“You’re lucky you arrived on a Monday,” says architect Kevin Kimwelle as we drive through the twisting back streets of Port Elizabeth. “The municipality collects rubbish on a Monday … but later in the week, it’ll be a terrible mess.”
In South Africa waste collection is just one of the services that government struggles to deliver. A little under half of the country (41% of households) is without basic waste collection services, let alone recycling: as a nation, only 10% of waste is recycled, while 90% ends up in landfills.
But as trash piles up on Port Elizabeth’s pavements, a formal and informal economy has sprung up in response. And Kimwelle has seen an opportunity.
Twenty-five years after the fall of the brutal apartheid regime, South Africa's cities remain hugely divided, both economically and racially. This week Guardian Cities explores the incredible changes taking place, the challenges faced and the projects that bring hope.
Africa correspondent Jason Burke reports from the Flats, where violence and death are endemic just miles from Cape Town's spectacular beaches and trendy cafes.
Author Niq Mhlongo pens a love letter to the "other Soweto", one that visitors to gentrified Vilakazi Street never see. We hear from Port Elizabeth, where one architect is using recycled materials to transform his city, and Durban, where a surf school is changing the lives of vulnerable children. We explore the deadly underground world of zama zama gold miners operating illegally under the city of Johannesburg, visit the Afrikaner-only town of Orania and publish an extraordinary photo essay by Magnum nominee Lindokuhle Sobekwa, who documents life in a formerly white-dominated area where his mother once worked as a domestic helper.
Nick Van Mead
The Kenya-born architect and social entrepreneur collects recycled and dscarded materials from informal recyclers and local businesses, and uses it to construct his buildings, which so far include a school, recycling depots, rainwater tanks and even solar panels.
“When you drive through Africa, you see that people make do with what they have. There is ingenuity there,” Kimwelle says.
The glass bottle walls create an illuminated, rather magical atmosphere inside the Silindokuhle creche. Photographs: Franziska Ritter/Gorka Biurrun
His most high-profile project so far is the Silindokuhle creche in Joe Slovo township, north of the city. With the help of the community, Kimwelle designed and built a structure made entirely of recycled materials – including 2,500 wine bottles. The glass bottle walls create an illuminated, rather magical atmosphere inside the building, which was nominated at Cape Town’s Design Indaba as one of 2017’s most beautiful objects in South Africa.
Kimwelle sourced most of the bottles from restaurants in the affluent suburbs of Port Elizabeth, connecting the most privileged members of the city with the most marginalised.
“I re-engineered materials that are already here,” he says, “adding value to the structure, fostering local skills and taking the green agenda to the township.”
Kevin Kimwelle’s work makes use of recycled and discarded materials from industry. Photographs: Samora Chapman
New life for old parts
The biggest urban centre in the Eastern Cape province and the focal point of the Nelson Mandela Bay area, population 1.3 million, Port Elizabeth is the home of South Africa’s car industry and other forms of manufacturing and processing.
“There are great opportunities for reclaiming materials here, because of all the big industry that drives the city,” says Kimwelle. “I build out of wood pallets that are used to transport goods in most industries, scrap from the motor industry yards and glass bottles from my recycling partners.”
Even now, however, long after independence and the transformation of South Africa into a democracy, economic and racial divisions still shape the city.
I became interested in grassroots community mobilisation and an alternative approach to design
The majority of the black population live in townships – informal settlements established during apartheid. These are overcrowded, with poor access to amenities and services. Most homes are built out of corrugated iron and wooden pallets.
Here, making use of recycled and discarded materials from industry is a way of life.
Kimwelle, who was born and raised in Nairobi, first came to Port Elizabeth in 2004 to study architecture at Nelson Mandela University after reading about the newly liberated country in a schoolbook.
“I entered a stupid dare to travel from here back to my home in Kenya using only public transport, and I experienced a major mind shift,” he says.
“It forced me to see the continent and its people. To think about the African experience, what it means to be a black African. It spoke to me. Countries like Malawi and Zambia are so poor. The experience forced me to ask myself – what am I doing for my people?”
After graduating, Kimwelle began work as a commercial architect, but exploring people-centred design for social good. “I became interested in grassroots community mobilisation and an alternative approach to design … I wanted to pursue a way of working that had a higher social and economic impact.”
Khusta Moko with his partner, Patricia. Photograph: Samora Chapman
Evidence of his awakening can be found a short drive away, where the affluent suburbs of Mill Park, with mansions perched on manicured lawns, give way to Walmer township, with rutted roads, haphazard shacks, and dogs, chickens and children wandering freely.
Here, 76-year-old Khululekile “Khusta” Moko, an informal recycler , lives in a tiny shack with his partner, Patricia, and his beloved dogs, Lucy and Lion. Moko survives by scouring the city for recyclable materials: plastic, paper, cardboard and aluminium. He collects them in a small, rickety homemade cart and delivers them every Friday to a recycling depot called the Re-Trade Project.
Moko survives by scouring the city for recyclable materials. Photographs: Samora Chapman
The project works on a bartering system: recyclers are given food, clothing and household products in exchange for the materials they bring in. Not only did Kimwelle design and build the Re-Trade depot out of recycled materials but when he found out Moko’s cart had been knocked over by a truck, he designed a superior replacement, using an old frame, reclaimed wood and secondhand parts donated by Isuzu Motors South Africa. It has a trailer and battery-powered lights “so that he can be seen and respected on the road,” Kimwelle says. “It’s going to improve his efficiency and return his dignity.”
During a visit to Moko’s home, Kimwelle says: “The idea is to find simplified local solutions that any community can adopt and apply.” Everything here is built out of reclaimed materials, including the aeroplane sculptures in Moko’s garden.
“Recycling puts food on my table,” Moko says. “And this bike is going to change my life. I will be able to travel the roads easily, instead of bearing the whole load on my trailer.”
Kimwelle is fine-tuning the design and hopes to distribute them to recyclers all over the city.
Kimwelle designed a new cart for Moko after hearing that the original vehicle had been knocked over by a truck. Photograph: Samora Chapman
‘An opportunity to build bridges’
Future projects include the Penguins Play and Learn Centre in Walmer township, to be built using eco-bricks (two-litre bottles packed with plastic waste until they become solid building blocks), as well as a maker’s space in the heart of the city built from shipping container parts and reclaimed wood, with the assistance of 11 students from Lawrence Technology University in Detroit and the International Design Clinic. It will be Kimwelle’s headquarters.
“From here we can do welding, woodwork, recycling, 3D printing and waste bike repairs,” he says.
The city remains socially and spatially segregated because of apartheid planning, but Kimwelle says he is striving to reimagine spaces and make the best of available resources, with the aim of helping to build a more conscious and unified city.
“I see recycling as an opportunity to build bridges – through the green agenda I am trying to restructure society,” he says. “Something as simple as recycling depots brings people together for a common cause that is non-political, non-religious and non-racial.”
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