Cape Town | icon 024 | June 2005

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photo: David Southwood photo: David Southwood

words Marcus Fairs

The road from the airport to the centre of Cape Town is fast and wide and heads directly towards the looming silhouette of Table Mountain before veering around its northern flank and swooping down into the bland canyons of the central business district.

Pressed along either side of the route, for mile after mile, is an endless and spontaneous urbanisation of tight-packed shacks wrought from scraps of corrugated steel and timber. These are the official townships and unofficial squatter camps and “backyard” shack districts of the city, where an estimated 100,000 people squat along the littorals of the N2 highway. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: an estimated 80% of Cape Town’s 3 million people live in the shanties and townships beyond.

We are not stopping – for now – because we are on our way to the 8th Design Indaba: an annual conference that draws leading international speakers from the fields of design, fashion and architecture. Headliners this year included Dieter Rams, the Campana brothers, Will Alsop and Thomas Heatherwick. It’s probably the best-organised and most inspirational event of its type and it attracts a crowd of around 1,500 delegates. “It’s the best design conference in the world,” said Li Edelkoort, attending her second Indaba.

But it feels cut off from reality: the venue, the brand-new Cape Town International Convention Centre in the city’s faceless downtown, is hemmed in between an elevated freeway and a clutch of corporate towers. The only destination within walking distance is the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, a cruise-passengers’ playground of
chi-chi boutiques and restaurants.

The desirable Atlantic beach suburbs, with names like Clifton, Seapoint and Camps Bay, are a short taxi ride away; the townships – with evocative names such as Guguletu, Khayelitsha and Langa – might as well be on a different continent. Eleven years after the end of apartheid, this is still a divided city with a divided culture. The vast majority of the audience at the Indaba are white South Africans and, judging by the work presented by local designers, they look to the West for their creative cues. “I’ve never been to Africa before,” says Ron Arad, another headline speaker this year, “but this isn’t Africa.”

So where are we exactly? Is the true spirit of contemporary Cape Town to be found in the neo-modernist villas that line the Atlantic seaboard, or in the tin shacks lining the N2?

Appropriately, the subject of national design identity emerged as one of the key themes of this year’s Design Indaba. Instead of aping the West, designers in developing nations like South Africa should look to their own unique cultures, said Brazilian fashion designer Carlos Miele in his presentation. “Globalisation means the first world selling to the third world,” he said. “We need to reverse that. And the only way you can do that is to look at your roots. We need to create our own unique products and sell them to the world.”

This is a key point, since the Design Indaba has set itself the ambitious task of triggering a new creative economy in a country that has long been dependent on commodities such as gold and diamonds. Yet the country lacks homegrown fashion and design brands that could turn these raw materials into valuable exports.

“The South African economy needs to lessen its dependency on commodities and begin to leverage its products and services globally,” says Ravi Naidoo, the founder and host of Design Indaba. “Design and innovation is a powerful lever for this. Design Indaba attracts the thought leaders of the world to inspire our local creatives.”

But Naidoo believes that the “shack chic” aesthetic of the townships – which has become fashionable recently thanks to the publication of a best-selling coffee table book of the same name – is an inappropriate design language for an emerging nation. “It’s clichéd,” says Nadoo. “It’s too much like a design safari. For an ambitious country making good progress in high-tech spheres, it does not do us justice. We are engaged in showing the world a different view of Africa – a modern, vibrant Africa with its people engaged in creative enterprise.”

“There’s a desire to invent a new South African culture,” says Matthew Barac, who was born in Cape Town and has returned to the city to research his architectural PhD (see “Dreaming of a Town” on page 114). “But the design community is putting its hands over its eyes and not seeing what’s already there. Our national design identity is to be found in the townships, where most people live.”

The sense of embarrassment many South Africans seem to feel towards these areas is expressed in a project called N2 Gateway: a £250 million initiative that will rehouse the roadside squatters and demolish their shacks by 2010. This is an exercise in both social improvement and aesthetic cleansing: 2010 is the year that South Africa hosts the World Cup, and the authorities want to erase such an unsightly reminder of the nation’s problems before the event takes place.

“It smacks of the same misconception,” says Barac. “It’s trying to erase a richness that doesn’t exist in the type of design that Design Indaba is promoting.”

A couple of days into the Indaba, Barac arranged for us to leave the confines of the convention centre and briefly visit the sprawling shack districts, the names of which speak of hope and homeliness rather than desperation: Barcelona, Kanana (a corruption of “Canaan”) and New Rest are the self-appointed titles of districts bordering the N2.

Confusingly, the shacklands of the Samora Machel township do not seem to conform to the tin-can stereotype: the district seems altogether more aspirational than that. While the shacks themselves are made of scavenged materials, the interiors we visited were notably devoid of recycled objects sold in the city centre craft shops. The walls are properly wallpapered or painted rather than lined with food labels the furniture could have come from MFI or even Ikea.

