Is my home good or evil?
Updated: May 19, 2022
Growing up in the township of Mothibistad in the reserves of South Africa, I have started wondering if my home is good or evil. This is fundamental and I think many people who grew up in the South African reserves, as well as those who have lived and continue to live in the so-called townships of South Africa, are faced with such a question knowingly or unknowingly.
The fact of the matter is that those of us who have for a large part of our lives known the townships and reserves as home see these places as being fundamental to who we are and perceive them as an important part of our identity. On the other hand, these spaces are also places that were created by the apartheid government for sinister reasons, primarily as labour camps meant to service the economy of South Africa through cheep labour. The social and cultural implications of this have been all pervasive and destructive, and many of us continue to try navigate our way through the aftermath.
I recently read articles that speak about how the townships were designed specifically to be easily controlled, and in a way meant to be difficult to read or understand, and deliberately disorientate those living in them for the purposes of control. These places were located near industry and away from better serviced neighbourhoods. To a large degree they were highly engineered, to such an extent that the peach tree that many of us who grew up in the township loved so much was in fact planned by apartheid architects. These kinds of situations leave me wondering how I should perceive my home. The four-room house, which is the typology that was invented by architects, some of them being from Wits university’s School of Architecture and Planning, is what I knew as home for a long time, and my family continue to own these and some still live in them. The four room remains in my mind as the image I have when I think of home.
Think of your first home, the place where your earliest memories were made. The place you spent your first few years, your fifth birthday and made the strongest bonds. In Architecture, philosophers and psychologists speak of how home and the establishment of a sense of self are so closely tied together. Concepts such as homecoming, topophilia and the hearth are all ways in which Western thinkers have tried to speak about the notion of home. Sometimes they would write about the loss of home, particularly in writings of those who were lamenting the horrors and losses of World War 2. However, very little, as far as I know, has been written about the love of home, the deep primal bond to a place whose conception was to cause one harm.
After spending almost 20 years studying architecture, I now have the knowledge of what the intention behind those who built my home was. They where not trying to create the most ideal utopia for myself and my family. They applied the most pragmatic, cold rational and utilitarian methods to develop housing and settlements that had nothing to do with the values and norms of my people, and instead creating situations that served their capitalist needs. Having recognised this from architecture school, and the level of premeditation and sinister planning of the architects that created my home, I am then left wondering about my feelings towards my home.
I have spoken to people from Mothibistad about this, and observed how some people relate to the township and reserve we grew up in, and continue to live in. Some people see Mothibistad, our township, as home. They don’t think that it is a bad place and believe we should continue to love it. This is understandable, and I wonder if it is even possible to hate my home. Are we able to detach ourselves from identifying with Mothibistad as our home, and should we?
I can see the material outcomes of the past apartheid system, characterised in the poverty and various socio economic, as well as political and ethical crises apparent in our home. Many of course are attempting to change these conditions, and many have. Some people have demolished their four room houses and built new houses, perhaps as a way of establishing new forms of meaning and a sense of home, perhaps for more practical reasons like creating space. However, there are still many who live in the four rooms, of which some are living in poor conditions (of course not all those living in the four room live in poor conditions). There are numerous socio-economic problems from crime to teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, and gender-based violence. Many people struggle financially and finding jobs, particularly for young people remains challenging. These situations are to a large degree contemporary and are directly related to recent political events in South Africa, but the legacy of the previous apartheid system remains an actor that mingles with today’s various forms of breakdown. What ever the degree to which these situations can be blamed on apartheid or on the current political leadership, apartheid spatial planning undoubtably remains an influential factor in the daily material and spiritual outcomes of South Africans.
So given these conditions and knowing that these problems persist largely due to systematic planning that was manifest spatially as townships and reserves, like my home Mothibistad, do we love our homes or do we hate them? Perhaps a good metaphor is thinking of your home as a parent, that this parent who you’ve known and loved your whole life turns out to be an agent for the apartheid government sent to cause you harm. And when you look back you realise that many of the things this parent did are directly related to your current outcomes, how then do you have a relationship with this parent going forward?
