“Broadly speaking, racial separation has long been a defining feature of South Africa’s cities. After all, the city builders who designed and constructed these places imagined them as both symbolic extensions of European metropolitan life grafted on to the African continent and as sites for the scenographic display of the power of colonial empire … The European planning professionals responsible for the design, management, and regulation of urban spaces looked upon these newly minted cities as laboratories for testing social engineering schemes grounded in the Eurocentric ideal of racial separation.” Martin Murray, City of Extremes: The Spatial Politics of Johannesburg


The built environment shapes the way society interacts with itself.  Architecture and urban design have an almost autocratic power to choreograph our reality by governing and demarcating the scope of human mobility. Like lab rats in a maze, our space orchestrates the degree of our agency through a methodical and meticulous engineering of our sensory and social experience.

The application of this model of architecture as a device for social engineering is perhaps most epitomised by South Africa’s urban landscape.  It’s stitched on to country’s architecture and is the imperialist stamp on its landscape, a scenario that is 300 years old and counting – architecture that has invaded our landscape from when the colonialists arrived to the last decades of apartheid.

As I walked through Joburg’s inner city with Nolan Oswald Dennis, architectural scholar and cofounder of spatial politics research group Jofaji, we discussed some of the complexities of the local urban landscape. “A friend of mine once aptly described Joburg as a shipwreck city. It’s built on death, blood and bone, and we’ve all inhabited this carcass and formed new self-managed ecosystems on our own,” says Dennis, who founded the group with fellow architectural researcher Pandeani Liphosa.

As we walked, the Joburg CBD presented  a collage of informal retail and service outlets. We encountered these ecosystems in action, and noticed a pattern of staple makeshift industries. “It seems there are essential infrastructures that have practical as well as symbolic significance – the internet cafe, the hair salon, the evangelist church. All of these places have to do with connecting: the internet cafe is a hub of communication; the hair salon is to acquire a ‘Joburg look’; the church is to establish some sense of spiritual community in one of the most soulless cities in the world.”

Whether you happen to be walking through Joburg, Durban, Grahamstown or Polokwane, what’s clear is the segregationist ideals etched on to South African towns, villages and cities. There is an inerasable history of ethnic cleansing and forced removal laden in the semiotics of our geography. Doung Jahangeer, a Mauritian-born architect now based in Durban who is also the founder of Dala.

Dala is an interdisciplinary creative collective that believes in the transformative role of creativity in building safer and more livable cities.

Dala has  produced deconstructive work on spatial politics in Africa. “I am on a mission defined by a clear vision to try to understand this post-colonial/apartheid dysfunctional spatial psychology that we find ourselves in today. Dala has realised that the African people haven’t engaged in a process of ‘unlearning’ yet,” says Jahangeer.

Our cities were designed to conceal poor black lives in the back pockets of the metropolis, and to maroon affluent white lives on artificial islands of staged tranquillity.

The people are culturally and historically detached from one another and their spaces. Buildings in the central business districts serve as concrete thrones to a stolen empire, vividly reminding the predominantly black working classes forced to commute, work and live there every day of the truth of their condition. It was the theft of their labour and natural resources that made all of this obscene industrial opulence possible. They inhabit a world that insidiously mocks their futile efforts to thrive and belong in it.

“The city exists as a set of rumours: Don’t go to that neighbourhood; don’t trust people from that side of town. Pande and my work aims to break down and debunk these prejudices,” says Dennis.

The combined ideals of social egalitarianism, artistic expressionism and environmental conscientiousness are endemic in precolonial African architectural practices and methods. Built structures were constructed to incorporate and coincide with nature as opposed to conquering it. Building materials were chosen according to their abundance and proximity. They were typically biodegradable, leaving the surrounding flora and fauna practically undisturbed. Whatever was taken from the environment to build was easily replenished.

