/ 2 March 2018

The builder-destroyer: ​Russel Hlongwane

Russell Hlongwane: "Design usually underdelivers to its promise to low-income groups".
Russell Hlongwane: "Design usually underdelivers to its promise to low-income groups".
Cultural producer and connector

‘I was quite lonely and very curious,” says Russel Hlongwane, in a statement that is both explanatory and vulnerable. “I grew up in Overport [in Durban], which is an Indian community. My mother was a domestic worker; I was always at the fringe of that community.”

Today, Hlongwane still operates from the fringes of society but more or less wilfully, as a way of safeguarding his ideas and connecting the moving parts to them. Hlongwane is part of a generation whose worlds were, quite literally, moulded by hip-hop.

“I got into it around 2002 and 2003,” he says. “Around that time, the world opened up and I could identify with people who didn’t find a place in mainstream culture.”

Hlongwane’s life is one of education, yes, but of the individual kind. After high school he worked in the shipping industry for seven years, before resigning to tend to “existential questions” like: “What was I passionate about?” and “What service was I offering to my country?”

Work and meaning

After that, Hlongwane “walked straight into a huge conference in Durban in 2014”. That huge conference was the International Union of Architects, where Hlongwane did promotions and activations, among other tasks. The big take-away for him was that he secured a research position with a team that was formulating arts and culture policy for the city.

“I started to understand and contribute to how decisions were made and what trade-offs were made in city governance and public administration,” he says. Over and above that, Hlongwane says the experience heightened his “sense of aesthetics and appreciation for great experiences”.

In varying capacities, Hlongwane tries to transfer these experiences to others who, for systematic reasons, may not be well versed in mapping the disparate moving parts of city governance bureaucracy.

So, what exactly does Hlongwane do? In a sentence, you may settle for “producing and assembling culture”. If that is too vague consider that, with Innovate Durban, he is working with 20 unemployed township youngsters to “hack” the city so they can “become better change agents at local level”.

He says: “We will be introducing elements of design thinking principles and photography, and inviting urban planners and architects to introduce them to understanding what trade-offs are made when one plans a city.” After five months, these youths will be tasked with building a demo city from scratch.

In a different urban planning project, Hlongwane is researching how three generations of a household “define and understand the concepts of home, belonging, family and community”. It is commissioned by the Urban Futures Centre, a Durban University of Technology-based research centre that works with policymakers.

Future plans

Hlongwane says he is working on a model where all his various interests can have an impact on one another.

For example, out of the Urban Futures Centre project has emerged a design-based idea connected to public housing.

“Part of my obsession with design is how it can make lives better and provide people with comfort in their own homes and enhance their sense of aesthetics,” he says contemplatively. “Design usually underdelivers on its promise to low-income groups.”

As for that sense of aesthetics thing, look out for a documentary about his interest in architecture, tracked through different generations of black practitioners. 

Hlongwane gets amped when mentioning the JetLag Travel Speaker Series an event that he will be doing across the country in the coming months. “It’s an event where I invite artists to present an on an international travel experience they recently took on, either for work or leisure. It is based on the assumption that artists are creatives and therefore engage with cities in novel ways. It’s also an event that shares stories of Durbanites working outside the city.”

 Not bad for a young man who spent his formative years coming in from the cold.