Chapter 7

The politics of locality

Memories of District Six in Cape Town*

Anna Bohlin


Introduction

While shared conceptions of locality play an important role in the creation of ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson 1983), recent studies show how political contestation lies at the heart of the construction of notions of belonging (Bourquet et al. 1990; Bender 1993; Johnson 1995; Hirsch and O’Hanlon 1995). The physical landscape can be employed as a symbolic resource in the fashioning of a homogenising, nationalist culture, but it may as well be used in the construction of more restricted, and partial, social, ethnic or gendered identities (Bodnar 1994:75-6; Johnson 1995:51-3). In discourses about power and its legitimacy, social change and political strategies, the historical meanings ascribed to places are often challenged, negotiated and rejected according to the perceived needs and interests of social groups in the present. The criteria for belonging to territorialised groups tend to change over time, in a process which creates complex and partly overlapping identities.

In contemporary South Africa, issues concerning place and placelessness have assumed a special significance. Due to the policies of segregation most effectively enforced during the era of apartheid, but present also in earlier periods in the history of the nation, the lives of a majority of South Africans have been shaped by troubled and ambiguous experiences of localities. These have come to be experienced, for instance, as places to which one has belonged, from which one has been excluded, or to which one has been forced to belong. Millions of people have been compelled to leave their neighbourhoods and forced to set up new lives in unfamiliar surroundings in townships, homelands or abroad, whereas others have had to defend their houses, homes and territories through the use of weapons.

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