Tish Nyatlo, head of Joburg Africanist architectural firm 1000 Degrees Celsius, believes African architects should reintroduce these ideals into the design process. “The goal should be to introduce the indigenous plants to the environment through the design process. What is now commonly referred to as green design is African design. African design is green design – ceating a built environment that sustains itself without using artificial energy,” says Nyatlo.

But all of those ideals were lost with the colonisation of Afric in the 17th century. A coup d’état of the landscape ensued, with the viral erection of imperial fortresses of steel and concrete, from Dutch and French colonial to Victorian, Edwardian, French-influenced Beaux Arts, Art Nouveau, Neo-Georgian, Second Empire, Art Deco and High Modernist.

“This promiscuous openness to outside influences meant that buildings were constructed in a dozen or so different architectural styles, many of them imported or plagiarised from abroad, and then abandoned within several decades” writes Murray.

These invasive structures were strategically designed and located to erase the identity of the indigenous inhabitants of the land. The aristocratic ghosts of colonialism and oppression still haunt the urban landscape in the form of the sadistic stone sentinels and bronzed despots who stand as the centrepieces to our national parks, civic centres, and public state institutions. They’re in the names of our cities, suburbs and roads. They’re in the names of our public schools, and adorn the facades of our universities. The legacy of racial erasure is ever-present in our compulsory civic paths to self-sustenance.

Jofaji professes: “As the black city dismantles the memory of the white heritage complex, the buildings themselves are forgetting their manners and making space for the construction of new illusions; the reappropriation of form, function and feeling. This is really about an architectural mode of engagement that starts with people, that positions people as the primary means of articulating space. The history of the language of space and construction we have inherited is shaped by the deliberate privileging of racial and cultural whiteness. This exclusionary inheritance means we have to struggle to find a language that can account for our people, black people, and our existence as spatial agents that shape the built environment in sophisticated ways.”

The bulk of grandiose post-apartheid efforts towards correcting the racial exclusion ingrained in our urban landscape have been a dismal failure. The primary cause being the “contradictory impulses of globalising urbanism under the spell of neoliberalism”, as Martin J Murray puts it in his eye-opening book City of Extremes: The Spatial Politics of Johannesburg.

Our public works departments and local municipalities have to schizophrenically serve the national interests of socioeconomic transformation and development, as well as competitive macroeconomic growth and globalisation. This has contributed to new forms of exclusion and erasure with pious intention. Gentrification is the new segregation, creating a tourist-friendly illusion of a postcard paradise to market a palatable poverty that can be exhibited through the rose-tinted windows of urban safari shuttles and township tour rides.

As Murray argues: “As place making becomes increasingly dependent on the subliminal signals of symbolic capital, the architecture and planning professions turn to myth making and fantasy – benignly called ‘branding’ – as substitutes for authentic meaning and collective memory.”

While walking through the city with Dennis, we weaved through the anxious parade of commuters on Bree Street, a local taxi hub. He pointed out some of the inadequacies of state intervention in the city’s reinvention. “There’s this obsession the state has with formalising things, for example, they couldn’t stop the hawkers so they created these formal stalls for them. The first ones built like the ones you see here are face-bricked and partitioned with a room-like feature for the stock; the next ones were built in De Kock, I think, and they’re essentially mini-shacks with tin roofs; and the latest ones are just yellow lines on the floor demarcating where traders can sell.

“There’s almost this dematerialisation of infrastructure, which is largely symbolic of the mutual loss of faith between the state and the public,” he says.

A new brand of thinking on African space has emerged among  students and young practitioners in South Africa as a result of this paralysing disconnect between our built environment and its inhabitants. Their shared concerns are to reinfuse indigenous African iconography and ideals into our modern landscape, and decolonise public spaces.

Informal, predominantly black, youth-led political activism and social movements – such as #RhodesMustFall, #DecolonizeUCT and #Amandla – have reintroduced the interrogation of public space into the national conversation. This is an indication that the people have reached their collective threshold of misrepresentation. They’re fed up of the colonial idolatry and fetishist perversions of their history.

