Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Look back in anger

The bad news is that a lot has gone wrong with our town planning. The good news is that it can be fixed

After some hours, we stand from our chairs to shake hands and part. Outside, except for a few hawkers, the street is deserted ÔÇô typical of a late Saturday afternoon.

“When you say these things, people say you are difficult,” he says rising to draw the blinds of the boardroom. “They say I am difficult.”

It’s not difficult to see why “they” should view Leta Mosienyane in that light. “These things” make him seem like a prophet preaching to an obdurate lot that does not grasp the extent of its transgression. You get the impression that if he could, Mosienyane would kick us all out of our deep slumber. A man who knows better is sometimes impatient with those in blissful ignorance.
A celebrated architect and town planner with landmark projects on the continent, Mosienyane is like the prophet who does not find honour among his people. One of his major works is the Nelson Mandela Museum, which documents and celebrates the journey through the life of South Africa’s most famous struggle icon and former president. The museum is unique in that it straddles three historic sites: Mvezo, the village where Mandela was born; Qunu, where he grew up; and an old building that was renovated to house an exhibition of the many gifts and artifacts he received from all over the world. The whole thing is an expedition, and it is structured in such a way that when one travels from Mvezo to Qunu, they traverse several chapters in Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
Having been entrusted to deliver such a ground-breaking undertaking, it’s no wonder Mosienyane quips, “South Africa made me”.

This is the testimony of a man who struggled to get meaningful work in his country, even though he was Botswana’s first chartered architect. After packing his bags in frustration, South Africa was where he found recognition. He maintains two practices in South Africa ÔÇô in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

I ask him why his people gave him a cold shoulder.

He preambles his next answer with an anecdote about the setting up of the University of Botswana. When the governments of Botswana and Swaziland decided to have separate universities (where previously there was the University of Botswana and Swaziland), the appointing authority looked outside the country for UB’s founding Vice Chancellor, overlooking a qualified Motswana ÔÇô Prof Thomas Tlou, who was given the number two post. Eventually, after Prof John Turner’s contract had run out, Tlou got the top job. There’s a theory that government only localised the post due to pressure, including from the institution’s students.

“When Tlou left, they couldn’t produce a headmaster for their school. They brought (Prof Sharon) Siverts. That’s who we are…We don’t celebrate our professionals. In other countries, the first Vice Chancellor of the nation’s first university would have been a citizen,” says Mosienyane.
At the heart of a lot that is wrong with us today, he points out, is this pervasive inability to notice and celebrate the greatness in us and ours. It is the state of mind that bears many manifestations: great artistic and cultural icons die unnoticed, a nation’s architectural heritage is distorted and obliterated, the young and bright professionals are held in contempt.
How did we get here?

“Our story has been told by outsiders, not us,” he puts forward an explanation for stereotypes that even suggest that Batswana do not have an architectural heritage. “We have allowed them to tell us what is architecture and what is not. We have even allowed them to tell us that our architecture never went beyond the thatched mud roundavel. Tell them Leta says it’s a lie. I know that we built and roofed with stone.”

To the extent that Batswana built structures that fit the three basic tenets that define architecture ÔÇô artistic beauty, structural integrity, and functionality ÔÇô he has no hesitation declaring that, “We’ve had architecture”.

“We created monuments. We built on top hills to defend our tribes,” he says. “Our villages are not walled, but there are entrances to the village. There is structure to our villages. We built with stone, clay, and wood. We have an architectural legacy. Batswana have built monuments.

Architecture and language are very similar. Look at our language and see its beauty, its poetry and idioms. Unfortunately, we have this otherness that looks down on us. It is the belief that ngwana yo montle ke lekgowanyana. This is the otherness that makes the minister of health go outside the country to seek medical care, and the minister of education to send his children to a secondary school outside Botswana.”

While he makes the case that historically, Batswana were meticulous in planning their villages, he finds that somehow this legacy is not reflected in the planning of our towns and cities. He blames this on “the otherness”. To explain this point, first he goes somewhat on tangent. For a long time, he points out, we were all guilty of belittling the artistic works of people like Ratsie Sethako, Sekokotla Kaboeamodimo and Ponatshego Mokane ÔÇô perhaps some of our greatest artists of all time.
And how did we do that?

“We created a window to play their works only for one hour, each Sunday. Meantime, throughout the week, our national radio station would play [the South African musician] Mahlathini. We caricatured our own stars. That is the mindset that taught us that though we had Mpule [Kwelagobe], we still had to look for someone from outside Botswana to market our diamonds. There’s an otherness that we assume is better than us. We’re saying what is ours is inferior. We do that even in planning. In our villages you see absolute beauty. There’s planning in our villages that is informed by patrimony; there is serious order. There’s hierarchy of dikgotla. That’s real planning.

“But in Gaborone, you don’t see that planning. Somehow we drop our planning concept in our urban centres. A typical example is the Government Enclave . The buildings don’t communicate. The first ones were all facing the square, but subsequent ones were just thrown around. We now have disjointed, and individual buildings that do not even have shelter. But the environment is supposed to be of one government. There’s no planning. It’s killed by the otherness… We allowed others to trample on us. Our planners are foreigners , and they don’t care about our culture.”

He finds it unacceptable that though small traders sell food in the Gaborone Main Mall, the city council does not see the need to provide ablution facilities, running water, electricity and lockable storage.

“Go to other countries,” he exhorts like a preacher possessed. “Walk Rome, man ÔÇô there are fountains. That’s the level we need to go to. We need celebratory spaces. In Britain they have Trafalgar Square. Here where do we celebrate? I should have an automatic space to go and celebrate when the Zebras win.”

He finds Gaborone to lack character. And the reason is that the city does not have monuments, landmarks, and vistas that define a beautiful city. The result is that people get lost because there are no landmarks, and all the vistas have been blocked by the buildings being strewn around. He wonders why planning was not done in such way that the greater part of the city would get to enjoy the breeze from the dam.

He raises another point. Botswana’s towns are not permeable due to the cul-de-sacs and crescents. Consequently, the town resident pays a heavy price. It becomes a norm to travel 7km to go to a place that is 1km away. The other result is the traffic jams, which Mosienyane maintains shouldn’t be there. He argues that Gaborone has very few vehicles per square metre, but the city experiences traffic jams because cars are concentrated on public roads. The solution he suggests is to open cul-de-sacs and crescents to make them accessible to relieve public roads. Further down the road, he says this is the time to move beyond roundabouts to introduce more signals, as well as on and off-road ramps on highways.

“We have to consciously rehabilitate our cities. Cities can be rehabilitated. A case in point is Central New York, which was a no-go area. Gaborone needs a major intervention before it gets out of hand. It’s an embarrassment. We need to redefine neighbourhoods and provide public facilities like car washes, the pub, corner shop, sports facilities, parks, and places for children to play. How do you get to know your neighbour when you have nowhere to meet?

“We need to introduce mixed use. One of our biggest problems is that we became very strict in separate use. The result is that when we go to work, the residential areas are deserted. The city becomes a dormitory,” he says.

And what do we do about the incessant complaints from outside visitors that it’s difficult to identify the physical addresses? Mosienyane points out that international convention is that odd numbers should be on one side of the street, and even ones on the other. That principle further dictates that each street should have its own numbers.

“What we have in Gaborone are title deed numbers, not address numbers. This can be fixed, but it will cost money,” he says.

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.