Teaching Design in a Post-rainbow Nation: A South African Reflection on the Limits and Opportunities of Design Praxis

My first solo book chapter has been published. This was my first attempt at reflecting on my experience as both a teacher as well as a practitioner in Johannesburg and attempting to frame this through theory as both research and resource for others working in similar conditions.


There has been an intense discourse on the relationship between inter-stakeholder university engagements, or service learning, and the broader society that South African universities claim to serve over the past decade in both local and international academia. The inherent problem within these power structures, the challenges to achieving mutually beneficial project outcomes and the growing concern of vulnerable, unheard institutional and individual voices are critical factors. The recognition of these dynamics within the emerging field of design research and design-led teaching is less nuanced in these debates. Training institutions of architecture have a rich history of undertaking service-learning initiatives to create value and learning for both the students and the stakeholders of such projects. Still, in South Africa, they are only now seen through a post-rainbow nation lens. The FeesMustFall movement is primarily driving this change. Larger institutions are recognising previously marginalised voices that now find traction in learning and practice across South Africa. This chapter reflects the author’s experience with emergent views and concerns as a researcher, lecturer and spatial design practitioner in Johannesburg. This section centres on learning regarding city-making in Southern Africa, and it presents two case studies followed by a discussion of growth opportunities.

Bennett, J. (2021). Teaching Design in a Post-Rainbow Nation A South African Reflection on the Limits and Opportunities of Design Praxis. In F. Giuseppe, A. Fisher, & L. Moretto (Eds.), African Cities Through Local Eyes. Experiments in Place-Based Planning and Design (1st ed., pp. 151–172). Springer: The Urban Book Series. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-84906-1_8

Unfinished Symphonies: Transformational Decolonial Urbanism

As part of my early re-emergence into the sector of research and practice, I was invited to share my work with UCL’s Urban Lab+ with the University of the Witwatersrand:

In July, two online roundtables will bring together staff and students from Witswatersrand University and UCL to share and discuss work-in-progress on transformational decolonial urbanism. Contributions will report on a variety of research, teaching and other initiatives for change in our institutions. 

Speakers include: Jhono Bennett, Nnamdi Elleh, Hayley Gewer, Neil Klug, Nkosilenhle Mavuso, Clare Melhuish, Matimba Ngobeni, Kamna Patel, Makena Phaledi, David Roberts, Nathaniel Télémaque and Tsepang Leuta.

These discussions will lead into a public lecture by Professor Achille Mbembe (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research) with responses by Dr Tsepang Leuta (Wits) and Dr Adam Elliott-Cooper (Queen Mary, University of London and Visiting Research Fellow, UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre, UCL); and a PhD workshop for UCL and Wits students. 

Unfinished Symphonies is organised by Ben Campkin, Solam Mkhabela, Naigwe Kalema and Jennifer van den Bussche with support from the UCL-Wits Strategic Partnership fund.

Here I shared my early work on a project titled ‘ The Spirit of the Order’, where I have been critically reflecting on the role and nature of socio-technical spatial design practice from a deeply positional and iterative series of creative exercises that is currently guiding my doctoral studies.

The recordings of all the presentations are available here:

UCL Doctoral Position: TACK Network

After more than 2 years of stepping out of my role at 1to1, my teaching work at the University of Johannesburg as well as my practice work in South Africa I will be beginning a PhD position at the University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture. This position is supported by the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions EU funding through the TACK/ Communities of Tacit Knowledge Network and will see me engaging with a dynamic and committed network of scholars:

‘TACK / Communities of Tacit Knowledge: Architecture and its Ways of Knowing’ is a newly funded Innovative Training Network, as part of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions within the European Framework Program Horizon 2020. It trains young researchers in understanding the specific knowledge that architects use when designing buildings and cities. TACK gathers ten major academic institutions, three leading cultural architectural institutions as well as nine distinguished architecture design offices. Collaboratively these partners offer an innovative PhD training program on the nature of tacit knowledge in architecture, resulting in ten parallel PhD projects.

The research program consists of ten PhD projects, which are pursued by ten PhD candidates, hosted by ten academic partners. While the individual PhD projects constitute independent doctoral projects in their own right, nine of these can (in terms of content) be grouped in three clusters:

  1. Approaching Tacit Knowledge: These PhD projects approach tacit knowledge from historical and theoretical perspectives
  2. Probing Tacit Knowledge: These PhD projects examine tacit knowledge through concrete cases
  3. Situating Tacit Knowledge: These PhD projects situate tacit knowledge in architecture by developing innovative concepts and methods

I have been placed in the Situating Tacit Knowledge Cluster under Dr. Peg Rawes under the Values Project.

