Authors Amira Osman and Tariq Toffa

Calling for “many voices”, the South African Institute of Architects has issued an invitation for architects to engage in a SAIA transformation webinar series, 2021. The Transformation Committee of SAIA aims to “…create a platform to initiate discussions around the transformation of our profession… and to start conversations on difficult, but necessary, and long-neglected topic… Our hope is that this series can kick-start and inspire SAIA to travel a transformative journey”. We see this as a bold and positive move and may help in making the profession more representative, inclusive and thus better aligning the South African architectural profession with the broader socio-economic conditions of our country.

We see “many voices” is an invitation and could provide an alternative to, a professional culture that is elitist, harsh, competitive and exclusionary.

As part of the “many voices” initiative, the webinar series on the specific topic of TRANSFORMATION is the culmination of many years of work and the coming together of many minds. The UIA 2014 Durban Legacy Report (PART 4 titled UIA 2014 DURBAN AS A CATALYST FOR TRANSFORMATION) stated the following with regards to the topic of transformation:

“The topic of “transformation” has been a major concern for the Congress. Transformation is considered in terms of both “transformation within the profession” (practice methods and profile of the architectural community – this is a global issue) as well as contributing towards the “transformation of South African cities” (linked to national imperatives). In the latter, the relationship between the architectural community and its regulatory and voluntary bodies was debated – towards the achievement of transformation in both its meanings.

South African cities remain deeply divided and many people remain disadvantaged despite the many years of democracy in the post-Apartheid era. Architecture is a profession that may offer spatial/technical/social expertise towards the achievement of spatial equity – yet the profession remains relatively uninvolved and disengaged from these critical debates. In addition, government investment and interventions, which play a major role in spatial transformation, continues to be injected in such a manner that perpetuates the status quo. UIA 2014 Durban has aimed to encourage the re-direction of focus (of research, funding, delivery) from HOUSE to NEIGHBOURHOOD and has motivated for re-directing funding from individual, house-on-a-plot typologies towards mixed neighbourhoods with multi-family typologies. While this changed focus in thinking is already happening in South Africa, UIA 2014 Durban has offered the latest innovations and practical solutions towards implementation at scale.

It is emphasized that all technical decisions are value-laden. This implies that any technical decision taken will reflect current approaches to access to the city and all the opportunities it offers as well as an approach to poverty and the poor in the city. Therefore, technical solutions may contribute to creating more divides in society and destroy attempts at social cohesion and integration. These issues were debated in the build up to the Congress, at the event and beyond into the planned legacy programmes. We are hoping to communicate this to concerned government departments and contribute to a changed approach to technical solutions for housing and other government amenities.

While acknowledging that the spatial divisions in South Africa require complex and multi-disciplinary interventions, the architectural profession has the potential to play a major role in the achievement of progress in this field. However, the profession in South Africa remains isolated. Looking at other cities internationally, which employ large numbers of architects, it becomes apparent that South Africa is missing the opportunity to better involve the profession.

There are two reasons for this, the first being general misunderstanding about the profession and the second is that the profession remains untransformed, which is leading to its disconnect and lack of involvement in issues relevant to South Africa. The profession continues to be an elitist profession. By opening up the profession to young people from diverse backgrounds, this will most certainly be remedied.

Durban has been the ideal place to conduct this conversation because of a thriving City Architects’ office, which has been at the forefront of many innovations in the city. The Congress has offered a unique opportunity to initiate change in this issue – Durban City Architects may lead the way.

Many aspects of Apartheid cities were conceptualised by architects as well as other built environment professionals. It is therefore assumed that many aspects of Apartheid cities may be “undone” through architectural intervention.”

Amira Osman was invited to facilitate the first of the webinars on the 4th of March 2021. The panelists were Architect AJ Corbett, Architect Kumarsen Thamburan, Architect Adheema Davis and Dr Sechaba Maape.

She initiated the discussion by using examples from her own background in the Sudan, explaining how race is a social construction, yet one that is deeply ingrained in all spheres of life. She explained how, for the architectural discipline, race holds sway in every aspect – socially, educationally and professionally – in complex ways and there are many who experience marginalization, exclusion, silencing and trauma, and it is especially on their behalf that we need to have these complex discussions.

The panelists also drew on their own lived experiences in architectural practice and in academia. AJ argued that there is no single view that is the correct one and that the profession must integrate with communities to offer the best service to its clients. Kumarsen spoke of ‘professional apartheid’ and described how it still lingers as a daily experience with black architects making up a very small portion of approximately 4,100 registered architects, hence creates an untenable landscape where they receive a small share of the work. There is also a very low number of registered female architects. He proceeded to explain how the profession’s existence is threatened considering that about 25 years ago there were approximately 8,000 registered architects, while today there are just over 4,000. This equates to an approximate 50% reduction in the number of registered architects.

