Bekezela Phakathi

The Architect

Gita Goven is an architect and humanist with an experience of hardship. Her biography has shaped her vision of architecture’s possibilities. Gita’s practice specialises in the design of integrated and sustainable human settlements. It is urgent work. Housing and the restoration of human dignity are central to the post-apartheid project.







Gita Goven is a 55-year-old mother of two whose life story encapsulates the struggles endured by previously disadvantaged groups, especially women, during the dark years of apartheid. From sharing a tiny bedroom with five family members in Springs, a mining town east of Johannesburg, where she grew up, to now owning an established design practice in Cape Town, Gita is an example of what courage and drive can achieve. Gita founded ARG Design (ARG) in 1999 with two business partners, István Gosztola and Alastair Rendall, who is also her husband. The practice, which comprises a team of 20 “co-creators”, specialises in urban design, architecture, environmental management and landscape architecture. A key statistic underscores her achievement: only 24% of built environment professionals in South Africa are black; 9% are female. Being one of the few black women owning an interdisciplinary design practice in the country, Gita’s successes stand out even more. 

 “As a young woman, especially being black in a more white environment, it was very difficult,” says Gita, whose diminutive stature and soft-spoken manner belies her many achievements as an architect. “People often assumed I was either the secretary or the junior even though I was the principal in the practice”. Gita learnt to be assertive and demonstrate that she was the “architect in charge”. Despite having to adopt a tough approach in dealing with other professionals, Gita has a private, more homely side to her. She enjoys cooking and reading; she has visited more than 60 cities globally. “The people and the food of these places and the life of the city and quieter places of the soul all are interesting for me,” she says.

Gita Goven with some members of her firm walking through Gugulethu. She matured into adulthood and pursued a career during the height of the apartheid system. The segregation from opportunity she endured directly influenced her decision to enrol in an architecture degree at the University of Witwatersrand in 1977. "I thought that architecture can make a difference because I grew up in a context where I could see that black people were not getting good architecture," she says.

Professionally, Gita has emerged as a key figure in post-apartheid housing programmes, her practice specialising in the design of integrated and sustainable human settlements. As an architect, she has been involved in a number of innovative projects addressing problems associated with housing, a key issue nationally. Since 1994, government has been battling to eradicate the staggering housing backlog, which has swollen to 2.3 million units in 2014, up from about 1.5 million in 1994. The government claims to have built 3.6 million houses over the last 20 years, with plans to deliver about 1.5-million houses—and “housing opportunities”—over the next five years. The provision of free housing may however cease. 

Minister for Human Settlements Lindiwe Sisulu recently said that she would like to see the state move away from the large-scale provision of housing for the poor. She pointed out that this provision creates a syndrome of dependency. Sisulu stated that the housing backlog would take another eight to ten years to eradicate. The Financial and Fiscal Commission estimates that it would cost government approximately R800 billion to eradicate the housing backlog by 2020, money that central government will struggle to raise on its own in the face of an underperforming economy, growing unemployment and stagnant tax revenues. It will, therefore, be crucial to build more partnerships with the private sector to address the housing problem.

ARG performs an important role, functioning as an interface between state and private interests. To date ARG has worked on a number of projects in housing, education and transportation, including: bus rapid transport stations in Cape Town, Rustenburg and Ekurhuleni; informal settlement upgrade development frameworks; small town regeneration projects in the Eastern Cape; the Blue Downs Swimming Pool; Lynedoch EcoVillage, a sustainability research institute near Stellenbosch; and concept planning on the much talked about WesCape, a large-scale urban development project that could potentially transform the West Coast corridor north out of Cape Town. Common throughout these projects is ARG’s emphasis on sustainable design principles broadly aimed at improving the livelihoods of especially low-income families.

“Healing is for me a very important thing,” says Gita. “I think our society needs a lot of healing.” She says her work focuses on how to create places that are “wholesome, healing, and where people can both feel free to be who they are, as well as love and respect the places and spaces they use everyday”.


