From townships to towns


Apartheid has left an indelible imprint on South Africa, with land usage being one area that still bears semblance to the past. Innovative approaches to dealing with the matter are, however, coming to the fore, writes Nilo Abrahams.

The past 20 years of democracy have seen many changes seeking to address the injustices of our past. Land usage and urbanisation are currently hot topics on the agenda of local government and, besides areas like townships taking on a life of their own, surprisingly creative and innovative ways of transforming urban landscapes are emerging.

Looking at our townships today, the aftermath of the apartheid government is the reality for many of our citizens, particularly those still living in conditions hardly different to what they were used to before. Upon reflection, a good starting point may be to look at what exactly these situations entailed and how they came about.

When considering the vast numbers of informal settlements present all across South Africa, it should be noted that this phenomenon is not just a random act of squatting. Most of our informal settlements and townships are there due to the land acts and usage rights determined by colonial laws. These laws date back to the late 19th and early 20th century, with notorious titles such as the 1913 Natives Land Act still haunting us today.

For strategic reasons, including a readily accessible workforce, black communities were placed on the fringes of urban areas, with poor access to amenities and resources. As these communities swelled, housing took on the sterile ‘matchbox’ design which is still popular today. Over the past 20 years since the advent of democracy, local government and NGOs have been trying to reinvent this space to be more liveable and community-friendly.

Besides the fact that most townships have readily progressed and evolved into a natural trend which sees these areas taking on a life of their own, we are finding a host of innovative strategies and projects aimed at transforming these landscapes to be more safe and liveable.

Among the many facets encompassing township life, economic activity is one of its more vital parts. According to a publication on South African township transformation by Professors Elizabeth Ogbu and Lisa Findley (experts in the field of architecture and social design) from the California College of the Arts, “It is difficult to assess the value of all this commercial activity, but one clear benefit is increased employment in a country where the unemployment rate among blacks is nearly 29 percent and where most jobs, until recently, were far from home.

“Township residents who work in local businesses, museums and malls do not have to spend hours and rands commuting; and locally owned businesses keep money in the township, where it spurs prosperity. The townships finally have access to commercial momentum. But still, even with the significant shifts of the past 15 years, residents in places like Soweto make 74% of their retail purchases outside the township; and of those who are employed, 70% work outside,” say Ogbu and Findley.

They further mention that various establishments and facilities across the country, including new and rehabilitated museums, monuments and leisure accommodations have transformed townships into cultural destinations. The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in the Orlando West township (Soweto), Mahatma Gandhi’s printing press and home in the Inanda township (Durban), and the Red Location Museum in the New Brighton township (Port Elizabeth) are a few examples of that appeal to both South Africans and foreigners alike.

Entrepreneurship is another vital component in the complex social structures present in our townships. Ranging from businesses being run out of homes and shipping containers to newly constructed commercial centres, these activities comprise the main source of income for many township residents.

“Global consumer culture is making an appearance in places like the huge air-conditioned Jubalani Mall, where Soweto residents can buy almost anything available in South Africa – from the latest fashions to fast food – from franchises of national and international chains. Another enormous commercial complex, Maponya Mall, envisions itself as an all-inclusive entertainment centre, with special cultural exhibitions and activities designed to attract tourists,” say Ogbu and Findley.

Accompanying entrepreneurial and business endeavours in townships, infrastructure change is a necessity for sustainable change in these areas. According to Ogbu and Findley’s research, some of the more successful infrastructure investments have been smaller scale projects such as multimodal transit stations. According to them, these are designed as mediating points between formal and informal activity, hybrid public transport and shopping centres such as the Baragwanath Taxi and Bus Facility in Soweto.

“Designed by Urban Solutions and opened in 2008, opposite the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital (one of the largest hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa), the facility serves over 42 000 people daily, attracting more than 1 000 informal traders. The design incorporates trading stalls and a pedestrian bridge to facilitate movement between transit lines, the hospital, trading areas and the street,” they mention.

Other noteworthy projects over the past 20 years have combined business and infrastructure development with design. In 2002, a design competition was launched, focusing on Kliptown, Soweto. Winning architect Pierre Swanepoel from studioMAS in Joburg created Walter Sisulu Square: a vast public square featuring a hotel and conference centre, a large open-air market, food vendors and office space, as well as community meeting space. Its focal point is a memorial celebrating the Freedom Charter, in this way honouring the past while embracing design-led transformation.

Following this trend, the City of Cape Town has been awarded an exciting opportunity, the World Design Capital (WDC) 2014, which embraces design in an effort to promote sustainability and liveability for its citizens. Among the many projects being featured, the transformation of townships through design-led thinking is high on the agenda.

The Better Living Challenge, Langrug Informal Settlement Upgrading and Affordable Homes projects are some of the WDC 2014 projects aimed specifically at addressing issues in informal settlements. The Better Living Challenge is a Western Cape Government 110% Green Initiative project that promotes sustainable housing solutions to the growing housing backlog in South Africa. Together with the Better Living Challenge, the Affordable Homes project provides unique design and construction solutions that combine sustainability and affordability with innovative new design concepts for housing.

“The house, once erected, offers painted interior and exterior walls, windows, air vents, gutters and downpipes and segregated ablution. Maintenance is affordable and easy, as individual panels can be replaced in minutes. The 10-year plus life span of the unit lends opportunity to households to add on extra rooms as and when they can afford it. The gutters and downpipes make rainwater harvesting an option and the material construction offers thermal comfort, full protection from the elements, promotes energy conservation and is fire-retardant up to 400 degrees Celsius,” according to the Affordable Homes team.

The Langrug Informal Settlement Upgrading is one of Stellenbosch Municipality’s WCD 2014 initiatives that seeks to highlight collaboration as one of its main aspects, helping to empower communities by having them take ownership of their environment.

“By working in partnership with the Stellenbosch Municipality and other organisations such as the Informal Settlements Network, the Langrug community took an active role in upgrading the informal settlement. By partnering with the community, the solutions that were designed are able to address the on-the-ground needs and challenges of the community while empowering the community to take ownership of their environment. This is collaborative design at its best. By giving the community a common goal, the project has not only built solutions for better sanitation and living conditions but also cohesion among the residents,” according to the WDC 2014 website.

Despite the difficult task that local government faces in an attempt to redress the social issues township residents face, its combined efforts with NGOs and initiatives such as the WDC 2014 are seeing a very creative, uplifting trend emerging as these areas slowly grow into more liveable and sustainable states.

Staff reporter

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