The situation is indeed more complex than how I am framing it here, degrees of loving one’s home perhaps exist on a spectrum and are not as binary as love or hate and putting it this way may be too simplistic. In addition, there are things that the apartheid plan of townships and reserves did not manage to destroy, and the way people engaged these pregiven places had various forms of resistance. However, this does not change the fact that what was our home was engineered to destroy us, and one cannot help wondering what part of ones personality, life history, proclivities and characteristics are as a result of the township as an important (but not total) influence. What if the townships were designed differently, with benevolence, the best of values, and the most loving and wholesome intentions? Would we be even greater than we are if we were not disadvantaged by the apartheid system? To what degree did the township spatial planning influence our outcomes, and could we have been much further in our development as the community of Mothibistad if the planners of Mothibistad were not acting out of greed and inhumanity (ba sena botho)?
We may never know the answers to these questions, but they remain important to ask while we continue the work of bettering our lives and perhaps demonstrating that the apartheid architects sinister design intentions were not all that successful because here I am today writing about them. Perhaps these issues are particularly personal and unique to me because I am both an architect, trained at the same facility as those who created places like Mothibistad, my home, yet am also a “beneficiary” of whatever the intentions behind that architecture was. I guess unlike many other people from Mothibistad, I have spent time looking closely at those apartheid township plans, the drawings of the 51/6 house (the model of house I grew up in) and have understood the intentions behind the kind of places my home was meant to be. I wonder how many people in Mothibistad even recognize the evil they live in, evil in the sense that the house was made for negative reasons. Maybe architects who grew up in the townships have seen too much by studying architecture, and the true nature of our homes has been exposed. I doubt anyone would have imagined that when they opened the gates of Wits university for black scholars, the outcomes one day would be some of us questioning our sense of self as it relates to our formative development in the reserves and townships.
I for one have decided to engage this question, of whether my home is good or evil, because if it turns out that it is the latter, then we can do something about it. And perhaps, because myself and other black colleagues have finally made it to the first floor of the John Moffat building at the Wits School of Architecture and Planning, maybe we could play a part in creating new alternative Mothibistad’s, those that are equally designed, but this time around in collaboration with the people, and with much better intentions. How many people actually have the inside information about the way their environment was engineered toward specific outcomes, and especially in a place like South Africa, where the majority of the people were not in control of decisions about their lives including the places they lived in. It’s like going into enemy territory and finding detailed plans of how they are planning on destroying you. Wits School of Architecture and Planning is not enemy territory for me now, but to some degree, there has been an infiltration. So perhaps having this inside information is important so that myself and others from these previously disadvantaged communities, including colleagues who have infiltrated the ivory towers can now be part of a new process of engineering our environments.
In closing, I think asking if my home is good or evil, I am drawing attention to the intentions behind apartheid planning and asking those who identify with the township and say, “Kasi for life”, if they know the Kasi, really know it. Do they understand what it was designed for and if some of the challenges they face today are directly related to the Kasi. Perhaps we as architects in “enemy territory” need to use these insights to inform our brothers and sisters, and together work towards undoing the evils of the past. Those from Mothibistad know how it is like driving all the way from Mothibistad to Kuruman town. They feel the intentions of the apartheid spatial planning every time they want to go buy a Pizza, or when they want the services of a laundromat (Afreetekture has been part of a project to solve both these problems through the design of the pallet house at The Workshop Ko Kasi, see it here: https://www.afreetekture.com/pallet-house). That gap between Kuruman town and Mothibistad, that long drive, the narrow road, the many animals and people to watch out for, the poor lighting and all the other conditions of that road are a physical and lived sense of the way our home was engineered without our best interests at heart. Next time you are on that road, ask yourself if your home is good or evil.