” The three PhD candidates working on this research cluster will develop new theoretical concepts and new heuristic approaches to examine how tacit knowledge is understood in architectural practice and how it can be made explicit and communicated. They will investigate how value-systems that are inherent to specific cultural contexts (for instance concerning the public role of the architect) affect the perception and reception of tacit knowledge in architecture, and examine how self-reflexivity can sharpen the understanding of the functioning of tacit knowledge.”

The 3 year programme is jam packed with conferences, symposia and meetings and actively encourages and support mobility across the network, including a practical secondment as well as secondment to cultural institute in the network.

It has been a long journey to reach this point, and I am grateful to the individuals and institutes who supported me in this difficult transition period as well as those (who have been personally acknowledged these last months) who played such an important role in shaping my research and practice through the opportunities offered. Thank you.

Inclusive Cities: Scaling Up Participation in Urban Planning

Through 1to1 I have been very fortuante to be a part of this global network project. The Initaitve was held over 3 years and supported research, learning and engagements across South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Manchester, United Kingdom.

See: https://www.gdi.manchester.ac.uk/research/groups/global-urban-futures/scaling-up-participation-in-urban-planning/ for all details. Summary below:


In recent decades the world has experienced unprecedented urban growth. According to the United Nations 4 billion people, or 54% of the world’s population, lived in towns and cities in 2015. That number is expected to increase to 5 billion by 2030.

Urban growth has outpaced the ability of many governments to build infrastructure and, in many towns and cities in the global South, provision for housing is inadequate. Consequently one in three urban dwellers live in informal settlements. Issues of insecure tenure, poor access to basic services, and insecure livelihoods are all prevalent. Although local government may have the desire to improve the situation they are, in many cases, under-capitalised and under-capacitated. Existing planning legislation and practices remain incapable of resolving such issues therefore local residents try and resolve these themselves. Their efforts are, however, fragmented and localised.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the resulting Sustainable Development Goals vow to end poverty, to achieve gender equality and ensure liveable cities. Multi-disciplinary approaches that build on local action and create strong partnerships are needed in order to advance initiatives and to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all and to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

This commitment to ‘leave no-one behind’ highlights the importance and strengthens the significance of citizen involvement in urban development. Academics seek to contribute to new solutions and approaches to problems faced by the residents in informal settlements. Universities have an important role in generating, analysing and monitoring data that can be used by policy makers. However this should be done in collaboration with local government, local residents and organisations. Citizen involvement and public participation in policy-making and programming should be nurtured and encouraged.

Aims and objectives:

The network aims to develop the knowledge required to move from participatory community-led neighbourhood planning to city-scale planning processes. The aims and objectives of the project are critical to achieving inclusive urban futures, these include:

-Develop frameworks that build on effective approaches of community-led planning for informal settlement, upgrading at the neighbourhood level, and then scaling these to the city level.
-Locate these frameworks within traditions of alternative planning including participatory co-productive planning, participatory planning and action planning thus strengthening the critical mass of people-centred approaches supporting inclusive urban development. This component will elaborate why grassroots organisations make a substantive contribution to inclusive urban development and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.
-Develop a framework that enables the integration of community understandings and innovations with academic and professional knowledge.
-Achieving these objectives requires a combined effort from academics and civil society agencies. While academic researchers encourage civil society agencies to engage meaningfully and substantively, it is difficult to achieve this within academic research programmes. By creating a formal network the opportunity for engagement is created, to deliver on a set of shared objectives and to achieve the strengthening of relations between individuals and agencies.

The network:

Professor Diana Mitlin, Managing Director of the Global Development Institute at The University of Manchester, is the project lead.
Dr Philipp Horn, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester’s School of Education, Environment and Development and Postdoctoral Research Associate at The Open University, provides research support to the project.
The network is a co-productive knowledge partnership between civil society action research agencies and academic departments. The project combines professionals and academics with a commitment to substantive change and experience at local level.

