually has a much longer history that’s rooted in slavery, British and Dutch imperialism and also colonialism.

Traditional architects of South Africa will argue that the history of white colonial land dispossession didn’t begin with the passing of the Native Land Act in 1913. But that it actually spans back to the expansion of Dutch colonial settlements in the Cape Colony. But very often, the Native Land Act of 1923 is a major marker of black disposition. And it was a major step taken by the white majority government in addressing the issue of what they termed the “Native Question.” And this is by passing the Native Land Act on the 19th of June in 1913. This act basically lays down the foundation for other legislation that would further entrench the disposition of African people and segregation later, for Coloured and Indian people. And the acts defined a ‘Native’ as “any person, male or female, who is a member of an Aboriginal tribe or race of Africa.” And the Act’s most catastrophic provision for Africans was prohibiting Africans from buying or hiring land in 93% of South Africa. So that in essence, Africans, despite being more in number were confined to only 7% of South Africa’s land.

The 7% was increased to 13.5% by the Native and Land Trust Act that was passed in 1936. That Act stated, “A Native shall not enter into any agreement or transaction for the purchase higher, or other acquisition from a person other than a Native or any land, or any right there to interest they’re in or servitude they’re off.” But Africans were permitted to buy and sell land in reserves or scheduled areas, where whites were prohibited from owning land in these places as the Act stated. The Native Land Act of 1913 also included anti-squatting provisions to stop sharecropping and also define the boundaries of reserves, which were referred to as scheduled areas. The effect of the Land Act was to eliminate Black tenants and to replace them in white areas by Black servants or laborers who would no longer be allowed to lease land in white areas. Some scholars like Patricia Dixon argued that the layout of Land Act was designed to protect whites not only the rich white farmers, who share the lion’s share of available land, but the landless by owners who there after assured of work on farms of others and the urban poor whites who could no longer be forced to compete with skilled or semi-skilled Natives. In total, the Act went beyond just dispossessing African people of the land. It closed avenues of livelihood for Africans, other than to work for white farmers and industrialists.

There’s a fundamental relationship between land dispossession and the production of race in South Africa, and also an imaginary of Black people as servants rather than the custodians of their own land. And the impact of this Land Act probably had the most visible impact in that it denied Africans access to land which they owned, and had been leasing from white farmers. The Land Act marked the end of the limited independence which African farmers had on white owned land, it has dispossessed a lot of black people into servitude, and African people were forced to move to the reserves and could often not find enough fertile land to use for the crops. African farmers who owned land inside and outside the reserves did not receive any aid from the government in the form of loans. They therefore found it increasingly difficult to compete with white farmers who could use improved methods and expand their farms.

This very brief history of early 20th century racialized dispossession, is also part of the story of the way in which the discipline of architecture unfolds, because the professionalization of architecture is happening exactly at this moment of dispossession. And a lot of the tropes of representation, landscape painting, for instance, are all about representing this privileged individualism of the one point perspective, of taking in the terrain. It is always the position of the settler colonialist, that is surveying a territory in which Africans are objects amongst other objects, as opposed to being agents within their own landscape. This becomes a very important question for me: what are the regimes of representation that one would have to engage with in order to account for the experience of dispossession? And how do you actually begin to conceptualize modes of thinking about space, territory, landscape, in ways that escape the logics of colonialism? So part of the work that I was trying to achieve through the exhibition that I curated on African mobilities was to invite a group of Africans from across the continent to help me think through this question: what are the modes of representations that we can come up with, that help us to grapple with our own complicated relationships to space, that are so implicated with the legacies of colonialism and dispossession – in different registers, as African spatial histories are not homogenous, or uniform.

Before I get into, or even for the purposes of this conversation what I want to signal are some of the authors that I’ve been reading increasingly, to try and think through these questions. One of the struggles around grappling with a history of colonialism and Apartheid is finding ways to imagine a future that is free. There is a kind of official declaration that we are now free. But what does that actually mean in terms of spatial practice? And what kind of vocabularies do we need to bring to the fore in order to make or to articulate these visions? So when people talk about decolonization, it’s usually sort of an engagement with Hegelian dialectics, or citing the great black thinkers who have brought us to this point, whether it is Fanon or Césaire. But my go to people are Toni Morrison, Katherine McKittrick and Saidiya Hartman as a way of really thinking through this relationship between not only dispossession and Black subjectivity, but also radical imagination.

In her book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. Saidiya Hartman argues that historians who write histories of the oppressed and marginalized groups often have to grapple with the power and authority of the archive, and the limits that it sits on what can be known, whose perspective matters, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of a historical actor. And this is similar to the arguments that Toni Morrison makes when she wrote her book, Playing in the Dark. To a degree both Hartman and Morrison convey the sensory experience of Black life. And Hartman in particular aims to convey the sensory experience of the city and to capture the rich landscape of Black social life. She achieves this through a technique of close narration, a style that places the voice of narrating character as inseparable relation, and she quotes “so that the vision, language and rhythms of the wayward shape and arrange the text.” This idea of close narration becomes a very interesting technique to think about in relation to Black spatial practice, whether it be a closed narration of what Black spatial practice could be and what kinds of modes of representation and forms of spatial practice does that give rise to. Hartman also describes the lives of rebellious poor Black women the wayward as beautiful experiments. And she argues that Black women who were poor, at the turn of the century had basically transformed living into an art form, and that they had undertaken those described as promiscuous, reckless, wild and wayward in order to illuminate the radical imagination and everyday anarchy of ordinary coloured girls, which has not only been overlooked but nearly unimaginable. So this idea that Black women have the capacity to imagine radical spatial futures or radical futures for themselves, is not only unimaginable in the space of literary criticism or literary history, but also largely unimaginable in the discipline of Architecture and Planning.

This is an ongoing question for me, around what a decolonizing practice might be, what would these close narrations be that don’t trap Africans or women or Blacks in stories that are dystopian or embedded in narratives of unmitigated despair, but actually began to identify the space between the notes, the spaces of possibility, the lines of flight, the forms of subversion that one might find that contradicts the meta-narrative of colonial dispossession and displacement, but also a kind of celebration of upheaval.

A second or third author that I’ve been engaging with quite closely recently is Katherine McKittrick, not only in her book Demonic Grounds, where she begins to map out the spatiality of Black women after the Middle Passage but also in her meditation on Plantation Futures. So Katherine McKittrick defines “plantation futures”, as a conceptualization of spacetime that tracks the plantation towards the prison and the imprisoned and the destroyed city sectors. And consequently, according to McKittrick, brings into sharp focus the ways that the plantation is an ongoing locus of anti-black violence and death that can no longer analytically sustain that violence. She also argues that plantation futures demand decolonial, thinking that is predicated on human life. This idea of the plantation is something that has an afterlife in modern day institutions like the prison, where the ghetto, the destroyed, impoverished sectors of the city, find some resonance in Saidiya Hartman’s discussion of the ghetto. Hartman argues that the ghetto is the plantation extended into the city. But an important issue also argues that the ghetto is a laboratory and a space of encounter, that it has a terrible beauty, that the ghetto is an urban commons where the poor assemble, improvise forms of life, experiment with freedom, and refuse the menial existence scripted for them. She argues that the ‘Negro quarter’ is a place bereft of beauty and extravagance amidst display of it. It is a terrible beauty, where Black folk create life and make bear need into an arena of elaboration. Where intimate life falls into the street. So this idea of rupture between an overdetermined narrative of Blackness as abject and black spaces as fundamentally un-geographic is something that gets subverted through these kind of close narrations of a city, that I find incredibly fascinating and a site from which to begin to imagine radical spatial futures.