Southern Africa is marked by a significant discrepancy between poverty and wealth, as well as social inequality. Much of this is the result of historical processes and the inequality is reflected in the built environment. The divide has manifested in a rapid move away from traditional and indigenous architectural vernaculars and their material textures. Since 1994, most of society has been building with materials that are intrinsically prestigious, such as fired clay brick or concrete block, clay roof tiles and corrugated sheeting, instead of earth, timber, stone and straw thatch. While thatch itself is an increasingly scarce resource, these other traditional materials have become significantly less popular and are negatively associated with rural areas and poverty.
Overcapitalisation is increasing the gap between rich and poor
Architecturally, the demonstrable departure from historical building forms and their derivative vernaculars is resulting in new aesthetic combinations derived from architectural styles that are irrelevant to the local context. For example, Tuscan and Balinese hybrids have become popular in upper-income residential developments. These buildings demand different types of spaces that impact directly on relevance to climate and affordability. They increase the gap between rich and poor by exacerbating overcapitalisation, which is implicit in the development of what could be called a new hybrid vernacular. They are also minimising the relevance of cultural origins and limiting any real climatic response.
Significantly, my research shows that these styles are not restricted to local pockets, but are present at national level, pointing very firmly to the production of an equitable and decolonised built environment, in which the African lens of prosperity and success moves into bricks and mortar.
Broader understanding of the built environment
Whilst poverty eradication is a complex challenge particularly in a post-COVID society, the evidence of these homesteads reveals a very different narrative from that of the national trope which perpetuates agency through top-down delivery, rather than from below. For the closely looming 2030, the evidence suggests that the recent levelling of the fiscus through creation of a new, black middle class with access to good incomes, which trickle down through systems of “black tax”, as well as the broadened access to public monies through more nefarious systems, such as corruption, are quietly and systematically beginning to achieve the goal at a grassroots level, rather than through a nationally driven poverty alleviation programme.
Thus, in order to reduce such inequality, perhaps a broader understanding of the architectural and material components of traditional and vernacular architectures, both indigenous and imported, can assist. This would mean that both self-built and government-provided housing would be more relevant and architecturally sustainable, and simultaneously demonstrate authentic responses to climate.