ARG is situated on the fourth floor of Premier Centre in Observatory. The large building faces onto Main Road, a key thoroughfare, and is also home to the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and an alliance of human rights organisations known as the National Alliance for the Development of Community Advice Offices. ARG’s office is buzzing when I meet Gita on a wet Friday morning. Gita, who wears black pants and a bright jersey, is recovering from a cold. She coughs occasionally as she tells me how she came to study architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Gita grew up and matured into adulthood during the height of the apartheid system; the suffering she endured directly influenced her decision to enrol in an architecture degree at Wits in 1977, a year after matriculating.

“I thought that architecture can make a difference because I grew up in a context where I could see that black people were not getting good architecture,” says Gita. However, Wits in 1977 was still a segregated university with only a few places open to black students. “I had to get a special permit from the government to study. Your results had to be good and you had to show that the course you wanted to do was not offered at an Indian university.” The only tertiary institution for Indians was the University of Durban-Westville, in Natal; it didn’t offer architectural training. So Gita was accepted to study architecture and engineering at Wits. 

Her parents were confounded by her decision; they wanted her to take a degree in medicine. “They did not understand the world of architecture and engineering,” she says, highlighting a drama repeated in many low-income families where study offered—as it still does—a way out of penury. “I grew up in a community where the only professional person was a family doctor.”

In her fourth year, when students do practical work, Gita worked in a Johannesburg firm to gain experience. With the money she saved Gita was able to travel to Britain; she later backpacked through eight countries in Europe. In 1981, degree incomplete, she ended up in India, where she stayed for two years, working in housing and integrated development. Gita’s decision to postpone her studies and travel to India was directly influenced by her experiences at Wits. By the late 1970s, a strictly policed system of separate development had effectively curtailed the rights and movements of the majority black population. The National Party’s Bantustan policy was also gaining momentum, with the newly independent homeland of Transkei widely feted by apartheid ideologues as a viable model. 

Gita, a member of a black student’s society, experienced the effects of the apartheid system daily. “During those days black students could not even go across the road to a coffee shop.” The logic of apartheid and its spatial practices also infiltrated the classroom. “When I had to work in my practical year, I realised that if I graduated as an architect, I would probably end up designing separate toilets for blacks and whites—it was intolerable.”

The South African government claims to have built 3.6 million houses over the last 20 years, but since 1994, it has been battling to eradicate the staggering housing backlog, which has swollen by just over 65%.

 India, by contrast, was “inspiring”. Gita worked for the Ahmedabad Study Action Group, an NGO that partnered with Vedchhi Pradesh Seva Samiti, a Gandhian institution inspired by the principles, vision and life work of Mahatma Gandhi. While in India, Gita interacted with a variety of professionals, including architects, scientists, engineers and social workers. She worked on a housing project in the Valod District in Gujarat Province. Gita and her colleagues were briefed to upgrade 5000 houses over five years for landless tribal and “untouchable” people in ten of the district’s 40 villages. “We had village extension workers from the villages as project partners and these folk are now our lifelong friends,” says Gita. “It was a fantastic project because we taught people how to build with their own local materials, use biogas systems that dealt with sanitation and produced energy, and how to better design and create their buildings”.

In 1983, after two years in India, Gita returned to South Africa and settled in Cape Town. Her decision to finish her architectural studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT) owed a great deal to its innovative architectural programme, which included coursework in development, security and African studies. Gita’s return to South Africa however coincided with an escalation in pressure, both internally and from abroad, on the apartheid regime. Activism and unrest were commonplace, prompting the National Party government to declare a state of emergency.

