“Spoiling the neighborhood, pulling down the town”: Town planning, class and respectability in the making of Sasolburg, 1950-1976

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Seminar Date
September 21, 2011
The company town of Sasolburg in the northern Free State does not immediately spring to mind as a key site for the elaboration of mid twentieth century international modernist town planning ideas. In 1951 the managers of the South African state‟s oil-from-coal project, SASOL, commissioned a Swiss émigré architect, Max Kirchhofer, who had attended the legendary 1933 Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) congress held on a boat between Marseilles and Athens – a watershed moment in twentieth century modernist design – to plan its company town. Like a number of towns established in Britain (and elsewhere) from the 1940s through to the 1970s, Sasolburg was a New Town with strong „garden city‟ influences, placing its intellectual origins in early twentieth century progressivism as much as in the tradition of the paternalistic company town panopticism of William Lever‟s Port Sunlight, George Cadbury‟s, Bournville or Pullman, Illinois. ISCOR‟s Vanderbijlpark, another South African New Town, was established shortly before the National Party‟s victory in 1948, and when parliamentarians visited Sasolburg in the late 1950s, they we`re struck by the fact that “so far as lay-out and development is concerned, [Sasolburg] is so much like the United Party town of VanderBijl.” Dubow‟s declension narrative charting how a Smutsian “ethos of scientific internationalism” gave way to “a much more insular technicism” under apartheid prevents us from seeing the continuities in town planning across the apparent watershed of the beginning of apartheid. The South African modern movement, Japha has argued, strove from the late 1930s for a social relevance which it found in the mass township housing projects of the Native Affairs Department. As I discuss elsewhere in this dissertation through my analysis of the planning of the Zamdela Township near Sasolburg, Kirchhofer conforms to the general outlines of Japha‟s account of the involvement of professional design experts in apartheid‟s black urban housing projects. This chapter, however, explores a different aspect of the history of modernist design under apartheid: the relationship of modernist town planning to the making of respectable white subjects. I begin by delineating the stakes entailed in the struggle for respectability in Sasolburg during this period before outlining the planning visions of Max Kirchhofer, the architect commissioned by SASOL to design its company town. Placing his plans in the context of twentieth century planning genealogies, I analyze the extent to which residents' accounts of everyday life in Sasolburg during this period resonate with Kirchhofer‟s vision of egalitarian neighborly life. I move on to investigate Kirchhofer's plans for a „lower-income‟ precinct in Sasolburg and the ways in which his modernist reformist optimism – initially so different to the class cynicism of the National Housing Commission and Orange Free State Township Board – dissipated in the face of the apparent unwillingness of a conspicuous group of „lower-income‟ whites in Sasolburg to remake themselves in the image of a hegemonic culture which linked respectability to the appearance of gardens and backyards. As I show, SASOL and the Sasolburg municipality were centrally involved in the cultivation of a civic culture which elevated perfect lawns and tidiness to the status of cults. In the final section of the chapter, I analyze letters of complaint written by white residents to the municipality, reporting and denouncing their neighbors for failing to conform to the local code of respectability in relation to its key external markers: neat gardens, perfect lawns, clean yards and comportment.
The paper is available here