Moving Against the Grid

Moving Against the Grid

By Nicky Bruun-Meyer
Edited by Tatum Dooley

Where there is power, there is resistance.

– Michel Foucault

The reality of cities is that, no matter how designed, controlled, or planned they are, people will do as they like. They will find ways to live and move through them that suit their purposes, even if this means going against the “designed” system. In the case of South Africa during apartheid, this movement was obstructed by institutionalized segregation and state oppression.

Apartheid in South Africa was set up by the National Party government as a way to achieve a so-called utopian lifestyle. They believed this could be done through the control of space, culture, and people. Through legislation, the establishment of programmed zones, restrictions on land ownership, and policies of separate development, they created a system of inequality rooted in a deep history of colonialism and a dominant-dependent relationship between races. As a mechanism of social control, it relied heavily on concepts of space and power to achieve the white ideal of racial segregation.  

While apartheid was a legislation to control the movement of all South Africans, the actions of many of its citizens created counter-devices and internal contradictions contested its authority. Even though apartheid removed many forms of public space and freedom of movement, it also produced alternative forms of space created by the everyday actions of those living under its control—the stories, music, dance, and protests that were part of the country’s culture of subversion and resistance—were for years the site of public life in South Africa. As Martin Murray explains in his essay City of Extremes, “like all sociospatial ordering systems designed to normatively shape the human condition, [apartheid] was unable to sustain itself indefinitely, collapsing under the accumulated weight of its own internal contradictions.” (1)  Everything from language to movements of the body became political, as people’s actions and use of space moved against the ordered system.   

As human beings we have an inherent desire to create and adapt our immediate surroundings to better serve our needs. Cities and communities change because people appropriate and use space differently over time and maintain public life. “No matter how terrifying a given system may be, there always remain the possibilities of resistance, disobedience, and oppositional groupings,” (2) writes Michel Foucault. Against the odds, South Africans created public space in a variety of ways: virtually, through the use of networks of information; and physically, through temporary events. These actions reshaped the spaces of apartheid and offered an alternative South African reality, either by linking previously unrelated locations or exposing new thresholds. These networks and events present a new understanding of space, beyond the apartheid world of maps and classifications.  

The Book, Johannesburg–Soweto Line , 1986. Photograph by Santu Mofokeng, ©Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

The Book, Johannesburg–Soweto Line, 1986. Photograph by Santu Mofokeng, ©Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

Set in place in 1948 with the election of the National Party majority, by the 1980s it was clear that urban segregation in South Africa was an utter failure. The apartheid system had almost more loopholes and omissions than laws, despite the best efforts of legislators to maintain the status quo. A major development in the downfall of apartheid was the Govender Case in 1982, which ruled that Non-White families could no longer be evicted, unless other housing was provided. The housing shortages at the time meant the Group Areas Act, established in 1950 to legally prohibit racial mixing through spatial planning and zoning, had become more of a theory than reality. The spatial practice of apartheid was broken down by the lived realities of the city. After this change in legislation the number of Non-Whites moving to the urban areas increased, and by 1988 the Free Settlement Areas Act officially acknowledged the ‘Grey Areas’ of the city. With these tonal delineations, the black and white map of segregated South Africa suddenly became even more ambiguous and fluid. Before they became official, the Grey Areas of the city were spaces never successfully segregated through legislation. They were areas filled with working-class people, artists, students, and activists of all racial groups. 

Culture, particularly during apartheid, created Grey Areas both literal and figurative. Interactions between artists of different races were in contrast to the segregation of the country as a whole, and in fact, there were no segregation laws that barred the mixing of races at art exhibitions, including exhibiting by Black artists. The art community became a symbol of hope for a non-racial society, as artists’ workshops became safe spaces for creative political expression. Throughout South Africa’s apartheid history, the term “grey” defined the blurry, undivided spaces which did not fit so neatly into the segregation of the rest of the country. Whether actual neighbourhoods and communities, cultural facilities, or simply the interactions between people of different races, Grey Areas began to reflect the breaking down of the country’s spatial divisions.

Similarly, this notion is reflected by Karen A. Franck and Quentin Stevens in their book Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life. They describe “loose space” as areas of the city where activities occur that were not planned for those locations. (3) These activities can happen alongside the primary uses of space, such as sidewalks, town squares, or streets. During apartheid, these areas of loose space were critical for the poorer Black population, whose confined living quarters did not allow for the many social activities that contribute to public life. According to Franck and Stevens: 

accessibility, freedom of choice and physical elements that occupants can appropriate all contribute to the emergence of a loose space, but they are not sufficient. For a site to become loose, people themselves must recognize the possibilities inherent in it and make use of those possibilities for their own ends, facing the potential risks of doing so. (4)

At the height of apartheid, the potential for risk was a key factor in creating looseness as movement through these spaces was monitored and controlled by police through pass-books and curfews. 

