Over the next months while the Design with the Other 90%: CITIES exhibition is on display at the United Nations Headquarters in New York several individuals whose own research explores the exhibition’s subject matter have been invited to write blog entries sharing their insights, related research and projects. – Cynthia E. Smith, Curator of Socially Responsible Design, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
In March 2011, a soccer tournament was staged in KwaThema, a township 45km east of Johannesburg, South Africa. The players, in the weeks running up to it, had practiced in “keep-fit” games and cleaned up piles of rubbish in the park. Before the kick-off, herds of goats and cattle crossed the grounds to get to their grazing areas, and after it ended, the audience transformed into a loud and proud party to celebrate the memory of the lesbian soccer star, Eudy Simelane, who was slain on the same site in 2008. The quirky richness of the event was far from the institutional idea of soccer that has been growing in South Africa since the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Although South Africa’s World Cup bid generated images of children playing on dusty fields alongside informal settlements, the official events took place, without exception, outside of townships (name for informal settlements in South Africa). Even now, there is a considerable royalty from FIFA’s World Cup profits to be spent on soccer development and upgrading by the South African Football Association’s (SAFA) Infrastructure Development Foundation. An outstanding question remains as to whether these profits can be redistributed at grassroots level.
An example of what could go wrong occurred in 2010, when 24 “Legacy Fields” east of Johannesburg, in a standard top-down manner, were irrigated, planted with grass, then surrounded and locked behind concrete palisade fences. Since then, most of the fields, which were previously locally managed for township leagues, have become overgrown and the fences vandalized. Moreover, SAFA’s decision to only recognize games played on turf will leave many dry townships without a certifiable field.
My hope is that the experience of grassroots soccer organizations such as the DreamFields Project, Play Soccer, Grassroots Soccer, SCORE and FIFA’s Football for Hope, all of which run programs that link soccer training to social agendas, will inform the delivery of facilities in places where they are most needed. The remarkable small scale projects such as the DreamFields in Venda, Tsai Design studio’s Safmarine container club prototype and the Orange Cruyff court for Hillbrow in Johannesburg are good examples of what can be done.
More over, community involvement is even more important, as self-organization around soccer predates any South African institutional interventions. Peter Alegi, a historian who writes extensively on African soccer, has related how the creation and management of teams and leagues was an activity that grew spontaneously alongside black urbanization and how individuals gained social and material success denied to them in formal, white-controlled organizations. The space for soccer, similarly, remained officially unsupported and happened on borrowed fields right up until the 1990’s.
Soccer spaces like the Eudy Park in KwaThema are temporal and self-constructed layers of the township’s urbanism, counter-projects to the growing commoditization and institutional control of soccer. But recognizing its positive qualities raises deep questions about intervening in such spaces. How can spatial intervention sustain such populist, open institutions? How to recognize and support alternative formats for architecture, with its concern for permanence and the absolute ownership of space? Open fields and open institutions are vulnerable to the apparently benign nature of acts of improvement that set them apart from the township’s fluid social space.
Hannah le Roux is an architect and writer, and works at the University of the Witwatersrand. The PITCH project forms part of her practice-based Doctorate in the Arts at KU Leuven. The PITCH blog and its predecessor, the KwaThema Project, can be found at www.kwathema.net.