In 1986, while still at UCT, Gita co-founded the Development Action Group (DAG) with other planning professionals wanting to contribute their professional and technical expertise to a transformation agenda. DAG, which is now a leading NGO in the urban sector, formed part of a broader collective of progressive planning movements keen to contribute to social change. According to Alison Todes, a professor of urban and regional planning at Wits, planners linked to these organisations interpreted UCT’s ideas on the links between urban spatial organisation and poverty as a platform for redressing urban apartheid. 

During the era of high apartheid (1948-90), Cape Town’s white city managers, in concert with national government, passed legislation that pushed black, coloured and Indian people out of the central city to outlying areas such as Ndabeni and the broader Cape Flats. Gita says that during her time volunteering in townships she began to understand how low-income settlements, especially townships, worked. These years would have a profound influence on her subsequent work.

Conditions such as these are common-place in most townships across Cape Town. With limited resources, sustainable and smarter new ways of addressing infrastructure needs and building communities are necessary


Gita’s decision to study architecture in the late 1970s coincided with some fundamental shifts in the practice. The mid-1970s marked the end of a period of sustained economic growth in South Africa, growth that buoyed the career of many architects, most if not all white. By the time she completed her studies in the mid-1980s the building industry was deep in the doldrums. Despite the shaky economic climate, in 1986 Gita was headhunted by the firm Revel Fox & Partners, an established practice that specialises in architecture, urban design and planning. Founded in 1962 by the late Revel Fox, a respected commercial architect and member of the Cape Town city council, the practice designed the mixed-use Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and remains an influential player in the industry. Joining the practice offered Gita a chance to explore what she describes as her interest in “settlement-related issues”.

An eager student, she absorbed whatever knowledge she could in Fox’s large office. Two years later she joined MLH & Partners, a firm that has in recent times played a leading role in the development of a wide variety of facilities, including stadiums and educational facilities. Already at this early point in her career Gita recognised that she would eventually have to establish her own practice if she was going to give fuller expression to her interest in dignified housing.

“The work that I do is not just architecture,” she explains. “It interfaces between economics, settlements, environment and community development. Over time, what became clearer to me was that most of the townships were structured as dormitories with very little other input or attractors of investment that could make a difference”. Gita emphasises that settlements have to be designed in such a way that they inspire people and bring the best out of a community. She points to the Lynedoch EcoVillage near Stellenbosch as a good example.


With one’s back to Table Mountain, overlooking the Cape Flats, the endless monotonous one-storey landscape of Cape Town is perfectly explained by this map.
(Source: City of Cape Town)


Lynedoch EcoVillage is one of the first ecologically designed and socially mixed communities in South Africa. It is situated in the wine country north of Cape Town on a property that formerly consisted of prefabricated holiday cottages built in the 1960s. Underwritten by businessman and philanthropist Dick Enthoven, who is also the property’s owner, the project includes a sustainability research centre located in the converted hotel in the centre of the village. Directed by Mark Swilling and Eve Annecke, the Sustainability Institute runs a Masters course in sustainable development. Practical projects and related research programmes focus on the village, and provide the ecological research and community development support for the project.

The first step in the eco-village project was the development of a primary school with 450 places to serve families of local farm workers. Prior to 2002 the schooling available to the children of farm labourers was substandard. It was Gita’s idea to transform the dilapidated old school into something new—“a really beautiful, warm, non-institutional looking and inviting building set in an eco-village context.” The new school building has many features particular to the needs of the site and its users, including natural systems for heating and cooling.

Winter is particularly difficult for young learners, explains Gita, especially those without adequate clothing. An under-floor heat source helps create a warm environment. “The heat from the rock bed underneath heats the classrooms up so the temperature is about five or six degrees warmer than the outside”. The upgraded class environment has produced improved results, says Gita. Grantham Jansen, principal of Lynedoch’s primary school, describes the design of the school as “inspirational”. He says the parents and teachers are all motivated to produce “exceptional results”. Over the past 12 years the school has recorded an average pass rate of 90% in all grades (from grade one to seven). Jansen attributes this to the design of the school building.