This network is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

SDI-affiliated civil society alliances of organised groups of low-income residents are working in partnership with academic institutions. Their participatory efforts at neighbourhoods have been presented as best-practice examples in urban poverty reduction. These alliances are:

Dialogue on Shelter Trust, Zimbabwe
Slum Dwellers International Alliance, Kenya
The network comprises committed partners that have been directly involved in previous participatory planning processes, these include:

The University of Manchester (UK)
The Faculty of Art Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg (South Africa)
CURI at The University of Nairobi
Faculty of the Built Environment at the National University of Science and Technology (Zimbabwe)
Design Society Development DESIS Lab based at Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA), The University of Johannesburg
1to1 – Agency of Engagement

All of these departments have a track record on urban development planning. The selected individuals within these departments have established connections with low-income communities, planners and urban professionals within their respective countries as well as sub-Saharan Africa. They have previously conducted practice relevant research around topics such as informal settlement upgrading, service provisioning and participatory community planning.

See: https://www.gdi.manchester.ac.uk/research/groups/global-urban-futures/scaling-up-participation-in-urban-planning/ for all details.

Designing With People – CEPT

In late 2018, Dr. Jigna Desai of CEPT University offered me an opportunity to teach her semester course at the Faculty of Architecture in Ahmedabad. This came about as a spin off of the 3 year professional mobility hosted by Sheffield University, the University of Johannesburg and Nanjing University.

Jigna had been running a design module each year in Mandvi Ni Pol within the old city of Ahmedabad and allowed me to bring my own take  ‘Designing with People’.

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The opportunity allowed me to structure a module that was critical, reflective, speculative and grounded in both participatory research as well as design methods.

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I worked closely with Harshil Parekh, the studio assistant, and we designed the course (with the Mandvi Ni Pol leadership) to be as supportive and mutually beneficial as possible. The limits of such work was crucial to recognize and was done early on in the process. (see below)

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The course actively challenged the idea of participatory work as ‘consensus building’ and sought to build a platform for dialogue of dreaming and discussion with residents. The program equipped students with deep exposure to field work, critical self-reflection techniques and discussions on demographic positionality in such work.

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We used action learning, visual thinking and UserX methods of working between ourselves and the resident User Groups we engaged with. DWP_Studio Book13DWP_Studio Book14DWP_Studio Book15DWP_Studio Book16

We co-designed a series of Studio Tools and used them across the semester. This was critical in building a way of working while bridging the difficult gap of participatory research into participatory design(see below). DWP_Studio Book17DWP_Studio Book18DWP_Studio Book19DWP_Studio Book20

The students responded amazingly and put together a comprehensive and challenging body of work that was well received by critics and the residents.

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A full Gujarati ‘hand over’ booklet titled Dreaming with Mandvi Ni Pol was put together and given to the leadership in our final engagement with the Pol. The students additionally met with their individual usergroups and underwent a smaller level ‘handover’ DWP_Studio Book35DWP_Studio Book36

Dr Jigna Desai is still working in the Pol and continues this work (see the orange thread) within her larger offering to the old City of Ahmedabad.

1to1 – A Reflective Hand-Over

After 8 years of being the leader of 1to1 – Agency of Engagement, I have stepped aside as the executive director of the Non-Profit we started in 2010 and begun a parallel (and supportive) journey to reflect and ground what I’ve experienced and learnt over the years into a PhD.

A Reflective Engagement

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As a means of handing over, reflecting and trying to make sense of the last 8 years we have put together a reflective document that we hope will capture and share the experience for other practitioners, our supporters and the people who have joined us so far. (Link here: https://issuu.com/1to1_enyekwenye/docs/1to1_a_reflective_engagement_snglep)

The report is intended to offer a critical take on what we as 1to1 have done since we started, while celebrating the small wins, recognising the various  people who have made this possible and charting a new path towards a more resilient and effective organisation.

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The report additionally serves as a record of our work and where we began. We tried to frame 1to1 in this moment, as we prepare to shift and change under new leadership and a more focussed view on the future.

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We archived and recorded all our projects, our partners and offered a retrospective view on the ‘impact’ that we felt held merit and should be re-examined in 1to1 2.0.

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Finally we looked hard at the pitfalls and successes of the organisation and asked the hard questions within ourselves – should we keep the entity alive?

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This document bears record of every person who has made an active contribution to 1to1 and hopefully sets down the first step towards a better, more resilient organisation.

I wish my colleagues much luck in their new roles and I will always be close by to support and work within my new capacity as Just Urbanism Initiative Lead.

Center for Policy Research – Delhi: Presentation & Workshop

During my time teaching at CEPT, I was offered by a colleague who was working on India/South African urbanist relationships (Eesha Kundurito) to share my initial doctoral work process with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi.

