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LCS-GY201: Urban Modernities: Space, Place and Difference

Professor Sue Parnell, Professor, Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences and African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town

Dr Bradley Rink, Lecturer and ACDI MSc Course Coordinator, Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences and African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town

Dr Sharad Chari, Associate Professor, Centre for Indian Studies in Africa and Anthropology Department, University of the Witwatersrand

Course outline

This course works across scale, and with insights from geography, anthropology and history, to think about the challenges and opportunities of contemporary urbanism as seen from the specific confluence of Cape Town. We explore urban modernities, looking at global processes and connections in the making of the modern trans-Atlantic world, to local practices and possibilities shaping neighbourhoods in Cape Town. 

The course begins with the making of the modern world within trans-Atlantic oceanic circuits, through which ‘capital,’ ‘labour,’ ‘nation’ and ‘race’ form in mutual constitution. We follow these processes to the making of urban modernity in Europe (and North America), alongside the spread of capitalism and of new ideas of social and spatial change. In counterpoint, we turn to ways in which African colonial cities produced simultaneously similar and different sorts of urban realities and expressive forms, and we consider what it might mean to think of urban modernity specifically from South Africa and from Cape Town. 

In the next set of lectures the course explores the interplay of local and global forces in the making and unmaking of urban segregation in South Africa and Cape Town, first under colonial rule and then under apartheid planning. We then use lectures and fieldtrips  to consider township urbanisms in Langa, the problems and possibilities of memory in the District Six Museum, and the dynamics surrounding queer life in today’s Cape Town. 

We return to some of the insights of critical race studies in relation to urban modernity, to think  of Cape Town in relation to other postcolonial cities in the North and South, in a time of resurgent projects of segregation, walling and border control. We conclude by thinking about cities not just in relation to the possibilities of the new but also in relation to ruins of various sorts: ruins of modernity and ruins of apartheid. As theorists of modern cities have long argued, ruins provide a window into a range of struggles that people confront in trying to imagine the cities they would rather live in. As a whole, this course brings together insights drawn from different disciplinary vantage points to rethink contemporary urbanism, informed by both a broad theoretical canvass, connecting South African insights to a broader comparative frame.

Full course outline|

About the instructors


Professor Sue Parnell is an urban geographer in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences and is a member of the Executive of University of Cape Town (UCT) African Centre for Cities.

Prior to her appointment at UCT she taught in the Wits University Geography Department (Johannesburg) and the School of Oriental African Studies (London). She has held academic Fellowships at Oxford, Durham and has just completed a Leverhulme visiting Professor at UCL.

Originally concerned with the historical geography of the South African city, since 1994 and democracy in South Africa her work has shifted to contemporary urban policy research (local government, poverty reduction and urban environmental justice as well as more general debates about formality and informality at the city scale).


Dr Bradley Rink is a human geographer with interests in the creation and performance of urban space, urban culture(s), and the complex interactions that occur in that heterogeneous environment.  His current research interests focus on urban life, culture and the related issue of quartering—the material and discursive shaping of urban space around particular expressions of culture.  Broadly stated, Bradley is interested in the everyday spaces that are part of urban life and the performance of identities that take place within them.


Dr Sharad Chari works between anthropology, history and critical geography, on the political economy and cultural politics of contemporary India and South Africa. He has conducted long-term fieldwork in Tamilnadu in India, on labour, gender, and agrarian and industrial change, and in Durban, South Africa, on past and present struggles next to oil refineries, where the ruins of the past prevent change in various ways.  

He has taught at the University of Michigan in Anthropology and History, at LSE in Geography and Environment, and will be at CISA and Anthropology at Wits from 2013. He teaches social theory, race, development and urbanism. Recently, he has been devising a new research project on changing formations of ports, proletarians, and the phenomenal life of the 21st century Indian Ocean region.