Dying for a Pee: Empowering Residents in Cape Town’s Informal Settlement
On March 1, 2016 at 8 pm, Sinoxolo Mafevuka left her corrugated sheet-iron home, toilet paper in hand, to relieve herself at the nearest public toilet. Mafevuka lived in Khayelitsha, near Cape Town. Her home was in SST, one of Khayelitsha’s informal settlements, and like most homes in SST, it was not equipped with plumbing or running water. Days later, the 20-year-old’s body was found in a filthy toilet cubicle. She had been strangled to death.
To understand Mafevuka’s story, it’s necessary to trace South Africa’s complex history all the way back to the introduction of Architecture with a capital “A.” In South Africa, architectural practice has its roots in slavery (1652-1834) and apartheid (1948-1994), which institutionalized and spatially formalized racism through land acts and building regulations. The government elected in 1948 adopted the policy of apartheid so as to establish and maintain separate spaces for different racial groups.1Patricia Johnson-Castle et al., “The Group Areas of Act of 1950,”South African History Online (2014). Urban planners selected the most attractive urban areas for the development of an exclusively White property market, and reserved infertile rural areas, far from city centers, for Black communities. Architects bolstered and perpetuated apartheid, by designing buildings that upheld these divisions.
All went to plan until the postwar economic boom of the 1950s, when large concentrations of squatter camps began to populate cities, due to increased urban labor demand and the resultant rural-urban migration. The Group Areas Act of 1950 was used to justify the ethnic cleansing that followed. Planners created neighborhoods, called “townships,” on the urban periphery for each of the three officially recognized non-White racial groups: Blacks, Coloureds, and Indians. These townships were separated from White areas and from each other with buffer strips such as highways, tree avenues, and green patches. Black laborers and their families were specifically placed in townships furthest from the city center, exacerbating economic disparities.
In cities like Cape Town, the growth of these townships is still constrained by apartheid-era buffer strips. The population of Khayelitsha, for instance, a township established in 1982 on Cape Town’s periphery, remains 90.5 percent Black; its density has mushroomed in the last decades. The result is overcrowding, and an inadequate distribution of basic services, including toilets.2Tracy Jooste and Nonhlanhla Mathibela, Asivikelane Brief 5, “Improving the Lives of Women in Informal Settlements Starts with Fixing Basic Services” (Capetown: Asivikelane, October 2020), 5. In fact, Mafevuka is one of many women and girls in informal settlements in South Africa who have been raped and murdered on their way to the bathroom. Women and girls are more vulnerable to these attacks than men, partly because they use the bathroom more often; the lack of sanitation puts their lives at special risk. Initially, the Cape Town government’s solution was to supply more toilets. Increasing the number of toilets does not address gendered violence, however, or eliminate the potential risk associated with any toilet that is outdoors and some distance from one’s home.
Although the spatial legacy of apartheid is a product of racist urban planning, I believe it’s architects who can and should pose solutions to the worsening conditions in the informal settlements. Among the architects focussing on these issues is Urban-Think Tank, an interdisciplinary firm that conducts research-based design, and Ikhayalami Development Services, a local nonprofit that focuses on improving informal settlements through affordable, sustainable solutions.3“Affordable Homes and Alternative Technologies for All,” Ikahayalami.org. In 2012, these organizations led a collaborative effort that resulted in the Empower Shack, a housing upgrade for Khayelitsha residents in which each unit has a private bathroom.
The Empower Shack is a timber-frame structure cladded with metal sheeting. It is two stories, which cuts the footprint of the typical Khayelitsha shack in half, creating more public space and improving pedestrian mobility. The structure can be personalized to meet the needs of residents, with various facades and opening configurations. A second iteration constructed in 2015, Empower Shack 2.0, uses more durable materials, such as concrete.
The project began when Urban-Think Tank hosted architectural students from ETH Zürich. Guided by U-TT, the Swiss students conducted site-based research, including interviews with local residents in one of Khayelitsha’s informal settlements, BT Section.4Nina Tory-Henderson, “Empower Shack Residential,” Knowledgebase, Danish Architecture Center. They also held workshops with residents about sanitation, water, health, and safety, so as to better understand local living conditions. When the design team presented the “Empower Shack” plan to BT Section residents, it was received with enthusiasm. Community members then worked with the ETH Zürich students and the team from U-TT to construct four prototypes, which were completed in 2015.5Tory-Henderson, “Empower Shack Residential.” The prototypes were a success, and led to a second phase of construction in 2017, in which 72 Empower Shacks were completed, to the benefit of 280 residents.6“Empower Shack,” Architizer.com. Those units were also a success, such that Urban-Think Tank began offering micro-financing schemes to all BT Section Khayelitsha residents who wanted to build an Empower Shack or add another story to an existing home.7India Block, “Urban-Think Tank Develops Low-Cost Housing for South African Slum,” dezeen, December 28, 2017. The Empower Shacks are now available in six sizes, ranging from 38 to 84 square meters. For most residents, the cost is subsidized by the government.8Block, “Urban-Think Tank Develops Low-Cost Housing for South African Slum.” Buyers pay an average of fourteen percent of the construction costs, which they finance through small, ethical loans.
The Empower Shack is an example of how architects, urban planners, and governments can create tangible solutions to problems with deep roots. As an African Black woman and architect, I continuously ask myself how architects might renegotiate space in places like Khayelitsha’s SST. How can I build safer environments for the country’s poor Black women and girls? What’s needed is to commit to the collaborative process that made the Empower Shack a success — a process that includes and empowers poor Black women and girls living in informal settlements. Perhaps through community collaboration, we can end the legacy of systematic oppression and generate new narratives of spatial planning.
- Patricia Johnson-Castle et al., “The Group Areas of Act of 1950,”South African History Online (2014).
- Tracy Jooste and Nonhlanhla Mathibela, Asivikelane Brief 5, “Improving the Lives of Women in Informal Settlements Starts with Fixing Basic Services” (Capetown: Asivikelane, October 2020), 5.
- “Affordable Homes and Alternative Technologies for All,” Ikahayalami.org.
- Nina Tory-Henderson, “Empower Shack Residential,” Knowledgebase, Danish Architecture Center.
- Tory-Henderson, “Empower Shack Residential.”
- “Empower Shack,” Architizer.com.
- India Block, “Urban-Think Tank Develops Low-Cost Housing for South African Slum,” dezeen, December 28, 2017.
- Block, “Urban-Think Tank Develops Low-Cost Housing for South African Slum.”