Adheema drew from her own experience, and undeniably of many others, arguing that the colonial foundations of the profession are still very much alive, especially in not embracing blackness or social identity that does not align with ‘old, white male’. She stated that this kind of platform is needed, to move from the superficial occupation with “rainbowism” that has denied the right to meaningful transformation and reconciliatory work. She reflected on language, particularly the word and notion of ‘excellence’ that is used to maintain the status quo. For example, ‘excellence’ meant that she ‘spoke well for a coloured girl’. ‘Excellence’ meant assimilation to whiteness, as she has experienced through her education and even her professional career in practice. In efforts to address issues of race and transformation within the KZN region, she has been labeled as unsuitable, ill-equipped, not aligned, and a trouble-maker. In these ways the culture of the profession further distances itself from people like her, and more generally from the South African public at large. In view of such experiences, Adheema concluded by reading the Preamble of the SA Constitution, which encourages the recognition and honouring and respecting of those who fought for freedom and justice. Against current exclusionary notions and cultures of ‘excellence’, she argued that this should also apply to all those who help to build and transform the profession.

Sechaba described his own experiences as a black student at WITS, where people like Mpheti Morajele and Fanuel Mostepe, as black architects and thought leaders, were role models, and how many black students wanted to work for them. Sechaba also described how no lecturers had knowledge to guide him as a student with his interests in pre-colonial cultures and worldviews. He saw how this lack of transformation persists outside of the university. He cited a project commissioned in a cave that was the subject matter of his Ph.D., located in his hometown. This project was given to a white architect from Johannesburg; he and his work were not consulted – he was not even approached to write about the project. Sechaba concluded with an appeal to SAIA and SACAP to support people like him who are trying to create a parallel kind of practice that is rooted in these knowledges and practices.

The comments and questions that followed the panel contributions were wide-ranging, many times not directly related to the presentations by the panelists. Most questions did not speak directly to the issue of representation/equity, which is usually considered to be all that transformation is essentially about. These indicate that ‘transformation’ is not simple but entails engagement with many complex issues.

There were many confirmations of experiences similar to those expressed by the black panelists, which give credence to a clear and widely-held sense of a lack of transformation of institutional culture in the discipline. Some people expressed uncertainty about data and the reasons for the existence of many of the identified problems, even by those considered ‘experts’. The above points to a clear lack of deep understanding, scholarship and definitions of ‘transformation’, and hence the need for more rigorous scholarship, surveys and analysis.

Many questions concerned those practicing in non-architect SACAP categories who feel disadvantaged, particularly if these categories already consist of those less privileged. This issue clearly requires more focus and attention.

Some ‘white’ commentators felt threatened by a transformation agenda, fearing that it will disadvantage them. Some felt threatened by the RPL proposal.

One of the attendees claimed that unequal treatment is both racial and gendered and another asked for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for architects. The issue of there being more opportunities for men was raised.

In one case, the claims of black experiences were contested and the reduction in registered architects was perceived to be simply related to the reduction in available work and was not seen to be race-related.

The SACAP professional categories were a contentious issue, being seen as restrictive and onerous on non-architects with non-registered practitioners with decades of experience having to compete with new graduates. There is a perceived need for new structures, and not only reliance on the current structures – use the profession’s resources and energy to create a new supportive community for architects.

Greater links between academia and practice are seen as being important in achieving change – especially in allowing students to engage with complex contextual realities. The exclusivity of the institution may be directly related to the knowledge received from mentors, one commentator argued.

The need for rigorous research on transformation and communication was expressed by some. One person commented that there is a need to track where/why people are disappearing between degrees and registration, as well as drop-out rates. Poor remuneration plus ‘black tax’ may especially disadvantage black graduates. It is also seen as important to understand who and why some young graduates are not registering. There is a need to better define and understand different aspects of transformation. Transformation is both an intellectual project of changing our thinking, but it also relates to the facilitation of access to studies and mechanisms that enable candidates to complete their studies. One question asked was: How are young professionals made to feel welcome in the professional institutions?

Below is the opening statement made by the facilitator:

I am Amira Osman.
I claim no moral superiority.
But, I boldly reclaim my own story, my own experience and my own heritage.
I do not tolerate attempts to edit me out, to re-write my story or to silence my voice.

I open with a poem by the Sudanese poet Mohamad Abd Al Hay which I have taken the liberty to modify:

Tonight my family greet me

The spirit of my forefathers emerges from the dreams of the landscape
And from the night of the sky
The city

I will return to my past
Open – guards – open for the one who is returning tonight – the gates of the city
Open [the gates] – for the one who is returning tonight – the gates of the city

Open the gates of the city

I belong to you

A lost one returning
Singing in one tongue
Praying in another
I belong to you

Your pain is mine

My spear is yours

A pagan who worships the land

An African who worships miracles and the fire of the God
[Is my past a] dream?
An imaginary tale?
What am I without this sound?
What am I without this symbol?