Design can play a “huge role” in uplifting communities, thinks Gita. “But the power of design goes nowhere unless you have people that are interested and committed to transformation. In Cape Town, there is a lot of focus on the areas that work.” She mentions the Observatory Square upgrade as an example, adding that it was motivated and implemented in good time because it has a strong civic association and ratepayer base driving things. Gita points out that upgrades are causally linked to strong ratepayer bases. “This level of ownership and driving of projects, as seen in the Observatory Square upgrade, has not been possible in townships, for many reasons,” she says. “Municipal systems work where there is a connection between rates paid and what you can invest. Many township and informal settlements areas have poor rates recovery or are not rateable.” 

Goven's work focusses on how to create places that are "wholesome, healing, and where people can both feel free to be who they are, as well as love and respect the places and spaces they use everyday." The sustainability of designs aimed at improving lives and livelihoods in lower-income communities is a common principle of ARG's practice.

The current system of linking development to rates and taxes perpetuates uneven development, insists Gita. The net result is “two different cities”. This has led to simmering tensions in deprived communities, with service delivery protests related to housing, sanitation and electricity now commonplace. According to Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitor report, there were 48 major service delivery protests against local government in the first quarter of 2014. Municipal IQ is a web-based data and intelligence service specialising in the monitoring and assessment of South Africa’s 283 municipalities. Gauteng and the Eastern Cape have witnessed the most protests this year.

According to Gita, South Africa’s human settlements “crisis” is attributable to the country’s unpreparedness for the swift urbanisation after 1994. “In the last 20 years, urbanisation has happened rapidly and major metropolitan municipalities and larger district municipalities who were grappling with restructuring and the transition were inadequately prepared to receive that level of urbanisation.” Not Johannesburg, not Durban, not Cape Town, she elaborates. 

Cape Town’s population has grown by 30% in the past 10 years, from 2.9 million in 2001 to 3.7 million in 2011, according to Census 2011. The housing shortage has led to a mushrooming of informal settlements on the outskirts of the city, often on precarious and/or environmentally sensitive sites, as well as on privately owned land. These include Marikana, an informal settlement along Symphony Way in Philippi East. The settlement, which was named to honour striking Lonmin workers who died at Marikana mine in 2012, was established when backyarders began erecting structures on the privately owned land in 2013. Residents have since been involved in running battles with the city’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit, which have removed shacks in 2013 and 2014.

Similarly, in Lwandle, near Strand, settlers also illegally occupied vacant land, building 200 or so shack dwellings on land owned by the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral). The land has been designated for future road works. The roads agency sought relief from the courts and in June 2014, during a particularly cold winter spell, some 850 families were controversially evicted from Lwandle. The eviction process, which saw homes razed and recalled scenes from South Africa’s apartheid past, prompted national outrage. A public commission was subsequently established.  

There are 276 000 people on Cape Town’s housing waiting list, although the real demand for housing far exceeds that number. The official figure also excludes several thousand unregistered backyarders and street dwellers. Further contributing to the problem of housing is informal densification on the urban edge. A phenomenon common to both new and old townships, it involves the unregulated construction of additional rent-generating shacks on existing sites, often abutting a main dwelling. According to the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, a non-profit organisation providing professional and dedicated socio-economic rights assistance, and the University of Western Cape’s Community Law Centre, of the 1.8 million households nationally with at least one member registered on the housing waiting list, around 25% live in shacks in informal settlements, 45% in a dwelling/structure on a separate stand, 12% in a traditional dwelling and 10% in a backyard shack.

“Whether you live in an informal settlement or RDP house, the risks and the problems are similar,” says Gita, who believes townships are essentially “ghettos”.

