Mbongeni Ngulube

Interview with Mbongeni Ngulube

December 7, 2015 

Personally, what was the turning point in your life which directed your interest to the field you are working in now?

Basically, there are two field in this case for me. The first one is my work in slum upgrades, in housing and that sort of thing. The second, is the more academic side of things.

The first turn is when I was working in South Africa, in Johannesburg. I was working for a big commercial company and we were asked by the government to experiment with one developmental project. So we gave it a try. It turned out to be quite difficult, and not what we were used to, and the outcome was not that great, but what it did do to you is that I exposed the most social side of architecture, which kind of struck my fancy and gave me a little bit more essence of purpose in architecture than just good design and making money and that sort of thing. So that was the first thing, and that experience led me to quit my job actually and I then set up my own practice which I ran for a couple years, specifically looking at slum upgrading projects.

And yeah, the second turn, to a more academic consideration was due to the second experience I had in my own company. So I worked on a couple of housing projects, slum-upgrading projects, and it was much more difficult than I anticipated, and there was a lot I didn’t know, and a lot of the projects didn’t work out as I had expected and it left me with a lot more questions than answers, and that in the end kind of forced me to, either quit completely what I was doing completely, or to find out more about it. So I chose to do a masters in development. And that is how it led me to what I am now.

Could you expand on your first turning point? What was the problem you faced as you worked in slum upgrading?

For the commercial company the big challenge was, first of all, the money. It was not commercially viable. At all. So for the kind of money that I was investing out as an expert then, it would not cover, again, half the time that we needed for the slum upgrade project. So that was a very first, realistic problem, which I have to say, was never verbally expressed. But you would kind of drag your feet, and you know. So that was the first failure. The second failure was that the ideas, the commercial company in terms of slum upgrade, were quite contrary to the reality on the ground. To be perfectly fair, we were a suburban practice, and we did go into urbanism and all of that. We are well known for it, in fact. But in terms of slum upgrading, it is a completely different kind of urbanism. And I think that problem was partly, like I said, the money, but also it kind of exposed the limits of our expertise. And I suspect that the project was terminated because it kind of exposed that weakness in our company. But then again that is something I would deny if I am asked again.

How would you recommend to go about this? First, in terms of making the project viable financially, and then to actually come to the realization of the ideas and come up with solutions?

It is a little bit difficult, that question. It is something I have to confess; it has been my preoccupation for the past decade maybe. First in a practical sense, and now in a more academic sense. But, the first issue, I think, from my experience is that one is to understand that in a, let us call is subaltern urbanism, you are dealing with a completely different logic. The mistake we make is that we think that there is no logic. There is no kind of politics, and economics, and sense of life. But there is. As long as you don’t understand that, your ideas will always run contrary to what is actually going on. And if that persists you are guaranteed to fail. So in terms of solutions, wow, it’s a big question. I am not sure I have met anyone who has a solution as such, but I do have a little bit of a better understand now.

Where has your work been located, both in the practical and academic worlds?

My practical projects in housing specifically are located in South Africa, in Johannesburg mainly. I did a few, in Alexandra Township. It is a fairly well-known, I wouldn’t call it a slum as such, but let us call it a subaltern environment. So that is where I get most of my practical experience in slum development and so forth. The academic project, in fact, took place in Europe, and is still located here. So I did a couple of masters in Germany, Barcelona, and currently in Belgium. Now through the current research I’m looking at I’m working with an NGO, not an NGO, it’s more like a charity slash development company based in the UK. And interestingly enough, now to answer the problem of subaltern urbanism, I had to get involved in an agricultural project, to experiment with an interesting approach to development.

What is the nature of this new approach? How did it come to be?

The basic idea, or the theory let’s say is that I discovered that the problem is not just in the work itself but it is in the approach that we take towards development and I started to identify several factors that make this problematic. The most basic and most obvious is that when going to slum-upgrading or any development really, most of the stuff we do comes from, either ideas that are coming outside the area of intervention. So it is ideas from outside, money from outside, process from outside, experts from outside, and so forth. And I know ideas such as participation try to bridge that gap, but usually what they do is that they allow people to participate in someone else’s ideas. So not really in the true sense. And in this new project we try to start from the bottom up. It sounds very cliché, kind of over-done, but there is no good vocabulary to explain it. So it’s centered pretty much on the farmers on the grown. And what we have done is analyze what their situation is, because we believe that the poverty that they face is not something that is simply inherent to them. It is something inherent in their location, in terms of economics, in terms of society, and so on and so forth. So instead of trying to intervene in their life, we try to intervene in the systems around them that produce that kind of poverty. And in so doing, it has allowed small-scale farmers to have a very friendly-access to the market, which is usually the problem. So this is not, in a sense, a development project as such, but it is not entirely a business project as such. It is more like a social enterprise, but not even that. I am not quite sure what to name it as yet so it is still experimental. The output so far is we have been able to reach about 4,000 farmers. That is in the past 5 years. And we have allowed these people to actually access the market in a very, very fantastic way. And we have space for at least another 2,000 under the project that we are working on. But the primarily, or the core element, the core characteristic of what we do is that this is not a project in the sense that it has a beginning date and an end-date, it is not like that. The second part is that, it is not a project in the sense that people are forced to do one thing as well. So it is also not closed in that sense. And in fact it is more open. People float in and out as they see value in what we do.

Linking this approach to our first conversation related to slum upgrading, how do you implement this approach in the reality of urban development?

