Of(f) the Tracks: The Legacy of Colonial Railway Infrastructures in Harare, Zimbabwe

Cities and resilience are concepts which were present and informed urban life in Zimbabwe well before colonial rule. Ethnoarchaeological research1 has amply demonstrated the long history of a close interrelation and overlay between human settlements and agroecological zones. However, many of the urban centres we identify today were established as a result of the European project to control African land and population. In particular, the construction of railway infrastructure was imagined in parallel with the foundation of company towns, as means to facilitate the extraction of local goods. The morphological scars in the structure of land tenure and urban form left behind by those infrastructural projects are a clear manifestation of a divisive, racist, and unjust process. Operating in, and upon, these segregated and divided terrains with the added complexity of imagining a post pandemic life, without recurring to specious »sanitary« measures, calls for geographical imaginaries that go beyond the morphological artifices. We posit it requires a restorative justice project that challenges the urban as a modern idea, highlighting the role infrastructure still plays towards facilitating extraction.

Tomà Berlanda, Maxwell Mutanda, and Sunniva Viking
Edited by Maxwell Mutanda — Jun 14, 2021

Cities and resilience are concepts which were present, and informed, urban Africa well before colonial rule: as evidenced by the settlements at iron-age Great Zimbabwe or medieval Mapungubwe. However, the colonial legacies of transport infrastructure and the particular role forced mobility had on the constant circular migration of an oppressed and exploited Indigenous labour force resulted in what Edward Said calls a »struggle over geography.«2

As in other white settler colonial cities, the imperial imaginaries of company towns and native townships in Zimbabwe developed in tandem with railway infrastructure, in order to facilitate the extraction and exploitation of natural resources and human labor. Today these leftover morphological scars clearly manifest divisive, racist, and unjust geographies.

This historical backdrop led us to conceive of our research trajectory as a screenplay following the three-act structure model of narrative fiction. Within this framework, we conceive of infrastructure as a dispositif, an interpretation recently proposed by Achille Mbembe, borrowing from Michel Foucault. In Mbembe’s words »infrastructure is a multiplicity of lines of different nature, a set of moving vectors, which are nevertheless susceptible to coalesce momentarily, to turn into lines of sedimentation, fissure, fracture.«3 As Mbembe convincingly articulates what this definition calls for is a map, a cartography, a survey. Our illustrations take on this challenge.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Of(f) the Tracks: The Legacy of Colonial Railway Infrastructures in Harare, Zimbabwe

This photograph entitled Man building railway planned by Cecil Rhodes near Broken Hill, Rhodesia showing the human toll of railway expansion was taken between 1890 and 1923. Courtesy of the Frank and Frances CarpenterCollection at the Library of Congress, USA. Public Domain

Part 1 – The Setup and catalyst for the sequence of events can be brought back to the dual patterns of urbanization, which in our case is spurred in 1891 by the settlement of Fort Salisbury by the British South Africa Company (BSAC).

6 April 1652. The arrival of Jab Van Riebeeck in what is known today as Table Bay, marks the beginning of the permanent settlement of white people in Southern Africa. As the 1748 map of Cape Town shows, the city was established as a prototype of a company town for the VOC (Dutch United East India Company). Meanwhile roughly two thousand five hundred kilometres North North East, many »dzimba-dza-mabwe« (or »houses of stones« in Shona language) occupy the plateau, vestige of a civilization dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth century.

The project of greedy extraction of resources from the African continent is for the settlers the occasion to write their own reading of history. These parallel stitches manifested through two drawings, one by Karl Mauch, the first German geologist to visit the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in 1871 and publicize them to the Western world, which illustrates settlement activity around great Zimbabwe, and the second by Percy Wagner, which shows Pre-European Mine Workings and Settlements in 1929.

The punctual graphic of the maps is intriguing when combined with the linear arrival of the railway tracks. Railway infrastructure is customarily alluded to as the permanent way in reference to regular cadence of its composition: a pair of parallel rails laid firmly on sleepers or ties that are embedded in ballast, which repeat unvaryingly across any landscape. But the lines, again here a reference to Foucault’s definition of dispositif, can be crossed, bend back, meander, go underground, turn back on itself, act/affect itself, break.

However, in Harare, as in many other African cities, railway lines represent a division, a barrier. In this they act according to the scheme well illustrated by René Schoentjes’ drawing »Schéma d’une ville congolaise« published in the Bulletin des Séances Koninklijk Belgisch Koloniaal Instituut, Brussels, in 1933. What the architectural engineer from the Ministry of Colonies draws is a grid where, for »hygienic reasons« a »neutral zone« separates the »European« and »native« areas. With a total width of 500 metres, this was, according to its designer, the maximum range of a malaria carrying mosquito. Through multiple iterations across continents, this will become the blueprint of a segregated city, where healthy and technocratic measures become nothing other than a divisive racist tool.

