Cities and Transport relations in South Africa over the long-term

The aim of my study 1 is to understand the role of South African cities in the transport flux and networks, and how cities and transport are interacting, from colonization in the 17thuntil nowadays. If cities and transport interactions are a particularly interesting approach to understand the metropolisation process and the urban system building, the South African context makes it even more relevant. Indeed, South Africa is a young country and national transport networks such as the railway network, have been built while the urban system was formed.

Co-evolution of urban system and railway network in South Africa

The arrival of European settlers in 1652 to the Cape of Good Hope marked the beginning of South African modern history, in particular by initiating the urbanization process. Until then, no city, strictly speaking, existed yet (Coquery-Vidrovitch). The implementation of a settlement engaged the constitution of an urban system well connected with Europe, but not very well between cities (Vacchiani-Marcuzzo).

The discovery of the goldfields and diamond mines in the 1860’s overturned that system. In the heart of the mining region, Johannesburg faced a fast growth to become the biggest metropolis in the country. The emergence of this new centre deeply modified the urban structure by switching the country’s centre of gravity from the coast to the Witwatersrand. Indeed, the British Empire decided to experiment inner-city railways in Cape Town and Durban in the 1860’s. But given the mining revolution, the decision to extend it to the entire country was quickly made in order to dispatch the mining extractions from the Witwatersrand plateau to the shoreline before having them exported to Europe. Hence, in a bit less than 100 years, a 20 000 km railway network has been built.

The implementation of such a network whereas the urban system was formed enables us to talk about a co-evolution of urban system and transport network in South Africa. Citie’s growth has largely been influenced by their position on the railway network. Large cities benefitted from a better accessibility, which reinforced their centrality while small towns had to deal with the simplification of urban hierarchy. As in many other countries, we can notice the strong interaction between cities and transport and its effect on the process of cities selection, particularly reinforced  by the railway network in the South African example.

I started my research by focusing on the railway network given it seemed easier to start with an historical approach at the larger scale. To observe and study this co-evolution we decided to cross two databases created in Geographie-Cités. The first one, built in the research program Harmonie-Cités, gathers data about the evolution of South African cities (of more than 5 000 inhabitants) over almost a century. To create this database, South African censuses have been used. The second one, made up in the frame of Geodivercity research program, contains data about the railway network’s development in South Africa and has been built thanks to the SARH archives. By crossing these databases, we created maps over 60 years which show the concomitant evolution of the urban system and railway network.

Now, I intend to deepen my analysis and enlarge my focus to the implementation of transport in metropolitan areas on one hand, and the position of South Africa in global networks on the other.

Solène Baffi


  1. PhD project of Solène Baffi, under the supervision of Anne Bretagnolle, Olivier Ninot, Denise Pumain and Celine Vacchiani-Marcuzzo (founded by ERC GeoDiverCity)