Gordon is Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of the Western Cape, in greater Cape Town, South Africa. He is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Transport History and the Journal of Transport Geography, and is a founding member of the International Geographical Union’s Commission on Transport and Geography.
How did you get started in academia? And how did you end up in South Africa?
I was born and schooled in South Africa, and studied and taught at university there except for two years in the USA and nine in England. Way back, a crucial telephone call from a schoolteacher persuaded me to study Geography as a major at university in Johannesburg. Co-majoring in Economics, I was entranced by the abstract location theory to which I was exposed in both disciplines. This became the academic companion to my childhood fascination with transport – with speed, traction power and design, and also exoticism and travel. If only there had been mobility studies then! So, my first ever research project involved statistical measurement of transport network properties: I recall a (really superficial) piece on South Africa’s domestic airline network. A second data-crunching project followed: regionalising complex urban vehicular flows enumerated in an official origin-destination traffic survey in Johannesburg. In the 1970s the power of computing was making itself felt as an analytical tool. As a very young junior lecturer in Geography I then got involved in researching modal choice among Johannesburg’s most disadvantaged residents. This initial effort to do something academic that tackled the iniquities in my city was subsequently elaborated into researching the history of apartheid transport in South Africa. The archive, rather than statistical modelling, became my metier. Transport history in my country was (and still is) an utterly unpopulated field, and I had an amazing time wandering around splendid railway sources especially, and learning something of the historian’s craft.
Is there a distinctively African approach to transport/ mobility history – either theoretically, or in terms of the modes of transport studied and the topics considered important?
No, I don’t think there’s anything singular about African approaches. Perhaps there should be; the intellectual debates about African exceptionalism continue. So much of mechanised African mobility has originated abroad that colonial and post-colonial frameworks are perhaps best suited to analysing the past two centuries of African transport. But understanding the local context and reception of imported technologies and organisation in Africa, and knowing local resistance and adaptation is important. Anti-colonial perspectives have been popular (and have intrigued me too) as ways of correcting the patronising view that ‘transport is civilisation’. Indigenous theorising of African mobility would be an interesting departure! Political economy offered useful perspectives; ethnographies of movement, and transport work, have become rather more popular now, and are providing some ‘home-grown’ insights into the incidence, tenor and meanings of mobility. There has been no fundamental de- or re-categorising of transport in Africa: the modes and topics are all perfectly recognisable to scholars from the global ‘North’, save perhaps persistent non-motorised mobility. Research is really only just beginning into the continent’s porters, paddlers, pullers and pushers (and attendant animals). Their encounters with machines involved displacement and essential support. Scrutinising the link between mobility and the environment in the African past is a vast new research opportunity.
Amongst other things, you’ve worked on British imperial civil aviation. What will you be researching in the future, and why?
I’ve made a loose promise (can one do that?) to research aviation and decolonisation in British colonial Africa in the quarter century after 1945. There’s a project to finish on municipal aerodrome provision in South Africa. And I’ve made a start researching road provision and motoring in British colonial Africa in the 1920s and 1930s. The story – the photographic record not least – echoes histories of industrialised mobility and work on the railways and in the sky.
It would be a struggle to make a compelling intellectual argument for doing this work: is early to mid-twentieth century (im)mobility in Africa the sort of topic where one might discover things that could create truly new and unequalled knowledge, invent new paradigms, shake old foundations? And in a continent confronting enormous challenges the contemporary practical value of writing mobility history is hard to justify. So, using less worthy reasoning, just as there are mountains, so there are gaps. And rather too many decades of accumulating even just a wee bit of intellectual capital keep one on or close to a recognisable scholarly course. I wonder if it would relieve or aggravate my conscience if some generous mobility industry benefactor was also insisting that I plough familiar furrows?
What are you reading at the moment?
My eyes are hurtling across the 11 essays in The Speed of Change: Motor Vehicles and People in Africa, 1890-2000 (Leiden, 2009) edited by Jan-Bart Gewald, Sabine Luning and Klaas van Walraven. Robin Butlin’s Geographies of Empire (Cambridge 2009) is on my table. And I can’t wait to read Jamie Monson’s Africa’s Freedom Railway (Indiana, 2009).
Ought I to admit that I’m a sucker for fiction and travel writing that touches on transport use and experiences? My African and British imperial research turns again and again to stories and narratives, personal diaries and memoirs. When the manual gets written on ‘Mobility history methodologies’ I hope there’ll be a place for teaching students how to ‘read’ and exploit such marvellously valuable sources.
You’re one of the editors of T2M’s Yearbook. How did you find preparing the first issue, and what vision do you have for the future of the Yearbook?
It was an extraordinary privilege being involved in an ambitious new publishing project. Gijs Mom and his two successive student assistants did an astonishing job handling the logistics of receiving and distributing multiple pieces for refereeing, re-writing and publication. Reading and assessing such different contributions was demanding. Proofing became an enormous job. It was a delight to discover that there are many academics willing and able to use English to summarise and reflect on research that has been occurring in many countries but is not well known because of language barriers. It would be a real service if the Yearbook continues as a pointer to recent research into all mobility pasts across the globe. With their extensive reading, recent graduates are especially suited to writing comprehensive and useful surveys.