Narrations of South African Urban and City-Life Experiences

Interviews and Literature Review of “A City Imagined” by Watson and “Jo’Burg to Jozi” by Holland and Roberts

Essay, 2011

9 Pages, Grade: 1

Markus Emerson (Author)


Life in big cities and the urban space that the cities create within their confinements are shaped by the complex interconnections between all the different people inhabiting the urban space, what the people created architecturally and what has been there before humans arrived - the nature. The interplay between the people themselves and between the people and the space is what makes urban spaces fascinating, on the one hand, and necessarily complex, on the other hand. More complexity is added when the people living in these spaces seem to be culturally different, i.e. having different ideas, attitudes and ways of dealing with their situations. South African cities are marked by very different cultures, not only shaped by the obvious and devastating effects of European colonisation but political systems like apartheid and also through the sheer mass of different cultures among its inhabitants. Cape Town and Johannesburg belong to the biggest South African cities and have that complexity at their heart. As the people themselves, who live in urban areas, and their connections among themselves and nature and are making up these urban spaces it is important to take their individual narrations about cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg into account. In order to get information about urban spaces, these individual stories and the experiences of individuals in the city can paint a “more realistic reconstruction of the past”, as Thompson argues, and in fact also about the present life in urban spaces (24). Consequently, in the following essay I will focus on different narrations of Cape Town as an urban space. I will compare several short narrations of people’s lives and experiences in Cape Town, which Watson compiled in a book called A City Imagined, to two interviews that I conducted with two Captonians (a man in his sixties and J., a young man aged 23) and will, when appropriate, relate this to a collection of stories about Johannesburg, entitled From Jo’burg to Jozi, edited by Heidi Holland and Adam Roberts. When I read the different narrations in Watson’s collection, I came across certain themes which seemed to weave themselves through most of the narratives like golden threads. Thus, this essay will discuss urban life in the city Cape Town based on the following five themes that constantly appeared in the narrations of the city: notions of home in and the feeling of belonging to Cape Town, the ambivalence of the city, the significance of nature in an urban space like Cape Town and sense memories that people connect to Cape Town.

To start with, by calling a certain place ‘home’, people attach meaning to it and transform a place into a space. Home, I may assert, is generally a place where people feel

comfortable, secure, a place that they can relate to and where loved ones live, i.e. a space of belonging. Home does not only have to do with friends and family but with a connection to certain places that then become spaces. People can feel at home in rural environments as well as in urban areas like Cape Town. In the Introduction of Imagining the City Field and Swanson claim that the “present city management’s goal is to make Cape Town ‘A home for all’” (6). Hence, the notions of home and belonging of people living in Cape Town seems to be very important. Furthermore, it reveals a lot about their perception of and feeling towards the urban space. In A City Imagined Brink writes about the feeling of being at home that developed while he was away. When he came back there was a fierce recognition that “took (his) breath away, that (he) had indeed come home” (120). He describes Cape Town as a “home at the end of every endless year”, being that “one constant” during all the changes in his life (119). J. reported about a similar feeling about Cape Town in our interview. He referred to the city of Cape Town as his “home base” towards which he feels very connected (1). Like many other people in the collection of stories about Cape Town he talked about “my Cape Town”, “my city … it is home”

(2). Even people who did not describe Cape Town as a beautiful place use the words “My Cape Town”, like Magona who reveals in A City Imagined that his Cape Town “turned out to be a small, dark, damp room at the back of another family’s shack …” (108) or Shute, who claims that “(her) Cape Town was pathetically small” (80). The use of the possessive pronoun “my” indicates the way the people feel to possess the city, or in other words, metaphorically own some space in the urban area. It sounds like the people actively shape their city and the way they live their life in it. Making the city one’s own might also refer to the people’s feeling of having “agency”, i.e. making deliberate choices in dealing with the situation. This agency is not as specific as the deliberate choices women make in Kihato’s article on social conditions of migrant women but helps to disprove not only “women’s passitivity and their lack of agency” too, but generally acknowledges the agency of Cape Town’s inhabitants (399).

According to a famous proverb, ‘home is where my/one’s heart is’. This highlights the emotional connection to a space that people call home. The old man I interviewed explained his feeling of disconnection to Cape Town by saying that his heart is not here, in Cape Town. He explained, however, that this might be due to his age and that he is feeling wanderlust. He told me in our conversation that he does not feel very connected

to Cape Town anymore and explained it by saying that “maybe I’ve been here too long, I want to see and do other things” (1). This indicates that apart from the spatial aspect of Cape Town as an urban space, time also plays a decisive role in constructing the feeling of belonging to a place. In A City Imagined, West reports about her constant coming back to Cape Town that widened “the distance between (her) selves, leaving (her) nowhere” (164). This disconnectedness to the city is not a unique phenomenon and can also be found in other big cities or urban spaces. Bremner, for instance, argues in From Jo’Burg to Jozi that downtown Johannesburg became a “rather awkward place to be” and consequently “many of its citizens no longer have a sense of belonging in Johannesburg at all”, i.e. feel disconnected (66). To recapitulate, although many people feel at home in the city Cape Town there are also others who feel disconnected to it. Even among those who feel at home in the city there is a great variety of forms of belonging and people make sense of the urban spaces in different ways. This shows the complexity of city life in big cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg and highlights the importance of considering Oral History and interviews in discovering about individual perceptions of urban spaces like Cape Town.

Connected to the liminal space between connectedness to the urban space and a sense of not quite fitting in and belonging, is atmosphere of ambivalence that makes up the city Cape Town. In the following, I will illustrate different feelings about this issue, as could be seen in the narratives and interviews and discuss its importance for the understanding of Cape Town as an urban space. In A City Imagined Cartwright suggests that in his point of view Cape Town has “the sharpest clash of culture and self-image in all of South Africa” (203). I will take this image of a clash as a starting point in order to find out more about the ambivalence and clash of culture and ideas in the city. The most obvious ambivalence is the huge clash between rich and poor in Cape Town. An architectural clash between the shacks in the townships and the huge bank buildings in the centre of the city. And of course connected to this is the clash of rich and poor people and their commodities. One interesting observation I made in my interviews are the so contrasting ideas about the relationship of these contrasting parts of the city, the townships and the centre of Cape Town. Before providing the two views I encountered in the interviews, I want to refer to a point of critique Leslie Witz makes of Township Tours in Cape Town. Witz argues that one problem with current “Township Tours” in


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Narrations of South African Urban and City-Life Experiences
Interviews and Literature Review of “A City Imagined” by Watson and “Jo’Burg to Jozi” by Holland and Roberts
University of the Western Cape  (Department of History)
The Making of the South African City
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
415 KB
making, making of the south african city, south africa, city, experiences, city-life, urban, urban spaces, A City Imagined, Johannesburg, jobarg, Jozi, Cape Town, interviews
Quote paper
Markus Emerson (Author), 2011, Narrations of South African Urban and City-Life Experiences, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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