In 2014 Cape Town is the World Design Capital. The initiative focuses on design-based solutions to urban problems, and wants to attract international attention for South Africa’s design community. DLD reports from the Cape Town Design Company’s head office, and the city’s townships where some of its biggest urban and social challenges lie.
It’s Monday morning. Rush-hour in Cape Town and roads are filled with cars, trucks and the white vans which double as taxis and most people’s substitute for public transport. Every day they cross the invisible divide of Cape Town’s communities by picking up and dropping off people at ad-hoc taxi stops across the city. When the driver slows down his assistant leans out of an open door or window, and shouts the name of the destination: “Kayelitsha!”, “Guguletu!” or “Mfuleni!” names of townships which are located in the Cape Flats region, where people mostly live in shacks and share public toilets as bathrooms. The taxis also go to “Sea Point!”, “Cape Town!” and “Camp’s Bay!” those parts of town where people from the Cape Flats often find work, and where tourists enjoy beautiful beaches and shop in air-conditioned boutiques. Cape Town is a sprawling city of an estimated 3.5 million people who are confronted with more than one reality of life.
Cape Town's harbor and city center
A majority of people live in the townships that were created by apartheid and built on sand, lacking basic infrastructures for electricity and sanitation. The City of Cape Town builds and invests in the Cape Flats region but rapid urbanisation and often the people’s poverty makes progress slow. Life in the townships is marked by crime and violence, a perilous place to grow up in. An NGO called Matchbox is part of the World Design Capital bid and wants to provide safe havens for the townships’ youngest. Many children and even toddlers are left without supervision when both parents have to work and no public institution, like a kindergarten, exists in their neighbourhood. In some areas women provide an informal day care for children in their own homes, but usually they lack training and the resources to give the children more than food and shelter. Verena Grips is an architect from Germany and founder of Matchbox. Her design vision is to use shipping containers from Cape Town’s industrial harbour and refurbish them as functional buildings for early-age learning centres. The containers are relatively cheap and easy to transform into buildings with windows and doors. They are also easy to move, which is crucial as property rights are insecure in the townships, where most settlements happened spontaneously and without legal or official transactions.
A first Matchbox kindergarten is planned to be set up by April 2013 in Mfuleni; a township which is often named as an exemplary community, where people take care of their neighbourhood and cooperate to build a safer environment. The kindergarten that will move into the unit provided by Matchbox is run by a young woman called Mavis. She takes care of up to 50 children between the ages of 0 to 8 in her own home. Parents who can afford a couple of hundred Rand (10-20 Euros) per month bring their children to the Injongo crèche, which is Mavis’ bedroom plus an extension and a small concrete garden. Her responsibilities range from being a counsellor for the children to cooking and managing a small team of carers. Verena Grips from Matchbox, says she can’t wait for the first containers to stand in Mfuleni, to give the children and Mavis a more appropriate space. “It feels like we’ve done so much talking and thinking”, says Verena “we finally have to deliver what we’ve promised.” Besides the task of designing the containers, the process of getting to know the circumstances under which women run informal kindergarten’s, building trust and finally getting official permits, took almost three years. Verena’s aim is to give an impulse to the community where the containers are set up and to eventually see the project being multiplied.
Injongo crèche in Mfuleni, Cape Town
“To give the next generation a safer childhood is at the heart of Matchbox’ work,” says Verena who uses her skills and know-how as an architect to make a local impact. Her approach exactly fits under the overarching theme of the World Design Capital (WDC) initiative “Live Design. Transform Life.” Alayne Reesberg is the CEO of Cape Town Design, the company organising WDC. She wants to harness the potential of Cape Town’s local design community to come up with creative solutions for the city. “We don’t just want to look forward,” she says. “There are many fantastic things that happen in greater Cape Town already. I think there’s a grittiness and authenticity. It’s a city that lives right next to a container harbour (...) and there are the mountains and the beaches. It’s a divine mesh-up of traffic problems and music and dance.” She sees the city as a playground for designers, engineers, crafts people and artists who deserve global attention in the field of design. A first call for proposals to WDC was launched in the last days of February under four themes, which reflect the focus on supporting distinctly African and South African creativity.
South Africa is facing a unique context. 2014 marks 20 years since the end of apartheid. An era which created the immense social divide that shaped and still dominates urban structures. Housing, infrastructure and property are prominent national issues for South Africa and directly affect people’s possibilities to improve their living standards. Cape Town is also the first city from a developing region of the world that was awarded the title of world capital of design. It may set examples for design-based solutions that can help 85% of the world’s population which lives in developing countries. Alayne Reesberg anticipates a whole range of proposals for design projects and can’t predict how many of them will address the development of Cape Town’s townships and development issues. However one of the themes for the initiative is “bridging the divide – design that reconnects the city and reconciles its communities”, and could be another step to cross the gap of Cape Town’s neighbourhoods, like the taxis that struggle through the city’s traffic every day.