So it seems the township dwellers themselves, once they achieve a degree of affluence, try to distance themselves from the poverty-tainted and somewhat self-conscious aesthetic of “shack chic”.

“People aspire to be part of the mainstream economy and they express that through their houses,” says Barac. “For example, people who work as domestic cleaners in the affluent suburbs will try to imitate that suburban look in their shacks.”

And rather than Coca-Cola can radios, they are stuffed full of modern electrical goods bought as new in township malls.

“They’ve got TVs, they’ve got refrigerators, maybe a microwave, a music centre. Some of them have got heaters and DVDs,” says our guide, a local photojournalist called Mandla Mnyakama. One of the ironies of post-apartheid South Africa is that the ANC government has managed to turn what was a socialist struggle into a kind of micro-consumerism: the shack dwellers are as aspirational as their counterparts on the other side of Table Mountain. “Things have changed since ‘94 [when the first democratic elections were held],” says Mnyakama. “The government has brought changes and opportunities for people. Crime is lower. People are no longer angry like they used to be. There are high levels of unemployment but people are inspired to get on and do things on their own.”

“We are comfortable,” says Portia Vuntu, who lives with her husband and two children in a one-room, 3 x 2m corrugated steel and timber shack that has a TV, a stereo and a huge fridge. “We wish we could live in a better house. It’s not safe in a shack – you never know what’ll happen. Our greatest fear is fire.”

“Most people dream of going to a better district or a proper brick house,” adds Mnyakama. “They don’t want to be left behind.”

The most surprising discovery on our brief visit was a shack-building enterprise set up in a street in the Brown’s Farm shack settlement. Entrepreneur Judas Njengenja (above) builds take-away dwellings from new, as opposed to recycled, steel and timber: a crucial difference for his aspirational clients. Business appears to
be booming.

The kind of informal creative economy represented by Njengenja and other entrepreneurs who have set up shop in the township streets – among them furniture makers, hairdressers and portrait photographers – is common to all developing countries and is, according to design writer John Thackara, a valuable resource. Following a recent visit to India, Thackara writes on his website: “A majority of the population in many Asian cities lives in shanty towns which make urban planners anxious. Although perceived as problem areas by bureaucrats, these areas are also sites of intense social and business innovation … they play a crucial role in keeping the city and its economy running.”

Thackara adds: “The irony is this: many bureaucrats (and property profiteers) in Asia want to get rid of these so-called suitcase entrepreneurs; but in the North, proponents of ‘creative cities’ are desperate to foster a comparable level of small-scale industries and street-level productivity.”

Back at the Design Indaba, Carlos Miele suggests that rather than import inappropriate Western ideas of design, South Africa should follow the example of his native Brazil – which also happens to be a multi-racial, developing southern-hemisphere nation. “Brazil and South Africa are really the same,” says Miele. “In Brazil, we also have this big competition with places like China. We cannot export such cheap products, so my idea is to create luxury and export very expensive products.”

Miele’s work, like that of São Paolo furniture designers the Campana brothers, takes its cue not from New York or Milan but from the streets of São Paolo. “I look for inspiration in Brazilian popular culture when I design my clothes – things that are unique to Brazil. The only way to compete with globalisation is to look at your roots.”

“What we do is the translation of our environment into furniture,” says Fernando Campana in the brothers’ presentation, which was the final event of the Design Indaba. “Not just the favelas [slums], but also the countryside, the city. We didn’t pretend to be Scandinavian, Italian or whatever. The most important thing is to pick up the Brazilian root and make it international,” says Fernando. “It’s an intellectual responsibility, not a moral one.”

“The concept is very local but what the Campanas do is global – everyone can understand,” says Massimo Morozzi, the art director of Milanese furniture brand Edra and the man who discovered the Campanas. Their work is distinct from the “ethnic” handicrafts that are on sale in every tourist destination around the world, Morozzi argues. “Ethnic objects start local and stay local,” says Morozzi. “You buy them, you go home and when you open the bag, you hate them.”

For Barcelona-based Brazilian designer Paulo Feferbaum, it is a question of maturity: Brazil has had twice as long to come to terms with itself. “In Brazil, the dictatorship ended in 1985,” he says. South Africa has only had 11 years. Africa and Brazil have similarities in terms of music, food, cultures. Brazilians have learned to interpret that in an international, sophisticated way – they’re not just using the aesthetic of the poor people.”

Feferbaum believes Design Indaba is a vital step towards the maturity that South Africa needs to find its place on the global design stage. “It creates awareness, it creates continuity,” he says. “But this is a challenge. It will take many years to get there.”

It will also take a realisation that there is more to it than flying star names over from London and New York – no matter how pleasant that is for the fortunate speakers. Perhaps the most telling moment of the entire Design Indaba came right at the end of the exhilarating closing lecture, when Fernando Campana held up a “shack chic” radio, fashioned from wire and recycled Coca-Cola cans at a township co-operative, that he had bought in a tourist shop. “This is the best thing we’ve seen here,” he said.

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