Q&A with Anita Venter, from Start Living Green grassroots development in Bloemfontein

In honour of women’s day we asked Anita Venter a few questions about her grassroots development initiative using sustainable building methods in Bloemfontein. We have great admiration for the shack replacement initiative and what she has done to empower her change agents to become more self-sufficient and build community in her local context. We first got to know of the work Anita does when she invited Peter to participate in the Lebone Arts and cultural centre, a collaborative project with Los Tecnicos in 2014. We were also honoured to host her and six of her change agents on one of our natural building courses in 2015.

How did you first get involved in natural/sustainable building? Tell us about the journey.

Since the early 2000s I have done many research studies on housing from socio-economic and policy perspectives. To cut corners, I merged my work on housing with my studies. In 2006, I attended a natural building course at the University of the Free State that was hosted by natural builder expert Etienne Bruwer. This sparked an interest from a creative side of using earth to sculpt rather than natural building itself. The science behind the soil and all the theory at the workshop totally intimidated me, and I never thought I will turn out a builder myself. My second experience was volunteering with a natural builder architect in Prince Albert. His methods totally differed from my first experience. The versatility and ease of use of material became more apparent, but were still daunting for me to attempt on my own. Though I loved the training and volunteering, I perceived natural building as something that was hi-jacked by wealthy hippies and trendy people paying a fortune to go green.

It was only in 2010 that my passion for natural building methods gained momentum. Working with housing issues at the time, I became increasingly uneasy by the regulatory environment and lack of constructive ways to address housing and societal problems in general. While working on a project in the Northern Cape, I took a random dirt road to nowhere and ended up in a place called Vanwyksvlei.

I stumbled upon an unknown world which felt like something out of a sci-fi movie in outer space. One part of the township had so many gorgeous natural houses and I started to speak to the inhabitants who were mostly in their 70s, 80s or 90s. I wasn’t able to trace the origin of the houses, because the elders grew up in the houses and they have inherited it from their parents or grandparents, who also grew up in the houses. Thus, the houses were all more than a century old and super strong. Being summer time, it was uncomfortably hot in the Northern Cape, but the houses I entered were cool, comfortably refreshing and such a pleasant environment to be in. Outside the houses were cob pits filled with soil and manure, and for the elderly their lifestyles since birth involved the maintenance of the house on the rare occasion of too much rain damage. Unfortunately, most of the elders’ children regarded the houses as old school, and were living on the other side of town in shacks, waiting for government houses. From 2010 onwards, after my visit to Vanwyksvlei, my vision for change evolved to became a matter of moral urgency – what we need is a mind shift and to break the cycle of dependency on government. The housing solutions are on our doorsteps, but people disregard self-sufficient indigenous lifestyles.

In order to be taken more seriously and to address policy issues, I knew I had to upskill myself in innovative natural building methods and secondly start liaising with key role players in my own municipality and Free State Province. Lastly, the most difficult part, to influence the regulatory environment I saw the importance to not only complete my ‘Painful head Disease’ (also known as PhD), but change the whole direction my PhD was planned to go. Thus, I put my studies on hold, and in 2013, and I attended a self-help building internship in Guatemala that were jointly hosted by the Earthship Biotecture Academy and the local organisation Long Way Home. Thereafter, followed an 18 month timeframe where I did building experiments with different appropriate technologies in my front and backyard, and in the township of Freedom Square in the Mangaung Metro Municipality.

You are the co-founder of Qala Phelang Tala – Start Living Green an organisation that does grassroots development in Bloemfontein. Can you tell us more about the projects that the organisation has been involved in?

My journey throughout the years writing about housing and socio-economic problems led to the creation of an activist and socio-ecological implementation platform called Start Living Green (SLG) in 2012. In 2014, I teamed up with an activist Urban and Regional Planning student, Tjaart van der Walt, to start a Non-Profit Company (NPC) Qala Phelang Tala trading as Start Living Green. There is so many layers of SLG, which range from simplistic perceptions that we provide skills training, to conceptual levels, where we reach out to society to start questioning the current status quo of the messed up world we are living in today.

SLG uses evolving indigenous and natural building implementation methods to engage with critical questions on the role the built environment can and should play as a catalyst for social and ecological change. The ecological focus of SLG is definitely shaped by my experiences with natural building and aspirations to acquire skills myself to create self-sufficient lifestyles, though, the heartbeat of SLG is embedded in a socio-cultural dimension. We provide mentorship for strong-willed individuals, called ‘change agents’, to challenge the capitalist driven worldviews we, and the marginilised communities many of the change agents reside in, are brainwashed with everyday. Thus, all our projects are about the people, changing mindsets and creating socio-ecological change in the long-term.

Lebone Village arts and cultural centre in collaboration with Natural Building Collective and Los Tecnicos (Mangaung Metro Municipality, 2014-2016)

Currently most of our projects are done in collaboration with the University of the Free State. The NPC provides a safe haven for our ‘change agents’ to initiate and lead projects on their own, while they build up confidence to run their own social entrepreneurial companies. The ‘change agents’ can use the SLG experience then as ‘proof of concept’, learning by doing a portfolio once they embark on their own independent journeys.

Skateboard park at the PT Sanders school in Trompsburg (Xhariep District Municipality) with change agent Natascha Meisler

Our physical project products range from building arts and cultural centres, replacing shacks with SLG innovations, to recreational structures like benches, play areas and even a skateboard park in township schools. We are also reviving cultural practices of ideas related to outside African kitchens by buildig cob ovens and rocket stoves. We recently started to upskill ourselves in eco-brick modular furniture and permaculture practices.

Roodewal cultural village- Earmarked to become the Start Living Green regenerative training academy (2016 onwards) in collaboration with the change agent Mary Mofama, the University of the Free State and the Mangaung Metro Municipality

You work for the Centre for Development support at the University of the Free State – why did you initiate QPT?

I started the Start Living Green concept to be more accessible to grassroots communities. A concept that can be associated with positive change without being an entity belonging to any institution.

To be honest, it is really difficult to go into any community and build trusting relations. Introducing myself as a researcher from a university was creating more obstacles than helping my community development cause. Perceptions about the university are negative at the grassroots. First of all, university education is unattainable for 99% of the grassroots communities in the marginalised areas I work in. Everyone knows a cousin or brother or someone who could not complete their education due to financial reasons. Thus, before I even had a chance to start engaging with people, I became the embodied entity of privilege, perceived to contribute to the reason why someone they knew couldn’t continue their education.

Secondly, a lot of negativity exist towards universities and other research institutions who enter communities to mine data and then they disappear forever. Lastly, I prefer to be an individual person with crazy ideas on how to change the world. Armed with a concept ‘Start Living Green’ that no-one owns and interprets differently, there is no expectation of me to know it all, and as long as we just start somewhere, change already begins. Once communities get to know me, they cannot care less from where I am from or who I work for, because I am just Anita, the township girl with the ORPHEUS FS number plate.

What is your approach to development work?

We need innovative solutions that envision a world beyond sustainability that focuses on regenerative livelihoods that are resilient to climate change. A regenerative approach describes processes that renew, restore, and revitalize communities. Regenerative systems boldly aims to better the ecological world than what we have created by creating positive united living heritages for ourselves and our future generations.

PT Sanders, Trompsburg outside kitchen with cob oven and rocket stove

You just completed a PhD. What is it about and what do you feel academic research has to contribute to a field like natural/sustainable building? 

In jargon, I traced the origin of ideological and theoretical underpinnings of housing policies in developing countries. In layman terms, after tracing the historical ideological origin of the policies, I totally understand why there are so many contradictory schizophrenic elements embedded in the South African housing policies.  My thesis aims to encourage dialogues about the value of theory, research and implementation.

