African Leadership and Sexy Townships: A Mokena Makeka Interview

A young global leader at the World Economic Forum and an advocate for how cities in the Southern hemisphere operate, Mokena Makeka, Director of Makeka Design Lab has even had the pleasure to serve on the Mayor’s Water Resilience Committee for the past two and a half years. All of this in addition to the multi-award winning architect’s well known portfolio of projects including Cape Town’s Convention Centre and Railway Station, amongst other seminal buildings both locally and internationally.

We had the privilege to discuss both African and architectural leadership and what it means for the new generation of upcoming professionals and politicians. Mokena shares his views on industry creativity, technocrats and the prominence of architecture in the Mother City.

Let’s dive in!

Architects As Leaders

It's very difficult for architects to operate in the way that we've been trained. It's highly generalist but at the same time specialised training, so we have the ability to interface with civil engineers, landscape architects, structural engineers. We are the ‘arch generalist’, which is what ‘architect’ means, being the ‘arch technician’. We have a sense of all of the trades and we're the only ones who can bring it all together because architects have to know enough about every part to manage the whole.

So in that context, if there’s a world that understands the role of the architect, it makes it easier to be a leader. In a context where this has been dis-aggregated, what you find is that the architect might’ve been trained to do things but often finds a hostile professional environment or a hostile legislative environment. Whether it’s urban planners or city officials, somehow they always think that architects are trying to make white elephants, so they automatically come into the conversations with suspicion.

“We've had decades of divisive architecture - so when you say that it can unify people, people think you’re a dreamer. They think it's expensive and you should rather invest in housing.”

I've become very understanding of the inability of architecture here to be as groundbreaking as it might be in Paris or elsewhere. It's not just about capital, it's about societies being understanding of what good architecture can do.

Timeless Values, Timeless Ethics

The client comes and goes. Even if the contract is done, the building is still there. So in essence, your client is actually society. Your client is bigger than any individual. Although capital is flowing through a particular client, the reality is that the real estate you're trying to create, the Legacy, is something bigger.

So in terms of those values of leadership, I try to encourage my staff to of course listen to the temporal needs of the client.

Leadership is about making them feel strong about values and that these values outlive a mayor or a minister or a president. Your values and your ethics have to be timeless. This does of course mean that sometimes we get into uncomfortable spaces with clients because they're not used to that.

Sexy Townships & South African Architecture

For a long time there was a really strange debate about what is architecture in Africa - like if it's in the township it can't be sexy, all of these weird, weird limiting ideas about creativity. But I can say that in the last 15 years, partly because of social media, partly because of the growing maturity of the design fraternity (and I'm also including fashion and music) there's been this explosion of Afrocentric confidence which was absent even up until 2010 to be honest.

“20 years ago there was a talent deficit, but not anymore.”

The problems that you're seeing are pertaining more to the private realm, where there’s private capital and the state hasn't really caught up. We haven't really made public architecture that is as amazing. Which is a challenge, but there is enough evidence out there that we do have some amazing designers here.

I have confidence in that and I think when the country believes in their architects more than the wealthy sector, we can start asking the good questions like ‘Why are our bus shelters not being designed by architects’? For instance, in Norway, they have an architecture company (Snohetta) who designed their currency. Imagine how great that could work here!

Rise Of The Technocrats

African Leadership in the fifties and sixties was largely a liberation mindset and South Africa was a bit behind the curve. Leadership was very much political and about national identity.

Then there is this generation, which I fall under, which had the opportunity to get a degree which puts us in a different position. We can provide leadership beyond political studies. You can be a leader in any field if you apply the leadership mindset.

“African Leadership to me is not the narrative of being into politics, it's about shaping the public conversation about Africa.”

Leadership is about being a leader in your own sphere of competence but also being consciously African - which isn't a limiting term - and hopefully that notion will impact the political space.

Most politicians are embedded in their party and that's often an ideological stand which is based on either a liberation or a conservative mentality. The moment you start getting musicians, scientists, engineers or painters running for office and those technocratic skills become part of government, then it will be much more effective.

Leading The Built Environment

People try to reduce complexity by being simple about things and they end up making mistakes.

Funny enough, we’re a country that embraces complexities because we have 12 different languages, the complexities of tribalism, etc. We have managed to create South Africa out of that complexity. I find it ironic that we've been unable to deal with complexity at the level of how we should be running our cities and we've dis-aggregated things and have created more problems.

“We need to value ideas more than identity.”

Vision and leadership are very rare things. You don't need 100 Mandela’s to change a country. You only need one or two, but you need them to involve everybody. We need to recognise that our complexities require good leaders who can bring in these different voices. In the absence of that, we have poor leaders who care about their own silos and lose the bigger picture.

Long Live Cape Town’s Quirk

As a city we do have quirk. If you look at the gin or chocolate scene that has popped up - there are so many signifiers that accommodate Cape Town’s quirkiness. And there is a market for quirkiness. Architecture is slow, so we will be the first to predict things, but we will also be the last to change. So buildings are always inherently more conservative in the time that they are conceived in.

I like what the creative community is doing. If we can cultivate a creative class that is profitable, then their quirkiness comes through and we’ll have a much more interesting city.

We definitely need more quirkiness and boldness! As a creative community we need to be less critical of each other. The more we encourage experiments and the less we are out to get each other, the more creative we will get if people are less cautious to put their hand up.

Thanks to Mokena for sharing the insightful views and for contributing to positive change in Africa.

Here at JA. we trust that leaders like Mokena can inspire future professionals to remember the positive impact their position can bring if utilised in an honourable and sincere fashion - taking risks for the team and having the courage to put your hand up, regardless of the views of your peers.

Kind Regards,

The JA. Team