Academic journal article Human Organization

Migrants, Forests and Houses: The Political Ecology of Architectural Change in Hobeni and Cwebe, South Africa

Academic journal article Human Organization

Migrants, Forests and Houses: The Political Ecology of Architectural Change in Hobeni and Cwebe, South Africa

Article excerpt

Examining architectural continuity and change over a century in two communities in South Africa's Eastern Cape, this paper reassesses the assertion that migration, wage labor, and capitalism lead to major architectural changes and the adoption of extra-local purchased building materials. Labor migration was widespread here by the early 20th century, but houses were built from local materials until the 21st century. The pace and trajectories of architectural change in Hobeni and Cwebe have been contingently related to the stability or dynamism of labor migration, migrant cultures of consumption, access to building materials from local forests and distant markets, and intra-household control of resources. Illustrating interconnections between processes across household, local, regional, and national scales, the paper highlights the value of a political ecology approach to architectural change.

Key words: architecture, forests. South Africa, migration, political ecology

Dramatic changes in domestic architecture have taken place in the communities around Cwebe Forest, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. In 1 998, only one in 11 homesteads included a rectangular house constructed from purchased building materials; in 2009, nearly half did. In an important article on architectural change, Heyman (1994: 132) has argued that "changes in house construction seem to coincide with the direct impact of capitalism, in the form of wage labor, commercial agriculture, or migratory remittances." In Cwebe and nearby areas of Xhora District (Figure 1), though, labor migration and (temporarily) commercial agriculture were established a century before recent changes in architecture.

By 1901, magistrates had rescheduled tax collection to coincide with the tobacco harvest, and in the 1920s, shops purchased tobacco, grain, wool, and hides (Fay et al. 2002). In 1909, roughly 15 percent of men were absent as labor migrants, a figure increasing to 40 percent by the late 1960s (Jansen 1973; NAD 1909). While subsidies to white farmers would increasingly undermine African commercial agriculture, labor migration remained central to local livelihoods. By 1996, remittances from mineworkers provided roughly 36 percent of total income in Xhora District, more than any other district in the Eastern Cape (Malherbe 2000).

Long-term continuities in architecture, building materials, and building practices, thus, require explanation: why did architecture remain relatively stable for nearly a century? While people around Cwebe incorporated some purchased items and outside techniques into their building practices, they continued to build round, relatively impermanent houses from local materials. Conversely, why was it only in the first decade of the 21st century - 30 to 40 years after communities only about 20 km away (de Klerk 2007; Timmermans 2004) - that people around Cwebe "delocalized consumption" (Heyman 1994) and turned in large numbers to purchased building materials and rectangular houses?

Theorizing Architectural Change

Anthropology has a rich literature on the symbolism and phenomenology of domestic architecture, but, as Vellinga (2007) has argued, the field has given little attention to architectural change. Here, I follow his call for a move away from conservationists' concern with pre-modern and traditional "vernacular architecture" to "an approach that explicitly focuses on the dynamic nature of vernacular traditions" (Vellinga 2006:83).

My analysis draws on approaches to domestic architecture in economic anthropology, which focus on architecture and building in relation to decision making in households - internally differentiated along lines of generation and gender (Guyer and Peters 1987) - about the allocation of money and labor and the changes in labor organization that may accompany new building practices (Heyman 1 994; WiIk 1 989). Concurrently, I follow the anthropology of consumption (Vellinga 2007) in recognizing that "consumer goods" are culturally mediated objects; architectural change reflects not only economic decision making but also cultural changes in the evaluation of commodities. …

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