Mapping Soweto: The Soweto HGIS Project
The primary objective of the Soweto Historical GIS Project (SHGIS) is to build a multi-layered historical geographic information system that explores the social, economic and political dimensions of urban development under South African apartheid regimes (1904/1948-1994) in Johannesburg’s all-black township of Soweto. Soweto (an acronym for the South Western Towsnhips), a creation of state power, was developed to house low-wage workers and to segregate black South Africans from white. The application of geographic methodologies to the study of the anti-apartheid movement reveals the complex spatial dimensions of violence, resistance, and freedom. The project examines the micro-geography of resistance and the layering of meaning and action between the apartheid state and township residents across its built form.
In this project developing a "multifaceted spatial [history] database that can be used to record and analyze a wider range of spatial features, both physical and human (Siebert 2000)," as related to the history of townships across Johannesburg is critical and yet unexplored among African studies scholars.
By documenting across space and time the racial and political ideologies of apartheid within these townships, or "labor-machines," an important question is raised: can we map residents’ resistance?
The focus of this study is the "township" of Soweto, located about 15 kilometers south west of the Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD) in Gauteng Province. From a statistical point of view, the population of Soweto is estimated to be about 1.2 million persons, comprising a land area of about 153 square kilometers. Soweto makes up more than 40% of Johannesburg’s entire population. Soweto is the most populous urban residential area in the country.
This research integrates the following areas of interest:
- The historical and spatial development of townships – specifically the spatial history of Soweto.
- The importance of spatial and temporal data in understanding apartheid.
- The ways in which township residents have constructed their own stories about housing and the urban environment.
Two hypotheses are the basis for further inquiry through historical GIS:
- Modernism – as expressed through urban planning and architectural design – was upended by the ground-up activism of township residents in the struggle against apartheid.
- The ideological and political objectives of racialized segregation are translated into the architectural plans and design of large-scale urban building programs.
Gabriela Arias—Gabi for short—was born and raised in New York City; however, she has called Wallkill, NY home since 2001. As a member of the first generation of her family to be born in the United States, she is proud of her roots. She considers the African ancestry of Dominicans from across the diaspora central to her identity as a Dominican-American woman. The history and culture of Afro-Latinos fascinates her and is an academic interest which she has been fortunate enough to explore at Hamilton College. An Africana Studies major, Gabi is especially interested in the intersections between institutions of public history and the process of historical preservation in communities across the African diaspora.
Andrew Powers was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest close to the waters of Puget Sound. At the bright age of 19, he headed east to Middlebury College, where he studied geography under an incredible faculty of daring thinkers. Andrew loves history, maps and transformative technology... Probably why SHGIS is the best job he's ever had. He currently lives in Seattle.
Nicolas Sohl is a Southern California native that uses GIS and photography as a medium to highlight the connections between, and use of, our natural, urban, and social environments. Nicolas’s photography has been shown in several solo shows and was featured by National Geographic and CNN. He is a graduate of Middlebury College and his work is enriched by his studies in geography. He currently lives in St. Kitts and Nevis, where he concurrently works with the SHGIS and works as a project manager for on-island development projects.
His work with the SHGIS has focused on understanding and visualizing the spatial-temporal dynamics of African neighborhood removals in the 19th and 20th century in order to better understand how forced removals to Soweto effected neighborhood population densities and public health in Johannesburg and Soweto.
Angel David Nieves, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Director of American Studies
Co-Director, Digital Humanities Initiative
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