South Africa’s housing crisis is well documented. Abahlali baseMjondolo, the largest shack-dwellers’ movement in the country, is on record as saying housing is a time bomb waiting to explode. Abahlali claims to have more that 30 000 members. According to Matt Birkinshaw, a researcher from the London School of Economics, by 2009, five years after its launch, the movement had around 10 000 paid-up members and more than 30 000 active supporters in over 40 affiliated settlements. It is now considered to be the largest organisation of militant poor in post-apartheid South Africa. Abahlali president S’bu Zikode said earlier this year that land invasions were a symptom of government’s failure to address the housing crisis. “There will be more land invasions until lasting solutions are found,” said Zikode. “People are desperate for housing.” 

The Western Cape government is aware of the problem, if ill-equipped to address it.  With a housing database of over half-a-million households in the province, the provincial government estimates that it will cost over R70-billion to provide land, services and top structures, according to Western Cape Premier Helen Zille. Speaking during her state of the province address in June, she added: “This is almost double the budget of the entire Western Cape government. What this means is that we cannot continue with ‘business-as-usual’—we need new and improved strategies that harness households, the private sector and NGOs to place the Western Cape on a different housing trajectory, one which offers an improved living environment for everyone.”

Zille said the province needed to change the current perception shared by the majority of South Africans that government is solely responsible for providing free housing to everyone—“because it is clear with the available resources and the escalating need, this will take centuries.” Zille appealed for “innovative partnerships and solutions to improve people’s standard of living”, stating that it is crucial that citizens become “directly involved in human settlement projects instead of waiting to receive a house”.

According to Gita, the local government’s budget for RDP housing is only adequate for roughly 8000 households per annum in the metropolitan area, leaving a shortfall of some 400 000 households. “There is a mismatch between the quantum of the need and the finance that is available. We have to find other mechanisms to deal with that.” Land costs, which are high in Cape Town, add to the problem. “By the time you pay the cost of land you cannot afford to develop affordable housing,” says Gita. The idea of a housing problem has to be reformulated as an economic development process to stimulate industry and production, she thinks—“so that people can afford to live in a pedestrian-friendly and vibrant city that has mixed uses and incomes, high-quality education, a healthy environment and public places and spaces.”


The Two Oceans Marathon, held every year in Cape Town during Easter, describes itself as “the world’s most beautiful marathon”. Its routing threads through plush residential neighbourhoods formerly restricted to white owners. Gita doesn’t mean this popular marathon when she tries to encapsulate the extent of the housing problem by comparing it to a marathon. “It was almost like we are running a race but are unaware of the force and the volume of people that are running in that race,” she says. Government and planners, she elaborates, are the overweight runners at the back of the race. The last 20 years has seen the pace of urbanisation accelerate, with a concomitant growth of housing lists. The crisis that has emerged, says Gita, poses a challenge to our “entire government system”. The only way out of the crisis, thinks Gita, is “to find a way of partnering with the private sector, because the private sector has a greater degree of flexibility”.

In 1986, the Abolition of Influx Control Act repealed a key piece of colonial and apartheid legislation: the Native (Urban Areas) Consolidation Act of 1945, itself a refinement of older forms of racialised urban control. The 1986 law in essence abolished pass laws, but this applied only to blacks who already had urban rights and so were entitled to remain in white urban areas despite the citizenship-stripping statuses of the 1970s. The law in effect acknowledged what was already a widespread fact: South African cities had a heterogeneous population mix. The years after 1990 accelerated and also complicated the diverse character of South African cities, especially as new residents flocked to cities in search of work and better opportunities. 

Quality of life in precarious human settlements is closely interrelated with population change, demographic patterns, including growth, structure and distribution of population. This has implications for education, health and nutrition, access and use of natural resources, and can also influence the pace and quality of economic and social development. The Border Kei Institute of Architects, a local chapter of the South African Institute of Architects, notes that the South African government has been very successful in fulfilling annual housing quotas, but has been unsuccessful in creating functional, beautiful environments that provide vital services, facilities and economic opportunities (from small to large enterprises). This has further perpetuated the structure of the “apartheid city”, characterised by low urban densities, sprawl and fragmentation, strong cultural divides and strict zoning of residential, commercial and public facilities.