Much like the measurement of leagues travelled by seafaring colonisers, the pace of land colonization and issues of land ownership were derived from the proliferation of infrastructure such as roads and railways. In other words, shifting railway gauges informed the cadastre of land privatization appropriated from Indigenous communities, which parcelled large arable spaces to white settlers and small units of arid land was left for local Black laborers.4

In between the parts of the divided city lies the hole of the railway yards, the site of our investigation. To question and read it we borrow from De Boeck and Baloji’ conceptualization of the hole »to express the dismal quality of living in a city in today’s postcolonial urban context.«5  Looking at the traces of the void left behind by the extractive process, our research traces stratigraphic investigations into Harare, an ontological paradigm analogous to other artificial African agglomerations.

By manifesting how the city was built on farms, promoting subdivision and dispossession, and forcing native housing in hostels, the analysis points to African ideas about landscape (nyika) as holistic. In this regard the establishment of neighbouring »reserves« (ruzevha n., plu: mar-, Tribal Trust Land), where white settlers relegated black inhabitants, – in connection with the land tenure process and concentration of means of extraction/production/cultivation leads is a clear strategy. When looked at from the sky, both the Chimandura »native« reserve in the basolith and the railway yards emerge as examples of a hole.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Of(f) the Tracks: The Legacy of Colonial Railway Infrastructures in Harare, Zimbabwe

These outline traces of the African Company Town reflect the archetype of European cities separated from Native townships by »neutral« zones using Harare, Zimbabwe, as an exemplar. Courtesy of the authors

Part 2 – The Confrontation – The voyage of the white body on the railway, his imagery and experience, versus the toll of the black bodies laboring.

»Stimela« is a famous 1974 track by Hugh Masekela.6 The lyrics in Zulu tell the story of the Steam Train, onomatopoeically »Stimela,« which travels on coal (sihama ngamalahle), Across the porous borders of languages the onomatopoeia of the song title suggests a different mental experience akin to the banality of shongololo, the centipede. Masekela’s words »speak about local history and the migrant labour system on the mines, reminding everyone that South Africa’s wealth and infrastructure was built on the back of labour from all over Africa.« In doing so his perspective echoes that also conveyed by Dorothy Masuka, whose 1993 recording »Hamba Nontsokolo« recounts the journey from Zimbabwe to South Africa by train in search for gainful employment, which further divided the typical African city from its local inhabitants.

The atmospheres and sentiments evoked by the tracks must be read in contrast with what Jeremy Foster explains in a 2005 piece,7 focussed on how white travellers enjoyed the rail journey northward from Cape Town, seen here as both the origin of the company town model and the point of departure towards the veld, the

unknown plain inhabited by savage animals and hostile populations. Foster writes about »travel accounts and memoirs (…) extolling the pleasures of train travel in South Africa, sometimes described as ›the best in the world‹.«8

In this regard, the discordant rhythms of the railway manifest as parallel realities. Firstly, the dominant imaginary of unimpaired colonization marked by steady and ordered exploration that led to equally ordered company towns with gridded streets. Second, the conquest of the »unknown« through the act of laying down the tracks. The overture to Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film version of Karen Blixen’s »Out of Africa,« is a quintessential representation of this regimented journey across an occupied landscape.

Which brings up the question of the railway yards in Harare as lieux de memoire, or indeed »power-scape.« Reference is made here to Innocent Pikirayi’s archaeological work that demonstrates how particular narratives are used to silence the stories and narratives of certain pasts. In this case power-scape refers to how past cultural landscapes on the Zimbabwe plateau exercised political power.9 Whereas in Europe decaying abandoned railway buildings have mostly led to increased public consciousness about their heritage, in the African context, we find it useful to reframe western-based notions of heritage and to appreciate its place in this discourse. »Of(f) the tracks« plays deliberately with the ambiguity of the physical artefact – and the need of bare (i.e. free) ground on to which build foundations, crushed stones, wooden sleepers, and steel rails.

The aim is to illustrate how operating in, and upon, segregated terrains – compounded by the complexity of conjuring post-pandemic life – calls for geographical imaginaries that go beyond tectonic artifice and asymmetrical land-use planning. It requires exploration, re-representation, and restorative justice that challenges the neoliberal, Modern urban form, and the role infrastructure still plays in seeking fair distribution.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Of(f) the Tracks: The Legacy of Colonial Railway Infrastructures in Harare, Zimbabwe

Aerial photograph of Harare, Zimbabwe, taken in 2018 showing the central railway terminal and exclusionary zone between the historical white central business district (CBD) and the low-income residential neighbourhoods in the foreground. Photo: Eyal Bartov.

Part 3 – The Resolution of the story and its subplots. Brushstrokes for a futuristic vision.

The operations of identifying the site as a hole, proposing the stitching of reclaimed infrastructure, and connecting the common reaches its climax, that is intended as a derailing.

