This month marks the 45th anniversary of the death of black consciousness luminary Steve Biko, who not only gave us the paradigmatic meaning of being black in South Africa, but also a programmatic approach to how we can break free from the chains that bind us.
Throughout his work, Biko insisted that we do have the ability to change our reality. The ANC government has failed us despite being in power for almost 30 years. Since we no longer have Biko to give us the word, we can only assume that he will say that “all is not lost; we can save ourselves.’
These assumptions are based on the fact that Biko stood firm in the face of a brutal regime and assured us that the wind of change was near, that we were beautiful and that power was in our heads. Biko not only talked about it, he did it before we even thought about it.
He boldly declared that “the call to black consciousness is the most positive call to come from any group in the black world.” The genius of this appeal is that it not only rejects the willful maintenance of apartheid hierarchies by those who benefit from them. His call essentially recognizes that black people must cease to be tenants or spectators on the land that belongs to them, and that they must use “the concept of group power to build a solid foundation.”
Many of the black organizations he was a part of did many community projects that succeeded during a very dark period. In the spirit of Biko’s memory, I believe it is necessary to understand that there is no messiah coming to save us—we must make the change ourselves.
I have been seriously thinking about spatiality as something that gives some meaning to human existence, and as a tool that can be used to read the nature of society. I am interested in public space and architecture in particular. I am interested in how they can be most effectively used to make a meaningful difference in the lives of poor black people.
It is important that we use the skills we have not only for our own benefit, but also to change the conditions from which we come for the better; it is the African way. The concept of ubuntu should not be just a theoretical decoration that makes us look real Africans, it should rather be our way of being.
As a spatial practitioner, I believe that through positive spatial creation we can create the ideal conditions for people to realize that they can be active participants in changing and shaping their lives, and remind them that they do not always have to be at the mercy of the government. , who has repeatedly shown his disrespect for them.
There are a number of architects who have already begun to move their communities forward. Diébédo Francis Kéré is a leading architect from Burkina Faso who was recently announced as the first African laureate of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. Kere has dedicated his career to where he comes from. He uses his profession to serve both himself and to change the conditions of his country. Despite the many prestigious awards he has received over the years, he still maintains a sense of duty to his nation.
His most significant work was the construction of a school in his hometown. What is beautiful about his method is that he collaborates with the villagers and uses locally sourced materials. Kere does not see himself as some kind of savior, as is often the case with professionals and NGOs. He believes that people are capable of helping themselves.
In an age where everything is outsourced, architects regularly use materials from around the world and methods foreign to Africa. This is not sustainable because the cost of construction becomes higher and the methods may not be the best in the African context.
We need to inculcate an ethic of self-reliance because history has shown us that no one comes to our rescue. Those who pretend to do so have their own agendas. The approach used by architects must be closely related to local resources.
Mass Design Group does it in Rwanda, using local materials such as volcanic rock for construction. As Michael Murphy, co-founder of the group suggests, we should try to use as much local knowledge and practice as possible to develop an architecture that is uniquely suited to our needs and conditions.
Although I speak as an architect, the fact is that as professionals we must consider our skills and professions as important resources that we can use to make radical changes in our country. We have a duty and a responsibility; we cannot be comfortable while the majority of black people are still “outside” the economy, existing on the fringes of society, occupying ghettos and prisons, and always facing the immediate threat of death.
We can change this by embodying the spirit of Biko and all the other black people who dared to do something about the dire situation of their fellow Africans.
Inam Kula works as an architect and activist and seeks to understand the relationship between space and power, challenging the use of architecture that creates and reinforces systems of marginalization and alienation.