Soweto Historical GIS Project

The primary objective of the Soweto Historical GIS Project (SHGIS) is to build a multi-layered historical geographic information system that explores the social, economic and political dimensions of urban development under South African apartheid regimes (1904/1948-1994) in Johannesburg’s all-black township of Soweto. Soweto (an acronym for the South Western Townships), a creation of state power, was developed to house low-wage workers and to segregate black South Africans from white. The application of geographic methodologies to the study of the anti-apartheid movement reveals the complex spatial dimensions of violence, resistance, and freedom. The project examines the micro-geography of resistance and the layering of meaning and action between the apartheid state and township residents across its built form. In this project developing a "multifaceted spatial [history] database that can be used to record and analyze a wider range of spatial features, both physical and human (Siebert 2000)," as related to the history of townships across Johannesburg is critical and yet unexplored among African studies scholars. By documenting across space and time the racial and political ideologies of apartheid within these townships, or "labor-machines," an important question is raised: can we map residents’ resistance?


Soweto Historical GIS Project - Jack Hay Presentation from Digital Humanities Initiative on Vimeo.


The Soweto Historical GIS Project’s Social Justice History Platform is a software platform designed to represent geographic and spatial data within an enhanced interface designed to contextualize locations and objects alongside the primary source documents that provide their historical narrative, and a range of related multimedia objects (including video, audio, images, and text).

This platform is built on the Unity engine, and is currently in closed testing.


The focus of this study is the "township" of Soweto, located about 15 kilometers south west of the Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD) in Gauteng Province. From a statistical point of view, the population of Soweto is estimated to be about 1.2 million persons, comprising a land area of about 153 square kilometers. Soweto makes up more than 40% of Johannesburg’s entire population. Soweto is the most populous urban residential area in the country.


This research integrates the following areas of interest:

  • The historical and spatial development of townships – specifically the spatial history of Soweto.
  • The importance of spatial and temporal data in understanding apartheid.
  • The ways in which township residents have constructed their own stories about housing and the urban environment.

Two hypotheses are the basis for further inquiry through historical GIS:

  1. Modernism – as expressed through urban planning and architectural design – was upended by the ground-up activism of township residents in the struggle against apartheid.
  2. The ideological and political objectives of racialized segregation are translated into the architectural plans and design of large-scale urban building programs.



The Digital Witness Symposium 2013

The Digital Witness Symposium invites cutting-edge mediamakers, programmers and scholars to discuss how the changing digital ecology is opening up new opportunities and challenges for human rights media. This year’s symposium explores how human rights activism is increasingly turning to digital games and interactive media as a strategy for engaging new audiences.

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Project Directors

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Collection Development Team