By confronting infrastructural colonialism, and its stories of rapid urbanization, the project proposes a hack. The intention behind revealing the geographical constructs leading to the railway yards in Harare is borne out of what Kerry Bystrom and Isabel Hofmeyr10 describe as the »necessity of recalibrating the geographical hierarchies consolidated through intertwined Western imperialisms« thus opening new modes of reading landscapes and imagining futures.

Mindful of Mbembe’s reminder that what Foucault calls a line in his definition of dispositif is nothing linear, we use it to engage with the so-called African practices of everyday life. Improvisation, open-endedness, and desire to subvert are all incorporated in an alternative to the more Baloji’ conceptualization Visions 2030 or 2050 so common for the African state or city. Borrowing again from the great work of Zimbabwean archaeologist, we make Chirikure’s suggestion that »what is required is a way of exploring the sedimentation of the past into the landscape to form the past rooted in African ways of understanding time and chronology«11 ours.

This is why the research process, and its representation in both words, images, maps, and models is conceived of as a careful stratigraphic investigation of railway landscapes that questions binary distinctions – urban and rural, non-Indigenous and local, rich and poor – to understand territories or ecosystems of discriminatory human settlement, in an effort to redress environmental, economic, and racial injustices, offering alternative contextually-driven, holistic future city-scapes in which all people, especially histor-ically marginalized people, will be able to thrive.

What hopefully emerges from looking at the centre of Harare in our projections is the intersection of the railway project and its transformation as an armature for shaping substantially different futures, aimed at producing social equality and environmental justice. By stitching together fragments of landscapes, languages, sides, and lives, what we offer is a new horizon of possibilities across temporalities, and the imaginary dislocation both physically and mentally through the postcolonial hole. Of(f) the tracks…

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Of(f) the Tracks: The Legacy of Colonial Railway Infrastructures in Harare, Zimbabwe

Stratigraphy of agricultural production sites in Zimbabwe, 1962, overlaid above the map detailing the construction of rail and hydro infrastructure throughout the XXth century. Courtesy of the authors

Tomà Berlanda is professor of architecture at the University of Cape Town. He has co-founded asa studio and astudio.space, two practices that have produced internationally recognised design work. His collaborative projects are the result of an engagement with the role of quality design for underprivileged communities: including schools, early childhood development centres, and health facilities.

Maxwell Mutanda is a pluridisciplinary researcher and visual artist whose data visualization and architectural practice investigates the role of globalization, climate, and technology within the built environment. Maxwell studied Architecture at the Bartlett, University College London and is the 2020 MSc in Sustainable Urban Development Sheehan Scholar at the University of Oxford. Maxwell Mutanda is also supported by a 2020 grant recipient of the Graham Foundation.

Sunniva Viking is co-founder and managing director of astudio.space architects and recently consulted in supporting participatory design and building processes for early childhood development centres in eastern Zambia. She exhibited in the Oslo Architecture Triennale in 2019 on the theme of Degrowth.

  1. For example see Bassey Andah, Alex Okpoko, Thurstan Shaw and Paul Sinclair (eds.): The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns, London, Routledge, 1993.

  2. Edward Said: Culture and Imperialism, New York, Vintage Books, 1993.

  3. Achill Mbembe: Notes on Techno-Molecular Colonialism. Keynote speech, Coloniality of Infrastructures conference, University of Basel, January 15, 2021.

  4. Rémi Jedwab, Edward Kerby, Alexander Moradi: »How colonial railroads defined Africa’s economic geography,« in: S. Michalopoulos and E. Papaioannou (eds.): The Long Economic and Political Shadow of History, Volume 2, London 2017.

  5. Filip De Boeck and Sammy Baloji: »Positing the Polis: Topography as a Way to De-centre Urban Thinking,« in: Urbanisation 2(2), 2017, pp.142-154.

  6. For a reading of the song’s importance see https://theconversation.com/the-best-anthem-for-workers-day-stimela-a-tale-about-apartheids-migrant-labour-system-95794 (accessed April 27, 2021).

  7. Jeremy Foster: »Northward, upward: stories of train travel, and the journey towards white South African nationhood, 1895-1950,« in: Journal of Historical Geography 31, 2005, pp. 296-315.

  8. Ibid., p. 300.

  9. Innocent Pikirayi: »Great Zimbabwe as Power-scape,« in: J. Beardsley (ed.): Cultural Landscape Heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa, Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2016, pp. 89-109.

  10. Kerry Bystrom and Isabel Hofmeyr: »Oceanic Routes: (Post-it) Notes on Hydro-Colonialism,« in: Comparative Literature, 69:1, 2017.

  11. Shadreck Chirikure: Great Zimbabwe, Reclaiming a ›Confiscated‹ Past, New York: Taylor & Francis, 2021, p. 12.

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