Housing the (radical) everyday

Tariq Toffa, Cape Town Community Manager
Cape Town, 22 July 2014

With the fall of apartheid, South Africans chose a very specific and unusual path to reconciliation. There were no large-scale erasures or symbolic removals of statues as witnessed with the fall of regimes in other parts of the world. This idea was built into the very fabric of the new constitution: "We, the people of South Africa ... believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity."

But how were South Africans now to "live in it, united," and to what extent have newly created post-apartheid spaces facilitated this inclusive vision?

There are at least four key sites where this question of national unity has found diverse expression: (1) hosting major international sports tournaments (fig. 1); (2) building symbolic monuments to the struggle for freedom and humanity (fig. 2); and (3) themed, market-based private sector developments. Although these moments represent different kinds of post-apartheid spaces, the exceptional and the symbolic should not be misjudged for the ordinary living environments wherein people interact in their daily lives.

Housing, the fourth site, therefore has a critical role to play. However, social/racial integration is not an explicit policy goal, and the design of the scale of the neighborhood and human interaction still remains poorly understood and articulated. Moreover, government officials tend to interpret 'integration' largely in economic terms (accommodating lower income groups, development, and access to amenities). These oversights all do little to encourage new integrated social spaces and identities, with local meaning (as opposed to grand, national narratives).

The urban form of 'Social housing', for example, with its higher densities and potential to integrate rental accommodation for lower income groups within well-located areas, can potentially facilitate both physical and social integration. These concerns were important priorities in a recently completed social housing project in Cape Town, called Steen Villa (fig. 3, 4). The project consists of 700 units in two to three storey walk-ups, clustered in groups of 20-35 units around courtyard spaces. The courtyards were specifically designed for everyday activities and neighborliness (play, socializing, washing, etc.), and a degree of racial integration was also achieved with a tenant mix of approximately 60 percent colored, 39 percent black, and a small number of white and Indian residents. Still further initiatives taken for racial and tenant integration also included a 'Good Neighbor Charter', football and netball teams, a pensioners' club, Women's Day celebrations, a job placement program, and a neighborhood watch.

Balancing security requirements with open continuity in the urban fabric, the courtyards are able to be fully secured, while the streets were designed to be public and integrative. A large road reserve was also turned into a public park, and the units edging an adjacent train station was rezoned for future mixed-use potential. Although some of the initial positive intentions were not realized, the project is evidence that creative measures can be taken for (social, physical, and economic) cohesion and integration despite existing limitations of circumstances, (too often constraints are self-imposed).

In summary, apartheid was a spatial praxis. It aimed to radically shape everything in people's lives; from where one was born, schooled, lived, worked, married, and would be buried. Anti-apartheid activism was its counter, for many a cutting across of race groups that was learned in practice. In both instances the everyday was qualitatively articulated. Thus, change today cannot be left to the purview of theatre and spectacle alone, nor reduced to a provision of services. Real change begins at home, in the spaces of the radical everyday. Close.

Photo credits: Fig. 1: Rugby World Cup, 1995 (Ross Kinnaird, Empics). Fig. 2: Freedom Park, Pretoria (Clive Hassel). Fig 3-4: Steen Villa, Cape Town (Author).

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