South African cities rank among the most inefficient and wasteful urban environments globally. Not only does this negatively impact on environmental sustainability, but it also affects social and economic sustainability. Central government is responding. In 2009 the Department of Housing was renamed the Department of Human Settlements. Government has since used various platforms to acknowledge that housing is not just about the construction of individual houses, or blocks of housing units, but also about the creation of new types of mixed-use residential environments which stimulate sustainable communities. The National Planning Commission, which is responsible for developing a long-term vision and strategic plan for South Africa, noted in 2011 that the spatial legacy of apartheid continues to weigh on the entire country. In general, it explained, the poorest citizens continue to live in remote rural areas. There is a duplication of this scenario in cities, where the urban poor live far from places of work and economic activity.

Goven and her husband, Alastair Rendall, founded ARG Design in 1999 with business partner, Istaván Gosztola. When the couple returned from a social housing global study tour in 1993, they transformed an old motor mechanic's garage into a compact set of four row houses, where they live with their two children today.

The National Development Plan (NDP), a government blueprint for socioeconomic development, proposes to address the legacy of apartheid planning by creating better environments for living and working. According to the NDP, by 2030 South African should see meaningful progress in the revival of rural areas and creation of urban settlements that are functionally integrated, balanced and vibrant. The outcomes of the plan will depend on how various smaller initiatives feed and sustain this statement of intent. For her part, Gita believes that the R140 billion WesCape project could provide some of the answers to the human settlement challenges facing Cape Town by creating a functional and beautiful living environment with vital services, facilities and economic opportunities. 

The WesCape project envisages the creation of a mini-city with 200 000 homes near Melkbosstrand, 15km northwest of central Cape Town. Roughly half the planned 800 000 population will be lower-income earners. WesCape has been earmarked for completion in the next 20 years. The project will also see the construction of hospitals and clinics, libraries and community halls, schools and sports complexes, industrial, commercial and retail development on 3100 hectares of land. CommuniT-grow, a development facilitation agency, will harness the strengths of five companies: Ariya Projects, Bellandia, Target Projects, Pact Developers and Gita’s firm, ARG. Earlier this year, the Western Cape government gave the project the green light when it extended Cape Town’s urban edge, a necessary legal step to enable development to proceed. The actual development will still have to obtain planning approval for its various phases. Anton Bredell, the Western Cape MEC for Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, roundly endorsed the WesCape project, saying it will address all housing sectors.

A view from the ARG office in Observatory.

WesCape, which relies on private developers to fund the project, is not without its critics. In a 2013 open letter to Zille, Bredell and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, a group of UCT academics—including Professor David Dewar and Professor Vanessa Watson—said that WesCape promotes leapfrog sprawl, with profound implications for the growth of the city. The authors of the letter argued that the costs of this sprawling and fragmented urban form would be felt in loss of productive time, household budgets, infrastructural investment in service delivery, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and the negative ecological consequences, which could exacerbate the city’s future risk profile in terms of climate change. “The lateral spread of the city must be controlled (a primary purpose of the urban edge is to achieve this) and future urban growth directed inwards in order to intensify and infill, not everywhere, but around structurally important lines and nodes,” the letter stated. “In this sense WesCape is extremely selfish. It siphons off the growth of the future to its own ends without leaving the city the resources to rectify the mistakes of the past.” 

Gita concedes the project is “ambitious”, but is nevertheless optimistic about WesCape. She says that the project still has to work through many complex issues, including the potential health risks posed by the nearby Koeberg nuclear power plant. But, on balance, she remains positive. “For the first time in my life I see an opportunity to make a difference.” Her enthusiasm largely stems from the “partnered approach” of the project. “The city has to do what it has to do, the community has to do what it has to do, and at the end WesCape will add up,” she insists. “You have to consider that Mitchell’s Plain was built in 15 years and Khayelitsha in about 20 years.” Although similarly scaled, WesCape is constitutionally different to both Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha. “WesCape has to be a city that you and I want to live in, a city that our kids will find their futures in,” elaborates Gita. It must embody the prospect of a bright future, make residents feel safe and free to be who they are, have access to opportunities, and enable citizens to “powerfully” make their contribution.