The idea now, is having found an interesting model that can be applied in poverty alleviation, the trick is now to put this back into urbanism. What I have distilled as an approach is something that I call systemic capture. The point is that if you understand the systems around poverty, you have to understand that it is those systems that need to be perverted in order to turn around the situation. It is not enough to just pick one person and give them a fish. Or even just teach one person to fish. That is quite condescending, because even that doesn’t change any of the systemic causes around it. So you have to address the systemic issue. And that I try to refer to it in terms of a capture, rather than a revolution.

Now, in housing, the same applies. In terms of access to housing, in terms of right to the city, those kinds of ideas, it is simply a matter of people claiming access to space, which at the moment they are not allow to—it is an issue of power really in the end. And the question is, in those situations, how do you help poor people access enough power to lay claim to space, to housing, and to processes that can allow them to build up for themselves; shelters and their basic needs? Those things cannot be decoupled from economic, social, and political issues.

Coming from both a theoretical and practical background, how has the mixture of different standpoints and disciplines been reflected in your work?

That is quite a thing. In fact, we—when I say we, I say me and few colleagues who also came through Mundus Urbano a few years ago—we go together exactly to try to answer that question. For most of us it was the first time that we were exposed to other professionals, with whom we had to work in hand in hand, day and night, pretty much. And it was very confusing in the end, when you have completed this interdisciplinary masters to know what your job is in the end. Do you go back to what you were doing with a better insight on what other people are doing? Or do you change? These are questions that are still open. So the question we asked is if there is such a thing such as an interdisciplinary professional? And if you are, then what kind of title do you put on your email, or your business card? Basic things like that. In my case, in my experience, as an architect, all I knew were professions around the architecture field. Anything else outside of that was vague. So coming in contact with other people, including anthropologists, was something quite new. So there was a bit of disorientation in that first phase.

The second phase was in terms of actually trying to then work together with other people. Now, I assume, in the field out there, it is really still quite difficult because people work in their own silos and in their own mental frames. But I am lucky that my field in academia forces me to interact with other professionals anywhere, with other expertise. So what is interesting is that knowing that, I have become much more sensitive in terms of what other expertise can do for a project. I realize I don’t know everything, but certainly because I am also still teaching in an interdisciplinary course anyway, the students I work with assume that I know a lot more than I do. As a result, one of two things has to happen; either I have to differ some of the questions to other experts, or alternatively, I have to learn very quickly. And as such, being involved in an interdisciplinary masters has caused me to learn a lot more than I intended, and I have had to learn very fast. So it is actually very good for me in that sense. So I have become more interdisciplinary because I am teaching a course that is interdisciplinary.

Jumping back to the innovative approach to urban development, could you illustrate systemic capture and how it functions in the making of cities?

The simplest way to get to that is that, one of the missing links in development approach, generally, is this a-historical approach to problems. We think of our project as if poverty just dropped out of the sky somewhere and now we are trying to fix it. And because you leave out the history of the causes of these things, you actually ignore the cause, because you don’t really address the real problem. What you are addressing at the end are just symptoms of the problem. Now, if you apply that to housing, I can best illustrate that through an example. I wrote about it recently. There is a small community—I believe it is in Bangkok, it is near the <Pan Pha bridge?> so it is right in the middle of the city; essentially the city grew around it—at some point, the city of Bangkok wanted to <missing words> and to build a new park. And for years, or decades, these communities were struggling to fight against the eviction, trying to make claim to that space. They were not making much of headway. But in the end, the city came up with a new policy and they declared Bangkok as a tourist destination, and also a very heritage-based tourism. The king was behind it, and it was a whole big thing. And that was meant to aid in the eviction of these, unsightly developments in the city. Interestingly enough, the residents got together—the few of them who were activists and academics—and they turned that idea around and they decided to label their village as a heritage location; showing authentic life from 100 years ago and that sort of thing. And they do really live that way, they are not actors. They live exactly like that. So they actually re-labeled themselves and sold themselves based on that discourse. In that sense, literally, captured in that same discourse, which was meant to evict them. Now because of that, they are known as a heritage location. And that is how power is exercised. In that sense, it is a way that captures the very system that tries to undue them. That is a very clear example of what system capture is, and in the location of urbanism. But that idea can be translocated to other situations.

What would be the questions that you ask yourself before analyzing an urban development issue? Based on your previous example, what have we overlooked?

I try to locate that particular example within the historical perspective of development. So if I was to work in a slum-community for example, before I do anything, I would need to understand what are the historical causes of that. Where these people evicted from somewhere? Did they just come to that land? Who did this land belong to? Where are those sides of power? Where are those frictions? And that’s where you intervene. It is not just saying, oh there are poor people there, let’s build something better. Because you don’t know who you are coming up against. You don’t know what is causing that situation in the greater scheme. So the historical approach and the contextual approach is critical, otherwise, to be perfectly frank, you are most likely to do harm than good.

You also have to understand that I have alluded to the fact that we are working in a neoliberal context now. As such there are a lot of things are the responsibility of the people, although they are recommended by those in power in essence. That is really the point of neoliberalism. So on the one hand, I don’t necessarily agree with that; the difference now, is that if you look at the housing approach we have now, is sounds good, it sounds like it is an empowering discourse, but in reality it is tough. The 60s was about the state actually taking responsibility for their populations, providing housing and providing basic needs from the state <missing words> and that is what taxes are for. I do still subscribe to that idea. The state needs to come back into the picture. The state needs to provide basic infrastructure, and so forth. But while that is happening, people should not be passive either. So I am not supporting one extreme or the other. In essence, the interest that I have is to get the two discourses that have always appeared to be mutually exclusive, to put them together in a more nuanced way. So we found out the weaknesses of the state and now we are finding out the weaknesses of the neoliberal approach. There are good things and bad things in both sides, and I think a mix is a much better approach.


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