“The Centre for Policy Research (CPR) has been one of India’s leading public policy think tanks since 1973. The Centre is a non-profit, non-partisan independent institution dedicated to conducting research that contributes to the production of high quality scholarship, better policies, and a more robust public discourse about the structures and processes that shape life in India.”

I was invited to share my work at the  Centre de Sciences Humaines, an introduction to my own initial questions for my doctoral research:

CPR-CSH Workshop on ‘A Post-Post Apartheid Urban Praxis’

Additionally, I took part in a very engaging podcast interview with Mukta Naik for the Tacit Knowledge Urban Research Network (TURN):

“TURN collaboratively conducts research on urban informal processes and the tacit knowledge integral in them from multiple vantage points in the relational geographies of settlement, housing, and economies, with the eventual goal of incorporating that understanding into knowledge systems that support policy-making.”

On Design-led Practice: A Conversation with Jhono Bennett

On Design-led Practice: A Conversation with Jhono Bennet

Through Local Eyes: Key Note Presentation

My submission, Design Praxis in a post-Rainbow Nation City: a reflection on the limits & opportunities of spatial design led service learning in South African cities, to the ‘Through Local Eyes: Place-based approaches to emerging architectural, urban design and planning challenges in Africa and the Global South Conference’ was selected as the ‘Best Emerging Scholar’ Paper.


I was invited to present the paper at the International Conference in Addis Ababa as a Keynote speaker and was met with a rich and constructively critical response from the audience and panel.


Over the last few decades the discourse on the relationship between inter-stakeholder university engagements, or Service Learning, and the broader society that South African universities claims to serve has been deeply discussed by academia; the inherent problematics within the power structures, the challenges of achieving mutually beneficial project outcomes and the growing concern of vulnerable voices being overshadowed by institutions and individuals are key factors identified in this arena of critique.

Less nuanced in these debates remains a recognition of these dynamics within the emerging field of Design Research and Design-Led Research that have met a steadily commercialisation of ‘design’ in global markets. This is seen in the rise of acclaim by the commercial market for groups such as IDEO and Stanford who remain paragons of the ‘socially-driven’ or ‘economical’ potential of design approaches to address complex societal challenges.

Regarding design-led Service Learning, schools and institutions of Architecture and Design across the globe have a rich history of undertaking service learning design and/or build projects as a means of creating value and learning for both students and the stakeholders of such projects. These projects, too, have seen the critique of the above-mentioned academic discourse – but in South Africa are just starting to be unpacked through a ‘post-rainbow nation’ lens, as previously marginalised voices are starting to be recognised and find traction in learning and practices spaces across South Africa.

This paper will reflect on the author’s experience with emergent voices and reflexive concerns as a researcher, lecturer and spatial design practitioner in Johannesburg. The paper will set the context for this type of learning regarding city-making in Southern Africa and outline two case studies undertaken by the author and his collaborators. The reflection will conclude by a framing of the identified limits inherent in the promise of design as well as a speculation on the opportunities for growth and reflection for the author and those in similar positions of praxis.

The framing of the identified limits and opportunities has been used as a means of tempering critique with a constructive and proactive reflective framing of the issues – a praxis that is currently being developed by the author as a means of working responsibly through the intersectional complexity of post-rainbow nation South Africa.

Un-learning ‘community’: Paper Presentation at CSIR

I recently presented a short reflexive paper as a means to capture the learning from working with Slovo Park Development Forum over the past 8 years. The paper was presented at the CSIR’s Out-of-the-Box Conference in Pretoria. 

The paper was intended to give academic reference for this type of work and address key issues in the wording and practice we use in spatial re-development in South Africa – particularly the word ‘community.

Un-learning ‘community’: reflections on socio-technical spatial design support with Slovo Park


The South African city we experience today did not simply manifest in a vacuum outside of the social injustice of the last 400+ years of colonial and Apartheid ‘development’. The four-hour commute that the average Johannesburg city user experiences, the sense of fractured locality across the metropolitans of Durban and Pretoria and the intact socio-economic segregation of townships to suburbs seen in Cape Town are all the tangible legacies of the Apartheid city design that we complicity accept as our South African city on a daily basis.

The knee-jerk reaction by built environment practitioners to this observation is typically a technocratic response to suggest an addition of infrastructure and implementation and not a reform of the practice of city-making. The fact remains that among the large-scale projects our democratic government has implemented we sit with infrastructure deficits larger today than 1994.