Coetzee Ntotoviyane (64) is an African National Congress (ANC) councillor. He lives in a two-bedroomed hostel unit in Gugulethu. Coetzee moved to Cape Town in 1985 from the Eastern Cape in search of employment. He initially lived in a hostel in Langa before moving to Gugulethu. The burly councillor says that he has had “no reason to move” even though hostel accommodation is not the most comfortable. Coetzee, whose large frame stands out even more in his small home, lives with his four children—the kids share one bedroom, while he uses the other; his wife continues to live in the Eastern Cape. The hostel has a small but neat kitchen and a dining room that doubles up as a lounge. Such is the close-up view. Viewed from a distance, the home Coetzee has made with his children in Cape Town is a monument to a particular type of history.

“Hostels are an important legacy of a policy of systematic racial discrimination and gross economic exploitation of the indigenous people of South Africa over the last three centuries,” writes Mamphela Ramphele in her 1993 study, A Bed Called Home. The policy of hostel dwellings, she further explained, was pursued with “varying degrees of enthusiasm and crudity” by successive administrations and predated National Party rule. “The common denominator,” argues Ramphele, was the need to balance “the demand for labour with the determination to deny African people access to urban resources”. Despite their sullied history, labour hostels remain an important form of secure housing for many working class South Africans.

Goven speaks to kids in a makeshift pre-school

Transforming hostels from sub-standard dormitories into humane places to live has however been slow. Last year Cape Town revealed plans to relocate 1300 families within the next five years from apartheid-era hostels in Langa into secure, two-bedroom apartments. Units will be equipped with individual kitchens, toilets, showers and solar-heated water systems. The first hostel transformation programme started in Langa earlier this year. The city’s overall hostel programme will see an estimated 12 000 units upgraded or built in Langa, Gugulethu and Nyanga. 


Housing is a lightning rod in Cape Town. The so-called backlog is enormous and the resources of the state are simply not sufficient to catch up over the next two generations. Furthermore, when public housing is provided, it is invariably a contentious affair in terms of who gets access and who can lay claim to it. On the other end of the spectrum, young graduates who enter the labour force, along with clerical and service workers — nurses, teachers, police officers, clerks — simply cannot find decent, affordable accommodation. The constant need for more, better and affordable shelter is compounded by the unsustainable organisation of suburbs, townships and informal settlements. They are marked by low densities and conform to deep patterns of mono-functional use and segregation.

Source: Statistics SA.Census 2011


During the period of high apartheid, hostels provided accommodation in single-gender dormitories for migrant labourers who possessed “bed cards”, which entitled the bearer to a bed in a hostel. Following the repeal of influx-control legislation and the advent of democracy, single-sex hostels became homes for entire families. This has led to overcrowding and the deterioration of sanitation and ablution services; social spaces are also negligible in hostel precincts. Despite these negatives Coetzee speaks warmly of home. “I have lived here for a long time and there is a sense of community that I love about this place,” offers Coetzee, who believes upgrades will only improve the lives of many hostel dwellers.

Architect Ilze Wolff, who has researched the history of Cape Town’s hostel accommodation, says that the development of labour hostels happened in tandem with the development of the city’s most important built structures, including the breakwater piers at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. “Very early on in the construction of the area by the Waterfront there was a labour camp, more or less where the One & Only Hotel now stands,” explains Wolff. “On a 1905 map it is indicated as ‘Kaffir Location’, thus making reference to the racialised black men whom the locations were built for.” The structures were removed by 1920. The Breakwater Prison was used as a labour hostel thereafter, before the establishment of Ndabeni, an industrial precinct adjacent the Black River Parkway. Ndabeni was also used as an area for housing men who built UCT and Groote Schuur Hospital, projects completed by 1930.

