Designing over Khayelitsha's cracks
A community-led renewal project is overhauling areas of the township, opening up space to thrive.
Sitting on a salvaged couch in the centre of her small corrugated-iron shack, Nomfusi Panyaza looks worried as clouds gather in the sky outside. “When it rains, the public toilets overflow into my living room,” she said. “Water comes in through the ceiling and the electricity stops working.”
Outside her makeshift home in Khayelitsha on the eastern edge of Cape Town, barefoot children play on the banks of an open sewer and cows roam next to a rubbish heap. Panyaza shares this tiny shack with her two daughters and four grandchildren, a family of seven with two beds between them.
“We can’t sleep at night because of the smell. I’m worried that the children are always getting sick.”
A 20-minute drive to the west, the seventh course is being served at a banquet for journalists, here to celebrate Cape Town’s title of World Design Capital 2014 at a cliff-top villa. An infinity pool projects out towards the Atlantic horizon, as the setting sun casts a glow on the villa’s seamless planes.
Apartheid may have ended 20 years ago but in Cape Town the sense of being apart remains as strong as ever. After decades of enforced segregation, the feeling of division is permanently carved into the city’s urban form, the physical legacy of a plan that was designed to separate poor blacks from rich whites.
“The social engineering of apartheid came down to a very successful model of spatial engineering,” Edgar Pieterse, the director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, said. “Cape Town was conceived with a white-only centre, surrounded by contained settlements for the black and coloured labour forces to the east, each hemmed in by highways and rail lines, rivers and valleys, and separated from the affluent white suburbs by protective buffer zones of scrubland.”
“When many people get an RDP house, often after 10 to 15 years of waiting, they realise it makes more economic sense to build a shack in the backyard for themselves and sell the house,” Pieterse said.
“They sell them illegally for about R40 000, a third of what it costs the state to build them, and then they can use this cash to set up a business from the shack. It makes a lot more economic sense than living in the RDP house, where you’re not allowed to trade.”
More than a quarter of households have no access to electricity, and each outdoor tap is shared by about 20 families, each toilet by about 10.
Every plot is now often home to four or six other dwellings, each sharing the free basic electricity allocated to the original legal household. “Sometimes my neighbours just turn off the power and hold me to ransom,” Panyaza said, staring at a blank television in front of her couch, the principal possession around which the rest of her small home is organised.
“We have been forgotten,” said Panyaza, who built her home 10 years ago, when she first moved here with her family from the Eastern Cape in search of work in the city. They have been on the waiting list for an RDP house ever since.
Their story is shared by thousands of families who arrive here each year from the poorer eastern province, an influx that sees about 10 000 new shacks being built annually in Khayelitsha alone. Originally planned as a community of 200 000, the population now numbers about one million, half of whom live in informal housing.
The speed of growth and the level of poverty, with over 50% of residents unemployed, have also brought Khayelitsha one of the highest crime rates in the country – and a reputation as a place ruled by gang violence. Police say they deal with an average of four murders a weekend and the local hospital is overrun with stab-wound and gunshot victims every night.
German urban designer Michael Krause has been working in this fraught context since 2008 on projects that aim to tackle violence through simple improvements to the township’s streets and spaces.
“Our approach is to positively occupy places that are perceived to be dangerous,” he said, standing next to a construction site where local workmen clamber on a structure of bright-red shipping containers and rendered sand-bag walls, soon to be a new community centre. Across a dusty lot is a heap of scrap metal, patrolled by a few emaciated dogs. A toddler squats in the street, examining the sole of a discarded shoe.
“This used to be the site of an illegal chop shop,” Krause said. “Hijacked cars would be brought here to be dismantled and sold on. The community wasn’t strong enough to stand up to the criminal elements, so we took them through a leadership process to give them the strength to do it themselves. The choice was either build a community centre or be ruled by criminals. That’s sustainability.”
Hubs of activity
The centre is one of a number of “active boxes” that have been built in the area. They are conceived as hubs of 24/7 activity – part community centre, part safe haven, manned by volunteers from the nascent neighbourhood watch initiative. Each has a multipurpose room, used for meetings and youth groups, a caretaker’s flat and spaces for shops and start-up businesses or a crèche. Positioned every 500m along a route through the township, with their slender red watchtowers rising above the rambling rooftops, the active boxes stand like a line of proud church spires.
“They are safe nodes, connected by paths that thread their way through the township, from the market to the station to the schools and so on, defining well-lit routes monitored by passive surveillance,” Krause said.
Leading the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) programme, an initiative jointly funded by the provincial government and the German Development Bank, Krause and his team worked with the community to map crime hotspots and work out the safer, regularly used routes through the area.
The active boxes are accompanied by a package of public realm improvements, from street lighting to new paving and recreation spaces, along with “active citizenship” programmes, empowering residents to drive these projects forward.
It is a community-led approach that contrasts with the blunt hand of previous top-down interventions, such as the Khayelitsha shopping mall, a cluster of out-of-town retail sheds airlifted into the township in 2005, but hopelessly cut off, sited on the wrong side of a railway line.
“They call it our new town centre but it’s in totally the wrong place,” a local resident said, walking back across the bridge over the tracks. “It may be shiny and new, but it doesn’t feel safe to go there.”
Just a short way to the south, in the neighbourhood of Harare, the biggest VPUU project shows how things can be done differently. In the centre of the area is now a tarred square, lined on either side with new red-brick buildings, carefully designed to frame this new civic space with active frontages. There’s a new library to one side (which now claims to be the busiest public library in Cape Town) next to a loveLife youth centre.
Lining another side of the square is a neat row of live-work units, with what looks like the beginnings of a high street, complete with hair salon, internet café, co-op bank, TV repair shop, security company and restaurant.
“It has completely changed the feeling of the area,” 18-year-old Bongi Qwesha said. “It wouldn’t have felt safe to hang around here a few years ago but now we all come here after school to meet in the square and go on the internet.”
Krause said the murder rate in Harare has dropped by 33% since the programme began in 2005, and the general perception of safety has increased (if only from two to 2.8 on a five-step scale), figures that have seen the programme being expanded to other townships.
In the centre of Cape Town, the World Design Capital entourage has returned from the Veuve Clicquot Masters Polo tournament. Celebrities mingle with designers at the Val de Vie estate, in the rolling winelands to the north of the city. Cocktails await at another mansion, from where guests notice clouds of smoke rising in the distance.
“Don’t worry,” assures their guide, reaching for another glass of champagne. “It’s probably just a fire in one of the townships.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014