Designing the Rainbow Nation: Contemporary Design in South Africa

05/12/2015 03:20 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

"It looks like a pair of bloody Y-fronts!" activist poet, Sandile Dikene, complained as the black-and-white image of the winning design for South Africa's new flag inched from the fax machine. The year was 1994, and Dikene was working with me on Mandela's election campaign in the run-up to South Africa's first democratic elections. His reaction to the design, chosen over from 7,000 in a public competition, was a common one at the time. But two decades on, despite the initial luke-warm reception, South Africa's flag has become an iconic design: an instantly recognizable emblem of the so-called Rainbow Nation.

In many ways South African design mirrors the county's remarkable recent political history, emerging as it has from turbulent times and international isolation to create a vibrant synthesis of the traditional and modern: the African and the European. "Design reflects the society in which it is practiced and, since South Africa is a very political society, design here reflects a level of social consciousness that is perhaps not seen in other countries," says Capetoian graphic and web designer, Justin Slack.

During the apartheid years, South African design was dominated by engineering design as well as and industrial design that aimed to replicate European products which could not be imported due sanctions. Design also reflected the inequalities and divisions of the society with designers producing things such as swimming pool cleaners, portable barbeques and camping equipment for the affluent white market whilst the majority population's needs were largely ignored.

The isolation that resulted from trade and cultural sanctions severely limited the possibilities for South African designers to engage in international creative exchange and many left to seek opportunities overseas. For those who stayed behind isolation had an ironically positive impact helping to foster a degree of independence in the industry as well as removing external competition. With the growing levels of social consciousness in the country designers began to focus on more culturally and geographically appropriate locally designed products.

The unbanning of the ANC in 1990 and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President in 1994 marked the start of a dramatic transformation of the country. "There was an explosion of creativity and innovation borne out of necessity and circumstances," recalls Erica Elk, executive director of the Cape Craft & Design Institute. Those circumstances have not always been easy with one-in-four South Africans unemployed, over a million living in shacks and an estimated 5 million infected with HIV/AIDS.

Figures from the department of trade and industry suggest that South Africa's craft sub-sector annually provides jobs for approximately 40,000 people through 7,000 small enterprises. Furthermore, government agencies such as the Department of Arts and Culture have launched a number of design initiatives partnering with the South African Fashion Week and non-governmental organisations and design institutes. Initiatives such as the Design Indaba, an annual expo that bills itself as the largest creative conference in Africa, have given the design industry a substantial boost.

The distinction between craft and design has traditionally been a problematic one with an implied division between the educated and the uneducated, the professional and the artisan. Crafts are generally seen as being handmade involving tools rather than machines, whilst design often requires a higher degree of specialized teamwork sometimes involving the separation of conception and production. With one of apartheid's legacies being a huge disparity in educational opportunities, this division between design and craft has social and political dimensions.

In South Africa there is a substantial degree of overlap between design and craft with traditional materials and methods being incorporated by designers in all fields to create a distinctive synthesis. Indeed South Africa is regarded as a world leader in 'slow design', a movement which fuses design and craft in a sustainable way which celebrates diversity and pluralism. "In an African context the overlaps between craft, design and art are obvious," says Cape Townian designer Heath Nash. "Cultural practice here has morphed due to colonial pressures over time, and in so doing, traditional art/craft/ritual/functional/spiritual/tribal/social/personal spaces have all been mixed together."

Nash works with galvanised steel and recycled plastic producing a range of re-purposed post-consumer plastic waste products which he calls 'other people's rubbish'. He outsources most of his standard products to wire-workers around Cape Town and distributes around the world. "The history of re-use as a typical South African mode of production was inspiring," says Nash. "I realized that by using the right materials and knowledge - wire and plastic - combined with typically South African skills and contemporary design, a new aesthetic could be created which really spoke to the current South African situation."

Use of recycled materials is being pioneered by other companies such as Mielie who design and hand-craft a range of handbags and homeware products using recycled materials such as t-shirt fabric and leather off-cuts, coffee bags and billboards. The importance of craft and design as a means of economic empowerment and is also crucial for people like Bishop Tarambawamwe who began his business selling his wire and bead art on the streets. "I would sell at traffic lights but my work became so popular that I started disrupting the flow of traffic and the police kept moving me on," Tarambawamwe recalls. He now has a company, Master Wires & Bead Craft, that exports internationally.

Casamento is another design house that relies on traditional techniques and materials in their production of handcrafted furniture. Avoiding foam the upholstery they use recycled and natural-fibre alternatives including coir, sisal, raw cotton wadding, horsehair jute webbing, Hessian. They also work with local needle workers, from crochet artists, to knitters and embroiderers who contribute panels for their furniture, as well as work on commissions for their clients. Although the materials used may be traditional, their furniture is playful and creative, blurring the boundaries of fantasy and function.

Wola Nani is an initiative which attempts to use crafts as a way of supporting communities hit hardest by the HIV crisis. Meaning 'we embrace and develop one another' in Xhosa, Wola Nani is a non-profit organization providing work to over 40 HIV-positive women giving them a regular and sustainable income with which to support their families. Using popular Xhosa shweshwe designs Wola Nani produces and markets crafts which are sold via mail-order catalogue and through retail shops regionally and worldwide. The organization not only exploits the potential that exists in fair trade stores but also has contracts with stores such as Anthropologie.

"South African design, especially communication and fashion design is alive and very well and competing successfully within the global market," according to Esme Kruger of Johanesburg's Design Institute. But the design industry has been hit hard by the recession and although South Africa has experienced a virtually uninterrupted two decade period of economic growth the recent economic down-turn is taking its toll.

Among apartheid's many legacies was a legacy of bad design that, nearly two decades on, is still manifested in a spatially, socially and racially divided society. Indeed a striking thing about a visit to any South African city is the impact of apartheid town planning with so-called white suburbs, coloured suburbs, Indian suburbs and black townships all dotted separately around the city centres. Despite this legacy the fact that clean air and a healthy environment are inscribed in South Africa's Constitution has ensured that social development is central to contemporary urban planning and design South Africa. According to urbanist, Edgar Pietersen, South Africa has set itself a very high bar for intervening in the built environment by insisting on sustainable outcomes, meaningful citizen participation and addressing socio-economic imperatives. "This is what makes South Africa a demanding and fascinating laboratory - the imperative to invent and deploy innovative approaches to achieve developmental outcomes in the context of limited resources, vast need and profound natural resource constraints" he explains.

"We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world" says Archbishop Tutu in describing the meaning of 'ubuntu', a Bantu philosophy prominent in South Africa. Ubuntu is a founding principle of the new South Africa and can be applied to design in all its forms. The Rainbow Nation does not have a single distinctive design aesthetic and its inter-connectedness that is part of its strength. "One of our competitive advantages in South Africa is our cultural diversity and the myriad influences and styles at play in our creative sector" Erica Elk explains. South Africans and their design may be individualist, distinctive, and unique but they are all part of a much greater whole.