One of the main factors which contribute to loose space is that the activities which generate it lie outside our fixed notions of space and function. Although often related to retail and play, loose space is not found in the “aesthetically and behaviourally controlled and homogeneous ‘themed’ environments of leisure and consumption where nothing unpredictable must occur.” (5) Apartheid was one of these themed environments, where all parts of daily life, from work to play to home, were calculated, ordered, and assigned. But through the devices of grey and loose space, people found ways to create a life and community outside of these parameters.

Laying of Hands, Johannesburg-Soweto Line , 1986. Photograph by Santu Mofokeng, ©Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

Laying of Hands, Johannesburg-Soweto Line, 1986. Photograph by Santu Mofokeng, ©Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

Space becomes loose through the use and perception of thresholds: parts of a boundary that can be opened up and passed through. While thresholds allow for loose space, they also restrict spaces as they limit behaviour and perceptions. As Stevens explains, the concept of liminality, the latin word for threshold, “is an anthropological term for the intermediate stage in rituals of progression from one social status to another.” (6) A liminal state suggests a temporality which is reflected in many of the actions performed under apartheid. Since most activities that created loose space during apartheid were not sanctioned by the government, such as protests or informal trading, their strength and effectiveness were achieved because they were fleeting moments. “Thresholds, like rituals, create conditions of intensity, transformation, the elevation of status and the blurring of social categories and rules,” writes Stevens. “These physical conditions create liminal moments in everyday life which often give rise to playful behaviour,” (7) he continues.

Wedding photography is an example of this, as many couples are symbolically captured crossing the thresholds of buildings. During apartheid, social meanings such as intimacy and publicity were juxtaposed through the use of public parks as wedding photography backdrops. Typically, the couple’s displays of love and happiness disobeyed the codes of controlled space, as they portrayed feelings of possibility and new beginnings. This emphasized how people’s actions within public space in cities created a new social dialogue. They also created sites of spectacle and liminality, as the bride and groom publically flaunted their newlywed status in these public spaces. These social transgressions helped to shift the seemingly formal spaces of the city into loose space. As Stevens concludes, “under conditions of liminality, social distinctions and controls still exist, but they are negotiated. Public space is constantly being opened up and transformed and thus remains ‘in play’.” (8)

The appropriation of space is a major factor in its looseness, as people lay claim to the public sphere through the activities of their choosing, and by using the “physical features of their surroundings when they find those features helpful, and overcome or ignore them when they are constraining.”(9) This use of public space also creates a sense of inclusivity, which the various legislations of apartheid had attempted to limit or prevent, as activities create common ground between varying people. However, appropriation and loose space create their own tensions, as intended and unintended activities occur simultaneously. During apartheid, it was these conflicts which spatial and racial segregation set out to avoid. Despite this, as Franck and Stevens describe:

control by the state, civil institutions or big business does not put an end to looseness: it merely requires that agents adapt . . . Spatial conditions are fluid in the sense that they change over time: rules, roles, and boundaries continue to shift according to balances of power, with changing spatial needs and alliances. New détentes are reached, and new forms of compliance, oppression, and subterfuge emerge. (10)

During apartheid, the large open space buffer zones that lay between racial groups were an attempt to control these edges and cross over areas. Their intention was to decrease the visibility and physical movement between them, with the effect of tightening those spaces. However, the dependence on the Black worker guaranteed some form of movement across these territories, as they travelled from the townships to the mines or the White suburbs. This was especially the case during the bus boycotts, which saw thousands of Black and Coloured people walking to work. Their traverse through the city on foot generated a much larger chance for interaction. When the edge between spaces is blurred, there is an opportunity to easily see and move between these spaces. As well, areas of convergence where movement and circulation meet allow for chance encounters and informal social relations. In essence, the lives of Blacks and Whites in South Africa were so inherently linked that the city had no choice but to resist the controlled, tightened spaces planned by the apartheid system. Just as space cannot maintain an absolute state or be unaffected by lived realities, tight space is loosened through movement and use that exists outside its strict framework.  

Leading in Song, Johannesburg–Soweto Line , 1986. Photograph by Santu Mofokeng, ©Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

Leading in Song, Johannesburg–Soweto Line, 1986. Photograph by Santu Mofokeng, ©Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

In the case of apartheid South Africa, marginal spaces were created through the process of segregation and forced removals. Occupants of these spaces are most often those who did not belong to the dominant group, but rather, have been pushed to the outskirts. This produced loose space as a form of resistance. The simple act of being in these bordering spaces had the effect of creating a space that was contradictory. While the dominant group aimed to freeze the use and meaning of those spaces, living in these marginalized zones created in-between areas of relating rather than separating. Spaces of relating are found in areas of shared experiences and common ground, which loose spaces helps to build, and which Stevens says, “are created in a variety of ways; each is a form of resistance against forces of separation and segregation, each is a way of loosening social and spatial constraints without losing identity through assimilation or suppression.” (11)

The shared experiences of these spaces helped to connect different groups, which apartheid tried to keep apart, strengthening their identities and connections to place. An example of this is photographer Santu Mofokeng’s Train Church series, in which he shows Black apartheid commuter trains being re-appropriated for religious service. Mofokeng explains that the existence of these “train churches” combined two important aspects of life for many South Africans: the long commutes between home and work, and a strong spiritual presence. (12) Commuting, as a form of movement, did not develop as a natural part of life for Blacks, but rather as a striated space of the state, the product of zoning, forced removals, and homeland isolation. The plan of the railway routes allowed the apartheid government to control the exact path that Blacks and Coloureds moved through space in order to avoid traversing White zones. Although not all travellers would take part in the religious service, the reclamation of these trains as spaces of worship transformed them into a space of resistance and altered the way those riding them would perceive their surroundings. As well, like the couples having their wedding photographs taken in public spaces, these liminal moments created connections between travellers, as social etiquette and codes of conduct shifted, and the formal space of the train became a space of play.  

Towards the end of the 1980s and onwards, the socio-spatial practices of South African cities began to shift, as the National Party tried to “modernize” the apartheid structure.  Public space started to include everyday activities such as hawking, worshipping, or playing, as Lindsay Bremner describes: 

Small tables are set up under trees or awnings; from them, (usually) women sell cigarettes, sweets, bananas or tomatoes to passers by [sic], engaging, at the same time, in child care, gossip, or a game of cards.  Streets and roadsides serve as gathering places for domestic workers, where, instead of being trapped in isolated lives on their employer’s properties, they are able to engage in informal lotteries, supplement their meagre incomes with informal trade or simply share stories about their employer’s craziness.  Church groups visibly occupy inner city parks on Sundays; wedding photography is a thriving business the day before. (13)

These activities and uses of space tested the tightness of apartheid’s zoned cities. As sites became designated Grey Areas, the formal urban spaces appeared looser and more playful. Activities that generated looseness were often associated with verbs such as reject, disrupt, subvert, reverse, transform, or recompose. (14) The reconceptualizing of these spaces, whether intentional or accidental, allowed for new urban identities to be created and, in the case of Johannesburg, the appropriation of spaces that lie outside an individual’s direct domain. As Franck and Stevens explain, “loose spaces give cities life and vitality.  In loose spaces people relax, observe, buy or sell, protest, mourn and celebrate. Loose spaces allow for chance encounter, the spontaneous event, the enjoyment of diversity and the discovery of the unexpected.” (15)

Exhortations, Johannesburg–Soweto Line , 1986. Photograph by Santu Mofokeng, ©Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

Exhortations, Johannesburg–Soweto Line, 1986. Photograph by Santu Mofokeng, ©Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg.

For cities to survive, they need to be able to adapt and change according to new economic, social or political situations. By creating apartheid cities as an eternally “tight space”, any act or movement that loosened these spaces had a significant effect, simply by a measure of opposition. The transformation of loose space in cities changes our perceptions of the environment around us and exposes alternatives, while at the same time disrupting the status quo of regimented spaces.  

How do people create and maintain public life in the face of an administrative system of control? The answer boils down to human actions taking advantage of, and in turn, creating more loose space. By looking at the practices of subversion and resistance by South Africans during apartheid, it is clear that movements, activities, and perceptions of space, which create thresholds, porosity, liminal moments, or chances for convergence and relating, all lead to the creation of loose space, a counter device to apartheid.

What is effective about using loose space to transform our cities on a larger scale is that it does not require special tools, great numbers of people, or a lot of money. In the face of apartheid, many South Africans fought oppression by constantly resisting the formal, tight spaces, demonstrating that the human body performing simple actions can have the power to change its surroundings.


(1) Martin J. Murray, City of Extremes: The Spatial Politics of Johannesburg. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), xii.

(2) Michel Foucault, “Space, Knowledge & Power,” in Power (The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984), ed. James D. Faubion (New York: New Press, 2001), 354.

(3) Karen A. Franck and Quentin Stevens, eds., Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life (London: Routledge, 2007), 2.

(4) Ibid, 2.

(5) Ibid, 3.

(6) Stevens in Franck and Stevens, 73.

(7) Ibid, 74.

(8) Ibid, 91.

(9) Franck and Stevens, 35.

(10) Ibid, 94.

(11) Ibid, 173.

(12) “Train Church 1986”, Santu Mofokeng. Accessed October 27, 2012,

(13) Lindsay Bremner, Writing the City into being: Essays on Johannesburg, 1998-2008 (Johannesburg: Fourthwall Books, 2010), 184.

(14) Franck and Stevens, 14.

(15) Ibid, 4.


Nicky Bruun-Meyer is an architect, photographer, and writer based in Toronto. She is a co-founder of The Site Magazine. With a background in both communications and architecture, she has been involved in a number of design initiatives related to public space, the temporary nature of spaces, and community engagement.