It creates me and I create it

On the surface of a city – under the sun of the night – and a deep love

One of the things I did in preparation for this talk is to ask my mother, “So what colour am I?”. She replied, “Khadra” – which translates directly to “green”; “And what colour is Sarah?” (my sister), my mother relied “Safra” – which is “yellow”; “And Ali?” (my brother) and she replied “Azrag adeel”, with a smile. “Azrag” is “blue” and “adeel is a way of strongly confirming the statement – but also delivered with a smile because azrag or blue is not really the preferred complexion for a northern Sudanese. This conversation took 2 minutes – and no, it was not a joke.

Remember that my country of origins is the Sudan, Al Sudan, the land of the blacks. Yet, we have many forms of black.

In 1979, Ibrahim wrote about the complexity of colour classifications among the Arabized groups (Ibrahim, 1979: 95). In 1971, Spaulding (1971: 101) explained how explorers were able to identify distinct classes with everyone knowing EXACTLY where they belonged. Till today, people are referred to as yellow, blue, green, red and a Sudanese would know exactly what that would imply – socially, politically and in terms of status. Being perceived as a shade closer to a lighter Arab complexion – or better still, a shade closer to a whiter European complexion comes with many privileges. Even within the same family.

I have a feeling of incredible calmness in approaching this complex topic of race, transformation and SAIA; specifically, with the highly charged topic of RACE.

Why this calmness? It is because I am very convinced that however much I try, and I want to, I cannot, and will not get it right. This strong conviction – a conviction that this topic is so contentious and so complicated that we can never get it right – is weirdly reassuring. And relaxing. Whatever I say, and whatever the panelists say, not everyone will be happy, many will feel a sense of discomfort and many may even elect to avoid the session all together or to depart after joining.

Having said that, it does not mean that I am going to do my absolute best to support the intentions of SAIA in calling for this conversation. I acknowledge our president, Architect Kate Otten, and her call to our colleagues to offer “many voices” and to start conversations on difficult, but necessary, and long-neglected topics. I acknowledge the Transformation Committee represented by Architect Karuni Naidoo and Penny Sebe. I also acknowledge Architect Mthembeni Mkhizi, the CEO of SAIA. Thank you for giving us this space. This is a brave and bold move and I salute you!

Our institute is inviting you – the audience – to participate and make your voices heard. My hope is that this series can kick-start and inspire SAIA to travel a transformative journey; to be more representative, inclusive and align the South African architectural profession with the broader population, professional community and the socio-economic and spatial conditions of our country.

The first webinar will aim to set the scene for the event, weaving together the different themes in a constructive and meaningful manner. The topic of RACE underpins many of the transformation themes, but is a topic that is many times avoided. It is not a topic we are comfortable engaging with! Indeed, we tend to avoid it at any cost!

RACE has impacted on the way in which we are educated, our voices, histories, languages and belief systems are not equally represented in our education systems. RACE has impacted in the exclusion of youth from dialogue – one only needs to see how our profession largely ignored RMF, FMF and BLM to see evidence of this. RACE has meant that women in the profession have had to deal with multiple layers of exclusion and silencing and raised issues around intersectionality. RACE has meant that architectural practice has tended to deepen divisions and many times serving the “oppressor”, contributing to great spatial injustices and disadvantaging generations of people. Finally, RACE has come out strongly as a topic during the COVID-19 crisis, as the pandemic has exposed the many forms of divisions and disadvantage globally, and more so in South Africa.

So I take up this challenge with an intention to approach it with as much wisdom, humility, tolerance, sensitivity and kindness. But despite all of these good intentions, I have no doubt that I will get some things wrong. So I hope that the audience will be forgiving and understanding because they themselves know, that it is very difficult to get it right!

This is not a topic that will make any of us comfortable. Making you comfortable is NOT an intention of this conversation. An open and honest, constructive engagement is what is intended. It will certainly make some people angry, it will open wounds, expose traumas and it will create discomfort. Confronting the issue of race, racism and exclusion in the architectural profession will be hard.

SAIA is not only perceived as a “white boys’ club”; it is indeed, “a white boys’ club”. The statistics tell us that.

But they / SAIA have allowed us this space…

At this point, I must acknowledge and thank my numerous white male mentors who have generously guided me throughout my career… undoubtedly having done the same for many many more people…

I have accepted this task in honour of:
The silenced
The unheard
The traumatized
Those rendered invisible
Those ignored
Those who are subtly undermined – or openly abused
Those who are overtly and covertly insulted – in major, life-changing ways, or in daily micro-aggressions

I have accepted this task on behalf of students who have been told that to excel in the discipline you must forget about the township and the village; you need to speak and act in particular ways that are alien to you and your culture; you need to become more like us. I have accepted this task on behalf of colleagues who have been told what you offer is “terrible” and “you are 20 years behind Europe and need to catch up”.

Issues of professional apartheid and re-definitions of the concept of “malpractice”, may or may not, come to the fore.

Why I say this, is because the floor is for the four panelists, they will determine how we unpack this topic of race, transformation and our professional institutions….

So I hand over to them…