Theater of Cruelty

To build a preschool, a crèche, in Ethembeni

CAPE TOWN / South Africa is in a housing crisis, and with failing infrastructure and widespread political corruption, the poorest are hit hardest. The local humanitarian organization The Shackbuilder builds shacks, temporary housing made of wood and corrugated metal sheets for people in need. We tried to contribute.


With author Are Skogedal Bergerud#

Our collaboration with the South African organization The Shackbuilder took us to the informal settlement In hope, on the outskirts of Khayelitsha in Cape Town. Together with them, in connection with our master's thesis, we have explored the role of architecture in the face of a global housing crisis and constant urbanization in the global south. We have together sought a solution to the problem in this context and looked at how small interventions and local initiatives can contribute to creating solutions in the long term. Through our last trip to South Africa, we took on the task of planning, designing and eventually building a preschool, a crèche, in Ethembeni. We will tackle this work this spring master's thesis Ethembeni Crèche – Preschool and common space in an informal settlement in Cape Town.

Slum areas

Cape Town, an incredibly beautiful city, characterized by smiles and warm people surrounded by striking nature, is a city in crisis. Like the rest of South Africa, it is plagued by corruption, disorder and crime. The challenges are well described by what is called load-shedding, a measure where the authorities periodically, district by district, cut the electricity throughout the day to reduce the load on the infrastructure. Cape Town is nevertheless a city that manages better than several others in South Africa, which is why you also see that large crowds migrate to the city in the hope of work and better conditions. The result is often even more new homes in the city's informal settlements, such as Ethembeni.

There is still a lack of access to water, adequate sanitation, electricity and physical frameworks for social infrastructure.

Ethembeni is an informal settlement on the eastern edge of Khayelitsha with approximately 250 households. Without misunderstanding the terms informal settlements and slums, we can define Ethembeni as both. In our meetings with the settlement, we saw and experienced all of UN Habitat's characteristics of slum areas, from inadequate living conditions, absent infrastructure to a lack of legal requirements for one's own living situation. Ethembeni is prone to flooding in the winter, which has meant that several homes have been destroyed and families made homeless in recent years. The settlement was established in 2019, and was given the status of informal settlement during the covid pandemic by local authorities. This has given residents certain rights, laid the framework for cooperation with local authorities and resulted in simple infrastructure such as waste management and a minimum of chemical toilets. Nevertheless, there is still a lack of access to water, adequate sanitation, electricity and physical frameworks for social infrastructure.

The local leadership

Despite these conditions, the residents who meet us are happy, creative people who invite in and offer themselves. We see an ability to persist, and flexibility in the face of change. The community in Ethembeni shows resilience in the face of challenges and a difficult situation which inspires and gives hope for development. A good example is their handling of the annual flood. Flood-prone areas and low terrain are filled with sand, earth and waste from construction sites. Every single time we visited Ethembeni, several trucks came in with filling material for the local project. The project is organized by the local leadership, a representative group that governs the local community, sets guidelines for construction and development and leads the dialogue with the authorities. The group and the board of directors are informally constructed, but still have real influence built on respect, personal investment in joint projects to improve settlement and socio-economic status. The influence does not stem from violence and gang activity, although we know that it is widespread in nearby areas.

Together with the local population of Ethembeni, in the work of preschooln, we have aimed to improve local, social infrastructure which huser other functions – activities, assembly and meeting rooms that can be used when visiting health services. The work with the local population has been structured as a participatory process – a series of meetings, mapping exercises, workshops and conversations were the drivers for how we designed the architecture. The close collaboration is in many ways a matter of course, as local actors can be seen as both initiator and end user.

The Shackbuilder

The process with the local population has taken place in close collaboration with the local humanitarian organization The Shackbuilder. Large parts of the organisation's activities revolve around building shacks, temporary housing in wood and corrugated metal sheets for people in need who are waiting for housing from local authorities. The Shackbuilder is made up of unskilled tradesmen, young adults from informal settlements in Cape Town, and is run by South African psychologist Quinton Adams. The organization will be responsible for both the construction of the project and the financing – through a local network of private benefactors. The project must still be carried out on a limited budget.

Beyond the framework set by the local context and a limited economy, local regulation sets requirements for the project. It is absolutely essential that the project meets local, public regulation in order to receive operating support. Special safety requirements in connection with fire risk suggest that we must build in masonry to meet requirements for support. Here we face the challenges that lie at the intersection between the formal and the informal. Formal requirements that neither accommodate the informal society in Ethembeni nor the informal craft expertise in The Shackbuilder.

We propose a South African construction system that adopts ecobeams and sandbags. An alternative to masonry, which satisfies fire requirements, where the building components can be made from low quality materials, and can be produced locally or purchased. Sand is available and widely used in Ethembeni, and an ecobeam is constructed from wood and metal, which are materials The Shackbuilder is very familiar with. By using both material and human resources locally, the construction is given a social dimension. Involvement of local forces through a production and construction process enables further exchange of expertise, perhaps also to a sufficient extent to be able to create new micro-economies and initiatives that can further develop the refinement of local resources and knowledge exchange.

Sand is available and widely used in Ethembeni.

The project is now being taken forward by The Shackbuilder to obtain the necessary approval from the local authorities. This is in many ways a critical phase for the realization of the project. Therefore, both the construction system and design have been developed with a basic idea of ​​adaptability and room for negotiation in the face of public regulation.

At the same time, we must recognize the challenge inherent in the construction process. The building is larger and more complex than any other project both we and The Shackbuilder have undertaken in the past. In the master's thesis, we describe the collaboration with The Shackbuilder, and therefore central parts of the project as a community of practice (Wenger, 2011). In this, we describe the collaboration and how the framework for communication, a common language and knowledge exchange has been established.

The journeys to Ethembeni

Through a longer collaboration and several trips to Ethembeni, we have seen the drive and capacity in both The Shackbuilder and the community in Ethembeni. We have seen how everyone's trust in the collaboration and ownership of the project has developed and grown. We therefore have great faith that the project will be realised. At the same time, we have become increasingly convinced of the importance of the project: the Crèche will be able to become an important piece in the development of the settlement, both in itself, as an institution, workplace and a safe space for children in a vulnerable situation, but also as a meeting place, social infrastructure, by legitimizing the settlement and as physical evidence of the local community's resilience and capacity.

The authors were awarded Habitat Norway's master's grant 2022/23.
Read more about the master's thesis
Hope Crèche

See Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction.

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