Jahangeer shares his take on the current climate: “At face value, I don’t agree with the actions of these movements. I think it’s important to be angry but the form it is taking is a colonial form. I also think the ethos isn’t well-informed. They don’t realise that they aren’t the first generation to think this way but the way they’re going about activating it is destructive instead of constructive; an emotional outburst as opposed to a well-thought-out strategy.

“We’re doing the same thing the apartheid regime did – erasing and defacing – which, though it may be justified, is still an act of destruction. There’s a mob mentality about these movements that’s quite unsettling. It’s a dysfunctional activism.”

Now is the time to reflect on the African landscape and to reassess Western models of space creation. Groups like Dala and Jofaji were formulated primarily for this precise purpose. “Dala’s intention is precisely the emancipation of Africa, engaging in a deconstructive process. So in attempting to do so, we become very aware that the notion of architecture, especially within our African paradigm, opens itself up to numerous other ‘spaces’ in addition to merely addressing function,” said Jahangeer.

Dennis and Liphosa convey a similar ethos: “Our research looks into the form of complex networks connecting rural and urban spaces; the translation of practices into structures and infrastructures that evade the view, and understanding, of the westernised academy and profession; the constant masking and doubling of intention, location and meaning; and the primacy of mobility, therefore time, in the making of space.

“Jofaji is an architectural research group. Though we approach it from our practices as artists and architects, we are trying to generate a specific kind of spatial knowledge. To this end, we mobilise the traditional tools of film, sound, drawing, performance, photography and writing; and the essential technologies of talking, listening, walking, eating and sleeping.”

Dala and Jofaji have both worked on numerous projects in Warwick Triangle, Durban. “We’re interested in the notion of in-between spaces, as they tend to be spaces of dissonance; spaces where repressed conflict comes to life,” explains Jahangeer.

There are a handful of black-owned architectural firms sprouting up that resonate with the agenda of decolonising our spaces, but they’re being systemically constricted into diluted, interpretive forms of spatial activism. A cutting edge firm that falls under this categorical spell is Gauteng- and Limpopo-based architectural and urban design firm 1 000 Degrees Celsius.

Their self-professed ethos is “… to be a customer-focused firm that brings a fresh African aesthetic to architectural, construction, town planning and graphic designs”.

Tish Nyatlo, the firm’s head architect and senior partner, says: ”The company was started after realising that the built environment aesthetic in South Africa still remains overarched by Eurocentric influence, which does not reflect any African ethos and outlook.”

But that vision had to be placidly enacted due to the reality of the business, which is that the client is still God. “The problem is with the client, not the design: the influence of clients without artistic minds. Budget always supersedes creativity. Black designers don’t get the chance to fully express ourselves, even when we’re partners or owners in the firms.

“The client is usually autocratic and close-minded in their approach toward the project, so we’re prevented from disturbing the status quo with our work.”

This is the same vexing reality Dennis and Liphosa faced after graduating from Wits University’s School of Architecture and Planning. “The transition from the soft politics of the academy to the brutal reality of the commercial architectural world highlighted the huge gap between the environment that we inhabit as black South Africans and the professional responses to that reality.

“The truth is that we have lost faith in the ability of the architectural model to even see this world, let alone understand it, represent it or create it. [We] started Jofaji as a reaction to the shock and frustrations of joining the professional world of architecture after graduating,” they say.

At the end of our walk, I ask Dennis where he sees the city in a century. “Well, it could go either one of two ways. The city could remain stagnant in its development, for instance, how much has Accra really developed in the 50-odd years since its emancipation?  But I believe there’s the potential of middle classes seizing control of the city.

“Urban design shouldn’t be entrusted in the hands of interested parties like governments and corporations because essentially we can’t ever predetermine the dynamism of a people. I believe the best way to build is to leave space for things to grow,” he says.



This piece was produced as part of The Con’s partnership with the Visual Arts Network of South Africa for the 2014 Ways of Being Here project

Main Pic: Looking out over Johannesburg from Braamfontein by Evan Bench


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