UKZN staff member Dr Majahamahle Nene Mthethwa received his PhD in Architecture for his study on collectively accepted makings of Afrocentric sources that would inspire Afrocentric placemaking and architecture in contemporary urban built form as well as promote social equality, justice and a sense of belonging. 

The study focused on the Mthwakazi Nation’s historic capital, Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. 

Inspired by Afrocentrism ideologists such as Molefi Kete Asante, Mthethwa advocates for non-dominance of one community by another as this has created problems across sub-Saharan Africa. ‘The social phenomenon of internal colonialism thrives on cultural authoritarianism that the ruling elites or dominant social groups accentuate through the built environment,’ he explained. 

Special consideration was given to concerns such as African cosmological orientation, culture and identity that underpinned indigenous legal, political, governance and economic institutions. This enabled a narration of precolonial built forms. Various concepts and theories such as placemaking, social identity, symbolic interaction theory, and Afrocentric and existential theory were drawn on to explore the possibility of contemporary architectural design and urbanism that captures the African worldview. 

Given their ability to exhibit identity phenomena, the focus was civic spaces and buildings. Mthethwa examined international precedents such as the Sydney Opera House and its linkage to the Bennelong House in Australia which demonstrate the extent to which Australia has taken on the mantle of European culture and the significance of historical events as a source of inspiration in urban placemaking. Symbolic interactionism evokes indigenous ecological features to encourage the creation of locally responsive built environments. The Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature is presented as a typical example. 

Built forms and parallel historical developments were analysed from the precolonial, to the colonial and postcolonial periods to identify appropriate Afrocentric sources for contemporary placemaking. ‘In Zimbabwe, Shona traditional built forms were anchored by Great Zimbabwe while King Lobengula’s historical settlement of koBulawayo reflects amaNdebele architectural developments that date back to KwaZulu-Natal. Both kinds of traditional settlements provide indicators to Afrocentric sources for envisaged strategies in placemaking and architecture in African cities,’ said Mthethwa.

He added, ‘To the African mind, circularity and movement capture what the cosmos represents. Movement is rhythmic, regular and seasonal; hence the criticality of organic and rhythmic motion in his/her art and architecture.’ 

Mthethwa developed a Collective Centred Afrocentric Placemaking (CCAP) model to innovatively conceptualise Afrocentric architectural urbanism in contemporary African cities that exude authenticity in existential genius loci. He hopes that study of these Afrocentric sources would motivate architects to design contemporary local built environments that respond to African value systems. 

Words: Melissa Mungroo 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal