A design for our future

2011-06-11 14:51

South Africa has a significantly fragmented past. While communities were kept apart on racial grounds, unable to interact or mingle, so too were South African spaces and cities.

Apartheid physically split urban environments to facilitate segregation; and a duality of cultures, incomes and experiences in our cities was perpetuated.

This cultural, social and economic alienation symbolically came to an end with Madiba’s release in 1990. Freedom had officially come to South Africa, and the nation could begin the long process of knitting itself together, closing the physical and psychological barriers erected by the racist, hateful regime.

Insecurities around what constituted a South African identity remained. What was South Africa? Could one be proud of South Africa? Who indeed were South Africans?

The conversation began with commonalities, as most do between strangers. South African natural landscapes, sunshine and sport formed the basis of a truly representative South African culture unifying moments and events.

Here, a new government saw the opportunity to strengthen the nation’s identity by rallying its population around sporting events, embracing large spectacles to better an international image, promote investment, improve local sport but also to fill stadiums with proud South African fans.

It was, therefore, no surprise that South Africa so actively pursued the Fifa World Cup, first in 2006 then last year.

The world’s largest event was seen as the ultimate prize – an opportunity to fast-track infrastructure upgrades, prove South Africa’s skills and talent to the world, and celebrate as one united country.

The successful bid and anxious run-up to last year’s spectacle was fraught with media speculation, bad press and first-world gripes about third-world conditions.

South Africa, however, stepped up to the challenge and – through serious planning, hard work and ingenuity – designed what has retrospectively been called the “best World Cup ever”.

The euphoria around the event pulled South African communities together so tightly that a single identity emerged – South Africans were South Africans, despite their vast differences.

Millions saw South African cities, their stadiums and infrastructure along with the soccer. One physical, social and psychological flag was flown and, for a moment, a single image of unity in diversity dominated.

A year after the World Cup, South Africa has moved on, and the country now needs to seriously interrogate the World Cup’s successes and failures. This by questioning how the nation presented itself and what the post-apartheid, post-World Cup country really stands for today.

This limited reflection is important as it can ­dramatically impede efficient future planning if neglected.South Africa now needs a platform to share its experience, achievements, urban culture and diverse people with the world.

During the World Cup last year, for the first time, scenes of the big five, rolling hills and white beaches were replaced in the international press with accounts of South African public transport developments, enormous stadiums, images of dynamic cities, cosmopolitan communities and a general celebration of being South African.

Our skills and ingenuity were implicit in the soccer spectacle – it was as much about the creative as it was the entrepreneur or the labourer.

South Africa had its time in the spotlight and, for a brief moment, true unity bound the population – crime decreased, protests were put on hold and everyone dressed their houses and cars with national flags.But the delivery of stadiums now needs to be translated into the continued delivery of services and housing with a similar urgency.

South African talent needs to be shared with the world continually and the nation’s positive global impression has to be developed further and sustained.This is where the challenge exists.

Can South Africa hold on to the collective, motivated spirit of the World Cup in better addressing national concerns, while continuing to promote its achievements, talent, people and cities abroad?

The nine host cities, all once places of deep-rooted segregation and planned apartheid division, now have an unparalleled opportunity to reconsider their city spaces, to create public space and transport opportunities to essentially democratise space.

Fanparks, giant TV screens, connective public transport and the strategic placement of World Cup event spaces worked as unifying mechanisms; but ­today, lasting changes – besides new ­stadiums – are not as visible in many host cities.Joburg actively took the World Cup opportunity to celebrate its urbanity.

South African ­cities are, after all, great social melting pots, where a diversity of residents create rich urban cultures, bustling streets, and varied, energised economic activity.

But some cities shied away, opting rather for the tried-and-tested route of highlighting the beauty of local fauna and flora (rather than people), thus reinforcing an international perception that South Africa is merely a pretty landscape where wild animals do in fact roam the streets.By sidestepping this temptation, Joburg was able to seriously present itself as a global economic node.

It shrugged off perceptions of violent crime and corruption, and replaced them with experiences of vitality, culture, design and sophistication.

Tourists flocked to Joburg, eager to experience a real South African city.While the temptation existed for Cape Town to focus too specifically on its natural beauty and related outdoor activities, the city quite openly embraced its built-up centre, utilising existing public spaces and building new ones.

The historic Grand Parade became the city’s Fan Fest, a symbolic site of celebration given new meaning in post-apartheid South Africa.

Due to the central positioning of the Green Point Stadium, close to the CBD, the city’s functions also played a far more significant role in the successful hosting of tourists and visitors.

It also became a site for celebration and partying, as restaurants and street vendors activated its edges. Today it exists as an urban asset, a pedestrian link which makes Cape Town’s City Bowl easier to navigate and possibly more vibrant for tourists and residents alike.

Similarly, the Green Point precinct around the Cape Town stadium is a rich, albeit peripheral, piece of sturdy public infrastructure.

Nearby, a new, expansive park counter-balances the city. Joburg’s approach was similar, although distance is a significant obstacle in making the city accessible, so initiatives like the Rea Vaya bus rapid transit system were implemented to better connect the city to previously separate areas like Soweto.

The Soccer City precinct also conceptually acts as urban Velcro, uniting two massive city areas, which is notable when considering that just 15 years ago you wouldn’t have found one street sign in Joburg even indicating the direction of Soweto.

 But while Joburg and Cape Town used the World Cup to better shape and form their cities, this opportunity was lost on the majority of the other host cities.

Even though some cities have not truly embraced the enormous opportunities presented by the World Cup from a legacy perspective, South Africa hit the big league in hosting the event successfully – and this memory, if kept alive, is significant.

The World Cup unveiled true South African talent and expertise, the kind that is so often lost to better global opportunities.

This energy and human capital has to remain in our cities, and these cities must support and celebrate it.

The nation should never stop promoting South African skills, which should be embraced and championed. A developing nation desperately needs designers, urban thinkers, economists, engineers, artists and planning specialists. The World Cup

proved that we have world-leading skills here.Design talent, in particular, is a growing global currency.

The cities who best support their creative communities – from architects and fashion designers to artists and city visionaries – tend to be the most well-known and most visible.Designers are best positioned to take their experience of urban centres to the world, representing their cities at global design forums.

Also, designers implicitly embrace urban culture, absorb it and create suitable responses, world-leading buildings, social upliftment projects, exhibitions and publications – all highlighting the wonders of global cities.

This talent needs to be backed and nurtured in South Africa, creating the opportunity for the country to export ideas and knowledge produced in South Africa.

The country’s recent inclusion in the Brics partnership is a wonderful platform for the sharing and commodification of design-thinking to blossom. Both Brazil and Russia, two of the other four member states, will be hosting the next World Cups.

South Africa now sits in a privileged position to share its knowledge with the new hosts.In a globally competitive world, nations and cities have to use their unique experiences and attributes to better position themselves.

The international community has to be embraced and there should no longer be an us-and-them dynamic.One year after the opening spectacle of the World Cup, South Africa has to adopt a new global view and confidence.

The skills and rich experience which so many South Africans got from working on World Cup projects need to be put to use again in building better communities, establishing inclusive urban environments and advising other nations in similar situations.

All these aspects come back to South African design cities that South Africans can identify with, live and develop within, and so design a South Africa that we are all proud of.

» Asmal is director of the Designing South Africa Consultancy 

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