Guest Column

Build houses that reflect who we are

2019-02-18 11:24
Renovated Twistville houses. Photo: Siphelele Nketo

Renovated Twistville houses. Photo: Siphelele Nketo

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Houses are one of the most important expressions of a people's soul and culture. Our forebears in South Africa did not have little boxes. Why do we allow our people to live in them, ask Sifiso Mkhonto and Thomas Scarborough.

Let us dream for a moment. It is a dream which could truly come true, without the greatest of effort. Dream with us of new townships, which speak of our cultures and express our personalities; that embody our histories, reveal our uniqueness and make us proud and happy. Do you see a way? If so, then let us be preoccupied with a better future. 

All over South African townships today, we find rows and rows of what the singer Malvina Reynolds called "little boxes, little boxes all the same". It could have been sung about our RDP (now Breaking New Ground or BNG) boxes. In fact, in 1931, black South Africans nicknamed their new houses in Orlando "matchboxes", which might ultimately have influenced the song. 

Our RDP houses are much-hated for their many shortcomings, such as the poor quality of build which has led to some collapsing, while the size is too small for people to move around in. At the same time, they are much-loved for having helped people live in a dignified structure, compared to former shacks, or no form of shelter at all. These houses are used to put down roots, grow gardens, bring up children—and gradually build a life. 

Our "little boxes" are still very much in the news today. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni last October announced centralised housing subsidies of R1bn – then, two months later, the Housing Development Agency was ordered to pay back R2.3bn to Treasury and was placed under administration. 

This pause could be a big opportunity for us. In amongst all the debate, we propose that there is something we have missed about BNG (RDP) housing. You don't find it in any plain language on the Housing Development Agency website, or in the BNG plan – which, incidentally, are a giddying mix of official-speak. 

It's what we overlook that we lack. Who thought of boxes? In rows? And then, think on this – built in the style of the old colonial masters! 

Houses are one of the most important expressions of a people's soul and culture. Professor Gerald Steyn, of the Tshwane University of Technology, notes that they are the tangible manifestation of "custom, kinship, climate, resources, and settlement geography, rather than the mere construction of shelter". 

Our forebears in South Africa did not have little boxes. The traditional style, in almost every community, was round houses. Often their walls were decorated – they were built in clusters, on a slope – and they focused on a central courtyard with trees. 

The courtyard was home, it was said, while the houses were only places to sleep. In this courtyard, people talked and sang in the shade—sometimes kept animals, or stored things in pits—and children played. The slope ensured that the rain washed the soil—and it gave an advantage for defence. 

In 1971, the South African poet Oswald Mtshali wrote a love poem to the way that houses used to be:   

it is a hive

without any bees

to build the walls

with golden bricks of honey

If you wish to create conflict and confusion in a story, you have only to force the characters into actions which are alien to them. There are many factors which make a neighbourhood dysfunctional. Matchboxes are a prime example – in Khayelitsha, Nellmapius, Soweto, KwaMashu, and many other places – all the same. 

Tinus Kruger of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research lists various factors that contribute to a wholesome community, which may basically be summed up as "personality": identity, openness, appearance, and similar factors which all reduce the problems of a neighbourhood. 

If you want a suburb to fail to live out its full potential and create dysfunctional relationships, build rows and rows of little boxes. They are decimating our South African cultures. With trucks and bulldozers and bricklayers, they are destroying it systematically. 

If it is true that every man and woman is influenced for good or for bad by their environment, health, and economic background, then this should be a reminder to us: in South Africa, our worlds can be influenced for the better. In this case, by rethinking our housing, in ways we have not much contemplated before. 

- Sifiso Mkhonto is a logistician and former student leader. Thomas Scarborough is a minister and philosophy editor. Their essays represent combined views, to stimulate discussion. The authors may not in every case share the views expressed.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    tito mboweni  |  rdp houses  |  housing sector
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