My personal viewpoint is that research and recommendations are not enough in the scholarly world. In my ideal world, the researcher and client, who commissions the research, have the social responsibility to ensure whatever recommendations are agreed on are implemented. Therefore, the case studies show how theoretical concepts and recommendations on housing policy can be applied in implementation projects at grassroots level. Hopefully the thesis provides a platform conducive to the evolvement of housing policies to be more socially, ecological and culturally responsive than prior to the completion of my studies.  The thesis highlights the relevance of evolving indigenous cultural practices in spawning housing policy discourses for the future.

What do you think that natural/sustainable building skills contribute to a developmental setting?

A lot! My implementation projects take a firm stand that the current overregulated Westernised building codes are an infringement of the Constitution and human rights. Current building codes are biased to devalue centuries of indigenous and natural building knowledge systems and hampers the potential innovative building have in advancing pro-poor community development futures.

Caleb Motshabi Shack replacement project (2015 ongoing) with change agents Mokoena and Ellen Maphalane (Mangaung Metro Municipality).

Building technologies that evolved from indigenous housing practices can be a community development tool to reach out to disadvantaged and marginalised communities. By specifically embracing principles of informality, both self-help building technologies and skills transfer have significant contributions to make with regard to addressing housing shortages in the country in geographical locations like the Free State Province and other rural areas.

What is your most memorable project and why?

Definitely the Freedom Square shack replacement project. This was my first attempt to move into unfamiliar township spaces and opened a whole new worldview for me on how theory can stretch beyond concepts. In Freedom Square I gained humble respect for the daily struggle of those who are deemed poor based on economic measurements.  However, more often than not, the labelled ‘poor’ are socially rich and filled with vibrant energy unmatched in my own suburban world I return to every night. Freedom Square also represents a full circle of implementation evolvement, from building the house to breaking down the completed house and distributing material amongst the very same people who gained skills at the site over a three year timeframe. The courage of the individuals to engage with me, gives me strength to keep on pursuing a shared vision of transforming informal settlements into evolving indigenous neighbourhoods of choice instead of only being living spaces of last resort.

What are some of the challenges you have faced?

Too many to mention, and it is not always worth it to dwell on all the challenges. But proximity to projects and logistics are probably the biggest challenge at the moment. I need a damn rugged bakkie or two to get to places and transport material from one place to the next. Off course financially things are challenging, a bit of extra money to help with petrol and provide basic subsistence for the trainees and volunteers on site will go a long way to make life easier. Providing basic tools for new change agents to start projects is also a nightmare.

What do you enjoy about natural/sustainable building?

The creativity and unknown. I love to move into new spaces and do a bit of scouting at the landfill, our ‘Start Living Green’ mall. Whatever we find determines the building design.

Bench and ecobrick modular furniture with change agent organisation Boitekong Productive Workshop (2015 ongoing, Mangaung Metro Municipality)

I love building on the spur of the moment and not being an architect is really liberating! I have no council to register with and no architectural license I can lose based on my material use. But more importantly, is the community development aspects that have me hooked. I experience personal growth in engaging with communities. By observing the uniqueness of each change agent and how to mobilise local and global communities to participate in creating housing futures for themselves keeps my mind alive. The ideas in my head are always brewing on which challenge to take on next. I want to ease the way for the change agents who are leading the pathways to regenerative futures and united heritages for our country.

What are your thoughts on the natural/sustainable building scene of South Africa?

Well, my foot is firmly rooted in the informal self-help sector of the country until the building codes change. In addition, I yet have to experience success by engaging with formal sector projects. I simply do not know, or want to try anymore, on ways to bridge the divide of the informal sector that is process/socially driven versus the formal sector where success is measured against products, timelines and the economy.

Building environmentally friendly self-help sustainable structures based on the SLG concept, is a constructive attempt to challenge the formal sector and post-apartheid building codes that still exclude evolving indigenous building methods in the regulatory environment 23 years after the end of apartheid.

If you would like to donate materials to the shack replacement initiative please contact Anita Venter at Start Living Green. 

Follow Anita and her change agents’ work one the Start Living Green website and Facebook page. Photos supplied by Anita Venter

Check out some of our other posts about the Lebone arts and cultural village:

https://www.naturalbuildingcollective.com

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