In 1927 the township of Langa was established as a formal and permanent location for black inhabitants of the city, many of them manual labourers. Along with beer halls and a pass office, many hostels were also built, some by private enterprises intent on providing housing for their workers. The mixed ownership of hostels partly accounts for the “inertia” around their redevelopment, says Wolff, adding that some private owners are unwilling to take on this responsibility.

Gita supports the upgrades of hostels in Cape Town, partly because of her own experience living in similar conditions. When she was still a child, Gita’s father decided to relocate the family from Springs to Johannesburg, where he set up a business. The race laws made accommodation hard to find, but eventually the family found a two-bedroom flat, which they shared with an uncle and his family. “Mom and dad slept on the double bed and us children slept on a mattress on the floor. It worked, we went to school and we were able to access business opportunities and upgrade our lives.” Despite being able to afford something more spacious, Gita’s family was unable to find better accommodation—eventually they moved back to Springs.

Circumstances have changed and Gita is adamant that there are now possibilities to transform township environments to make them work. “I am beginning to see some possibilities [as to] how we can transform a township environment into a really vibrant, functioning settlement,” she says. “The idea of bringing the townships into the city will not happen because our land prices are too high.” Instead, she proposes transforming existing communities, where there is no lack of vibrancy and warmth, but a need for functionality and diversity of services. “If there are enough places for people to go to for the other things that they need, then township settlements can work.”


Gita lives in what she describes as a mixed-use, mixed-income and inter-generational community. Other Capetonians know her neighbourhood as Observatory. When Gita returned with her husband from a global study tour investigating social housing in 1993, they started looking for a new home. It presented itself in the form of an old motor mechanic’s garage. “We took the roof off and developed it into a compact set of four row houses to test what well-designed, medium-density living would feel like.” Her mother-in-law lives in unit one; Gita and her husband, Alastair, who have two children, live in unit four. “We have had an amazing range of people from all walks of life that have rented the two middle units,” says Gita. “We live in a walkable village which is really vibrant and fun.”

Gita believes transforming public spaces in townships is critical to establishing healthier and vibrant communities. “So much of our lives are actually spent at work, at school, or doing recreational things, so we have to make public spaces high quality.” Gita thinks that a multi-disciplinary approach is needed to deal with the human settlements issue. “We are now entering an era where the real solutions are not only authored by the architects, but just as often by a range of multi-disciplinary practitioners. It is being able to recognise this that makes a big difference.”

Being one of the few black women owning an interdisciplinary design practice in the country is an incredible achievement in SA. Only 24% of built environment professionals are black; 9% are female. ARG comprises a team of 20 “co-creators”, specialists in urban design, architecture, environmental management and landscape architecture.

For Gita, who grew up in a country divided by apartheid, where architecture and planning contributed to the oppression of the majority black population, architecture has, perhaps ironically, offered her an opportunity to make a difference by contributing to fixing the ills of the past. She describes her role as one involving action and intuition. “When people run logs through a river, the logs often get jammed. If you just look at the jam and think, ‘Oh dear, it’s all jammed and we can do nothing’, then you will not be able to do anything. Sometimes, to unblock the logjam, you have to pick out a few logs, then it flows again.” As she admits, hers is a people-focussed idealism. “Does it make a difference to the people?” If it does, thinks Gita, then do it—even if it’s not the “ultimate” solution. “Progress before perfection,” she insists.


Shelter: A place called home: Ons Plek (Woodstock)


Editor: Sean O'Toole & Tau Tavengwa

Copy Editor: Janine Stephen

Photography: Sydelle Willow Smith

Film: Periphery Films

Infographics: Blain van Rooyen

Digital Design: Pixel Project