by MTHULISI SIBANDA
JOHANNESBURG, (CAJ News) – SYNONYMOUS disease, filth and crime, and in most African countries an ugly legacy of colonialism that deprived locals of their dignity, shanty towns are not the kind of place you would imagine a globally-recognised architect developing a passion for or gaining inspiration from.
Also known as squatter settlements or slums, they also represent failures of current governments to provide housing for their teeming populations.
In an unprecedented development, the sprawling shantytowns of South Africa have emerged a source of inspiration to a humble young architect rated among the best of his generation and thrust him into global stardom in an amazing journey of determination, humility and selflessness that is set to change the face of these impoverished settlements.
Wandile Mthiyane (23), born in the midst of poverty in a shantytown in KwaMashu, Durban in the eastern Kwazulu-Natal Province, now an architect recognised by the United Nations and global youth empowerment organisations, has embarked on an internationally-endorsed programme partnering with shantytown communities to build sustainable, efficient and affordable housing and infrastructure to restore their dignity.
Mthiyane, founder of Ubuntu Design Group (UDG, the Master of Architecture at the Andrews University in the United States, explained his ostensibly bizarre passion for the slums yet one would expect an award-winning architect to be focused on trends that would define the future of the industry. “I grew up in a shantytown and I believe in using architecture as a vehicle to restore communities’ dignity.
Architecture is not just about designing tall shiny buildings for multi-millionaires or huge corporations,” the equity champion said in an interview.“People who live in informal settlements are some of the most creative people in the world,” said Mthiyane, whose mission to empower shantytown dwellers has seen him grace international forums with audiences eager to hear a remarkable story that seeks to inspire South African and the world.
“I am inspired by the exuberant creativity expressed by people living in shantytowns. They efficiently use their scarce resources to create dwellings for them and their loved ones.
”I am inspired by the optimism, love, joy and hope shown by people who live in inhumane conditions of informal settlements,” Mthiyane said.“This is shown in the small things like keeping their (dwellers’) mud shack spotlessly clean and painting a flower on their doors.
”I am inspired by the potential impact architecture has on solving social problems while creating culturally sensitive and sustainable neighbourhoods.”He used the township of Umbumbulu, also in Kwazulu-Natal, as an example.“There are many small, narrow passageways, and no street lighting. By working with the local residents to best redesign the streets to open up space, along with redesigning homes to include windows so more eyes are on the neighborhood, and installing street lighting we can instantly reduce crime and rape.”He pointed another setback as children often missed school due toill-equipped shanties to withstand inclement weather as thunderstorms.“This can be solved by simply improving the design of their schools to protect against rain getting into the rooms and damaging the student’s books and learning materials. Making these simple changes, which can drastically alter the lives and experience of people living in the township of Umbumbulu, is very inspirational to me.”Umbumbulu is central to UDG’s initiatives.
There, in collaboration with Andrews University, it has embarked on a pilot project, building a house for a disabled family as part of a projectthat is anticipated to revolutionise the way social design and low-income communities are viewed.It will culminate in a handicapped-friendly home for the Mtshali’s family. “What’s unique about UDG is that it stands for more than just building houses for the less fortunate but moreover it stands as a catalyst and beaming light for people from all races, backgrounds and cultures to converge and create a global community that cares; all in the name of ubuntu (humanity),” Mthiyane said.A crèche will be established as part of the project to serve the whole community.“We would like to make this sort of community building and the spirit of ubuntu to trend throughout the whole of South Africa and we dare to dream seeing it extended even across the whole world,” Mthiyane enthused.
UDG is inspired by Sir Winston Churchill’s famous speech, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”It is also premised on the ubuntu concept, “I am because you are.”“Ubuntu alludes to community, brotherhood and love. This is a community-centred approach. We believe in using architecture as means to equip people with skills that will empower them to enhance their communities through collaboration and innovation,” he said.“We seek to maximise the creative energy and spirit of people living in South African communities by working with them to design sustainable housing that retains the community and culture that they share.Our team strives to shape a worldview of independence, innovation and health in our community orientated designs.”This journey to empowering shack dwellers started when Mthiyane was aged 18, when he received a partial scholarship to study at Andrews University.
To raise funds to get him abroad, he wrote a manifesto on how he planned to develop Durban, which he sent to then-Mayor James Nxumalo.
His breakthrough came at the 2015 One Young World Summit in Bangkok,Thailand where he presented his UDG Community Half-House project.The project won the Resolution Social Venture Challenge. With the accolade, Mthiyane received a Resolution Fellowship with $3 000 of initial funding for his project and access to counselling from business-people around the world.
Furthermore, UDG has recently won the Congress for New Urbanism Best Urban Design Project in the World (Student Category), in collaboration with the Andrews University Master of Architecture class for work at Umbumbulu.CNU’s annual Charter Awards recognise outstanding achievements in architectural, landscape and urban design and planning worldwide.
UDG has also been invited to present their work at the UN.Now that his overseas adventure is over, he is back in the country and passionate about his company’s pilot project for the disabled family.“This project will revolutionise the way we view social design and low-income communities,” the architect projected.
– CAJ News
by MTHULISI SIBANDA