This Innovative Proposal Reimagines The Traditional African Village
This year's Corobrik Landscape Architecture Award winner reconsiders the way we think about modern African cities.
The annual Corobrik Landscape Architecture Award consistently highlights the innovative solutions emanating from South African students, and considers how we can work towards a more just and equal society. University of Cape Town (UCT) landscape architecture student Lesego Bantsheng was recently announced as the winner of the 2018 award for her intensely considered project that continues the award's tradition of finding answers to the many questions modern society faces today.
For her project, titled 'PULA! A ENE: RAIN! LET IT RAIN – Occupying Land in Restituted Barolong Homelands’ Lesego looked to her home village in Mafikeng which, her project reveals, challenges the notions of what a 'modern' African city could be when compared to the complex and sophisticated dynamics of a traditional rural African village. Her investigation unpacked the village's long history of development and migration, and what the future of the community who live in the area could hold. It's the sort of work South Africa needs more of, and so House and Leisure spent a few minutes catching up with this emerging talent.
Lesego Bantsheng Talks About Her Award-Winning Landscape Architecture Project
Why did you investigate the community you did? What makes the site unique?
The project began as a comparative study between suburban, peri-urban and rural areas, particularly in my hometown of Mafikeng. I had grown up visiting all the surrounding rural areas, living in the peri-urban township yet attending school in the suburbs. During my years in varsity, I always found that our academic focus was on urban cities – obsessing over, questioning and conceptualising an ‘African city’. Yet I always felt like I had already seen an African city, and it is not in the urban areas, but rather in the rural areas I am so familiar with. Makgobistad, the village I studied, was particularly special due to the Botswana border that crosses in between this village my grandmother grew up in. Additionally, it is an old African village dating back to 1959, which has seen the back and forth migration of the Barolong people. A familiar and true reflection of the hybrid state of many other villages in South Africa.
You point out that water is a big problem for the community. How did this observation come about, and what can be done?
This part of the North West province is drought prone. The amount of subsistence and traditional farming has decreased significantly over the past 20 years. Overgrazing has occurred and left soils bare and incapable of retaining water, lowering the infiltration rate. In the village, multiple boreholes have been abandoned as they can no longer reach aquifer. The water levels of the aquifer, according to findings of the Department of Water Affairs (DWA), have dropped significantly. Recharging the aquifer became a priority of the project due to the high evaporation rate of surface water caused by high temperatures in the area. Aquifer recharge is possible through affordable and accessible methods used in other poverty-stricken, arid areas in Africa.
What is the kgotla, and why is the kgotla so central to your research/outcomes?
A kgotla is a circular enclosure where disputes of the community/tribe are discussed and resolved. With a deeper understanding of the Batswana people, the kgotla can be understood (as with many other artifacts) as a physical form representing principles. The kgotla is a system – a very organised one. Keeping track of the genetic lines of the tribe. An African village will have multiple kgotlas at multiple hierarchies. And a number of families are represented in one kgotla. The idea in the kgotla is that disputes are resolved through representation and communication. A circular form represents equal opinions in the kgotla. This system, although has lost its impact over time, is still important in Makgobistad. The proposal was to form new villages that can still be connected to the existing ones – potentially through the kgotla system. Retaining connectivity and exchange of knowledge between communities.
You discovered that only 1.9% of the community live in traditional dwellings. Why has development happened like this?
Traditional dwellings aren’t permanent. The fundamentals of living in the huts of the traditional settlement were intertwined with the Batswana people’s plural cosmology and the constant migration. Now that these initially ‘migratory villages’ have been forced to be permanent, those traditional systems become impractical and counterproductive. Thus, the Barolong tribe has had to adapt and live in permanent structures that give them agency in our global world. Furthermore, this transition to permanence of a settlement that was not planned to be permanent causes environmental issues.
What is communal land ownership, and how and why would it work in the community?
Communal land ownership is land that is owned by a community of people, without the individual land tenure system in our urban areas. The rural area is a hybrid of the old and the new. For example, the contrast of a plasma TV screen in a hut. With small-scale farming, a communal effort is necessary – a sort of communal consciousness. One family cannot afford the measures that a large-scale farmer can afford to prevent pests and fires. Communal ownership of land can thus better protect and equip communities to fight their conditions through communal efforts. Of course, this part will not be easy as the globe is moving towards an individualised existence that emphasises 'privacy and space'.
What has the environmental impact of this sort of settlement been, and how does your plan work with sustainability for the community?
The transition of Makgobistad into a permanent settlement has had an impact on the environment. Overgrazing is a huge issue that has affected the natural vegetation. There are areas with bare soil. These areas are prone to erosion, which is detrimental for this community as they rely on healthy soils for farming and natural vegetation cover for grazing. The study found that the rituals and taboos of the old settlement implemented the plural cosmology of Barolong, which was consciously put in place to protect the environment. These rituals and taboos have been surpassed (but remain in the background) by modern beliefs and laws – the hybrid state. An example of these rituals is the totems of the Tswana clans. A totem is usually an animal that assisted the tribe in a previous event. For the Barolong, the Kudu is their totem, and in those times, a clan was not allowed to hunt its totem animal. This regulated the amount of clan hunting of a given animal, creating a balance.