Meet Wandile Mthiyane

A Resolution Fellow using community-based design to overcome apartheid architecture in his home town of Durban.

George Tsiatis — CEO & Co-Founder, The Resolution Project.

At the age of 18, Wandile Mthiyane received a partial scholarship to study at Andrews University in Michigan. Having always believed that a subsection of young architects should study abroad in order to bring diverse and creative ideas back to South Africa, Wandile was determined to seize his opportunity. However, to make it to Andrews, he needed to raise the remaining cost of tuition himself; so, he wrote a manifesto on how to use architecture to transform his local community, and sent it to then-Mayor of Durban, James Nxumalo. He didn’t hear back.

One stormy day, Wandile had a chance run-in with Mayor Nxumalo and was finally able to pitch his idea. The Mayor was impressed, granting him funding to pay for the first semester of his four-year degree. Once in the U.S., Wandile was confident he could figure out the rest.

Five years later, after receiving a full scholarship to finish his Bachelors and Masters from Andrews, and winning many awards, including Resolution’s Fellowship, Wandile is back in South Africa. He is in the process of building the pilot program for his social venture, Ubuntu Design Group.

Ubuntu Design Group (named after the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which literally means a person is a person through other people) uses architecture as a vehicle to restore a community’s dignity. Ubuntu does this through partnering with shantytown communities to build sustainable, efficient and affordable housing and infrastructure. Wandile has returned to South Africa with the skills and ideas necessary to make a profound difference in his homeland.

Income inequality in South Africa

According to UN Habitat, there are currently 828 million people living in slums and inadequate housing around the world. And that number is set to rise to 889 million by 2020.

In South Africa, 23% of the population live in substandard housing conditions. More than twenty years after the end of apartheid, income inequality is still at extreme levels. In fact, according to the IMF, inequality rates in South Africa are among the highest in the world.

One of the starkest reminders of inequality in South Africa is the architectural makeup of its towns and cities, which were originally designed to oppress, and are visibly divided to this day. There is an ugly legacy of colonialism in the slums, and limited access to basic services, such as water, electricity and toilets allows disease, filth and crime to run rampant. Waiting times for formal housing can be anywhere up to 25 years, which for many, means half a lifetime of hardship.

The Mtshali Family

Nkisinathi and Fikisiwe Mtshali are one of the neediest families in Umbumbulu, a small town in Durban, South Africa. Nkosinathi is a survivor of a tragic road accident; his wife, Fikisiwe, also lives with a disability. To make matters worse, the Mtshali’s lost their house in a storm, which forced them to split up into separate accommodation. Cramped and unsafe, their current home — a small room that a neighbor lets them use — consists of a rickety door, a window, and no toilet. The couple receives a government disability grant, but it does not sufficiently cover their living expenses. Owning a safe and happy home for their family, that meets their specific needs and caters to their disabilities has been, up to now, little more than a dream.

The Umumbulu House

Wandile is no stranger to severe inequality, having himself grown up in informal settlements and shantytowns. He knew many families just like the Mtshali’s, who faced extremely challenging living circumstances. However, rather than accept this harsh reality, he has drawn inspiration and passion from his upbringing, and has set out to achieve long lasting, positive change in his community. Wandile is building a dignified home in Umumbulu for the Mtshali family that doesn’t just put a roof over their heads and dramatically increase their living standards, but also enables them to give back to their community through a self-sustaining day care center.

Community-centered design

When designing the Mtshali house, an important piece of the process for Wandile was that it be collaborative—capturing the family’s creative energy and cultural values.

“People who live in informal settlements are some of the most creative people in the world.”

In order to achieve this, he presented his prototype to the Mtshali’s and 40 other members of their community. He received invaluable feedback from the group, ranging from cultural sensitivities to safety concerns and other practicalities.

“We believe in using architecture to bring about change. If apartheid architecture could segregate and oppress, community-based design can liberate and enable opportunity, growth and commerce.”

The community members told him:

- Increase the kitchen space instead of having a seating room, life happens in the kitchen and the dining/sitting room. In the Zulu culture, there’s no distinction between seating room and dining room.

- Mr Mtshali’s bedroom should be facing the street so that he can have eyes on the street for security and to engage his neighbors. It should also be directly across from the toilet, for ease of movement.

With this feedback in hand, Wandile was able to make much more informed decisions about the pilot house, with tailor made solutions designed to suit the Mtshali’s needs.

Visiting Umumbulu

Resolution held a Social Venture Challenge this past June at the Baobab Summit in South Africa. Before our trip, Wandile got in touch to ask if I could pass through Durban — his pilot house was almost complete, and he hoped to give me a tour.

On my tour of Umumbulu, I was fortunate enough to be able to meet Mrs. Mtshali. Although she only spoke a few words of English, I immediately knew how much the house would mean to her and her family. I also knew she would be a magnet for parents, who would trust her to take care of their children at the day care center.

I met the crew that was leveling floors that day. I circled the property and saw the windows, the views, the space for the day care center that would give the Mtshali’s the economic means to maintain the house and give other members of the community the freedom to work an extra shift in the center of Durban, allowing them to save for the first time. It was an eye-opening and unforgettable experience.

I also visited Wandile’s childhood home. He showed me the place behind his home, where he would climb out and look over the shantytowns and apartheid-mandated townships and take some time to think about his future. He then introduced me to Jozi Park, a 10’x4’ strip of “fenced-in” land across the street from the house he grew up in, and a pure act of rebellion. Parks were prohibited as they could be places to congregate, but the community had cleared, tended, and tilled Jozi Park as a parcel of dignity — an oasis for dreaming.

Ideas, leadership and change

Wandile had lived his dream by enrolling in university, securing a scholarship, winning The Resolution Social Venture Challenge at One Young World, then securing support from Andrews University for his project, because he’d managed to turn one chance into the next one. I wondered how many other young people there were, even in this township alone, that were looking for that chance, that had the dreams and the determination and just needed that one chance to make their mark and start their journey.

The Resolution Project exists to support these young people by providing them with that chance. As long as there are young people who have dreams, but face potential roadblocks in pursuing them, Resolution will continue to identify and support their causes through our SVCs and community of mentors.

Wandile has become a beacon and an example for his community; he has also become someone to convert older generations to understand the ideas, leadership, and change that young people can bring to persistent systemic issues. By following his dreams, he is turning shantytowns from zones of architectural oppression into vibrant economic ecosystems. And in turn, he is creating an environment where other people’s dreams may also thrive.

Resolution’s Social Venture Challenge (SVC) is a business plan-style competition designed to inspire university students to propose solutions to pressing social issues around the world. Resolution hosts SVCs in partnership with the universities and youth conferences that attract talented and idealistic young leaders. Students with the best proposals and most compelling personal leadership characteristics become Resolution Fellows, where they receive the funding, mentorship, and global ecosystem of resources that they need to implement their proposal and develop as socially responsible leaders.

Igniting Social Impact

Resolution is developing socially-responsible young leaders…

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