The practice of ‘making city’ in South Africa requires some form of radical change, one that calls on all city makers to re-conceptualise how we see, make and manage our spaces. While technical skills and competencies are vital to this approach, the immediate challenge for built environment practitioners can be seen in the lack of skills or willingness of individuals and institutions to engage with the socio-political complexity of our cities. The misnomer that we are dealing with a homogenous technical challenge for a homogenous social demographic of people (or the ‘community’) that can be solved through a ‘better house/shack/dwelling’, a more efficient toilet system or solar panel array, is damaging and criminally myopic in its lack of imagination, creativity or recognition of the situation.

The paper offers a structured reflection on an eight-year case study conducted by the author and his colleagues. The argument of the paper is centered around a critique on the often-misused terms of ‘informality’, community’, ‘participation’ and ‘development’ in the built environment sector of spatial development. The case study unpacks the approach and methods used within the Socio-Technical Spatial Design practice of ‘Neighbourhood Making’ and offers a reflection on critical skills and lessons gathered from the experience. The intent of this reflexive study is to offer a working reference for private-sector practitioners, government officials and grassroots practitioners who are looking to engage informal neighbourhood upgrading in South Africa.

Design as Utility: At the Intersection of Technical & Social: Yale University

*Cover Image: The presentation of Orli Setton & Olwethu Jack on Socially Engaged Design Work

*Reposted from 1to1 – Agency of Engagement: http://1to1.org.za/portfolio-item/yale-critical-action-workshop/

1to1 alongside Orli Setton, Olwethu Jack, Simnikiwe Xanga and Melilizwe Gqobo provided a 2 day facilitated workshop experience for a visiting group from Yale’s School of Management under Jessica Helfland’s Design as Utility: Luxury, Waste and Sustainability Practicum. The workshop sought to make a critical space for local citizen experts to co-produce a set of values and ways of working with visiting international groups that would not be exploitative to the locals or reductive in it’s inquiry.

The workshop produced a set of thinking tools on top of the facilitated learning that took place.


Killarney Socio-Spatial Mapping

*Reposted from 1to1 – Agency of Engagement: http://1to1.org.za/portfolio-item/killarney-neighbourhood-mapping/

 1to1 alongside our collaborating partner, Urbanists for Equity, were commissioned to develop a body of work that both unpacked the socio-spatial nature of Killarney, but also supported the social cohesion of the various groups that make up the diverse neighborhood through small scale research interventions.

The team worked together with University of Johannesburg students to facilitate and generate the full package of work over the 7 week period.

GSA Unit 14: Rogue Economies

Unit 14 at the Graduate School of Architecture is headed up by Thiresh Govender of Urban Works. I have worked with Thiresh on this over a two year period of trials and tribulations and am proud to say that 2017 produced something highly innovative and unique to how we practice urban and architecture research in Johannesburg.

The Unit set out to uncover the Rogue Economies of Johannesburg and worked with a dedicated and hard working group of students in search these rogue forces that shape our City. We were joined by Sarah De Villiers of Counter Space and Valentina Mamente  and spent a difficult but ulmitately rewarding year developing a highly attuned and unique style of inquiry and representation with the students.

Easy Come, Easy Go: Cross-Border Hypertrade by @the_real_kennie_dee #rogueeconomy #architecturestudent #architecture #mapping #southafrica #zimbabwe #beitbridge @act.of.mapping A post shared by GSA Unit 14 (@gsa_unit14) on Sep 1, 2017 at 7:03am PDT

A post shared by GSA Unit 14 (@gsa_unit14) on Sep 18, 2017 at 11:11am PDT

Landscapes for Trust by Binayka Rama #gsaunit14 #rogueeconomy #produce #fordsburg #johannesburg #mapping #axonometric #architecture #architectureilike #imadethis #drawing #johannesburg @thebeez_ A post shared by GSA Unit 14 (@gsa_unit14) on Sep 18, 2017 at 11:11am PDT


LINK IN BIO: M2 from Unit 14, Israel Ogundare presents his project ‘The Exchange Consulate’ on the African Architecture Awards. Please take a look and vote! @ogundareisrael @happeningatthegsa @africanarchitectureaward @act.of.mapping #rogueeconomy #africanarchitectureawards A post shared by GSA Unit 14 (@gsa_unit14) on Jul 19, 2017 at 2:07pm PDT


The unit drew much inspiration from many local and international researchers such as the work of Eyel Weitzman’s Forensic Architecture and produced a body of work that can be seen here: