Under African Skies, Day 5: What is an architect?

by Ares Kalandides

Sumayya Vally is on the phone trying to coordinate the lot before the new toilets for the settlement are delivered. CORC, the NGO she works with, has arranged for two new booths to be installed in the next few weeks, and now the architects need to figure out the details together with Thomas, the community leader. The roughly 300 families who live in the settlement have put some money aside to contribute to the purchase, transportation and installation. “About 90% will be paid by CORC, but it is important that they contribute in their way”, explains Summaya. “In the end it will come down to 1 Rand per person for a total cost of 1800 Rand [approx. 1500€]. The saving scheme will pay for the plumbers, and that will be men from the community again”.

Thomas, a community leader

Thomas, a community leader

“The idea of putting this saving scheme together”, explains Jhono Bennett, “comes from Fedup (Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor), a women’s NGO, who, as the word says, were fed up with the growing violence. Being more level-headed than their men, they sat down and thought of empowering the communities by helping them put some money on the side – mostly with the idea of buying their own land one day”. Fedup goes from home to home, convincing people to save something, be it 1 rand, on a daily basis.

Summaya, the young architects who works in several settlements in Johannesburg

Sumayya, the young architects who works in several settlements in Johannesburg

Both Sumayya and Jhono are young architects who are using their technical knowledge to assist such schemes. “I wish I had learned more about society in my studies. We learn about aesthetics so much, and forget about the people that houses are supposed to serve”, says Jhono – and Sumayya adds: “There was this final exam presentation recently, and that girl had designed a school for one of the informal settlements. It looked so good, but having worked on the ground with these communities I could tell her all the things that were wrong with it and why it would never work. None of the professors did. It was all about the building’s geometry, its proportions etc.” This is why Jhono started his own organization, “1 to 1”, to open up architecture to a new social sensibility.

The miniature town inside the industrial shell in Marlboro

The miniature town inside the industrial shell in Marlboro

The architects will enter the settlement when and if the people there need them. A condition for it is a certain level of community self-organization, which often exists at a surprising level. In the settlement of Marlboro, for example, the permanent struggle against eviction forced the people to get together and vote 12 representatives who negotiate for them with the authorities.  Only last week, they won an important case at the Constitutional Court, which proclaimed illegal the forceful demolition of several Marlboro housing blocks in summer 2012.  CORC has now provided tents for the evicted to live in, until the city builds new shacks for them.

Evicted families are now housed in tents in Marlboro

Evicted families are now housed in tents in Marlboro

Marlboro is quite a unique case (and if I have learned one thing in this trip is that every single settlement is unique), because it consists of industrial building shells, in which whole settlements have been built:  miniature towns, with narrow streets and one-storey tiny houses. Two adults and three children live in one room, roughly 4m x 4m. The architect is called upon to see if they could add a storey on top. “This is an exception,” explains Charles, the community leader. “In most cases, for religious reasons they need to be close to the ground, so we only build on one level”. It was Charles, member of the Informal Settlement Network (ISN), who called in CORC and the architects to assist them in finding solutions.

Jhono working with the "community architect"

Jhono (r.) working with Albert, the community architect

Sumayya and Jhono also work together with one of the community leaders in the informal settlement of Ruimsig. Built on the edge of a golf course, with the gated communities on the other side of it, this is the tidiest settlement I’ve seen until now. There is a “reblocking” plan going on, i.e. an attempt to improve both position and structure of the shacks, while creating public space and paths through the neighbourhood. Some of the old shacks have been replaced by new ones, but there seems to be a common decision going on, on what gets moved and where to. The external architects sit down with Albert, the highly skilled (and not educated) “community architect” and figure out the best way to do that.

The Ruimsig settlement boarding a tennis court. In the background a gated community

The Ruimsig settlement boarding a tennis court. In the background a gated community

I’m afraid this sounds more peaceful than it really is. Between community leaders and communities, between NGOs, CBOs (Community Based Organizations) and Governments, there are cases of power abuse and of contradicting agendas – at least when agendas are transparent. It is a very fine line here between helping and empowering the people, emancipating them and giving them access to basic rights and on the other hand treating them like unreflecting second-class citizens or ignoring existing power structures. Looking through my European eyes (whatever that means – but that’s another story), I am still surprised at the very high level of mobilization and professional organization of many of these communities. Still, I am sure that there are hidden power relations around, which would take me a long time to discern, even if I was able to develop the right sensibility for them.

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