Beginning against the odds

The journey to a completed Isivivana Centre is a six-year story, from 2010 to 2016. All those years ago, the activist organisation Equal Education began investigating the possibility of acquiring land for a new, permanent home in Khayelitsha. On 9 November 2010, EE’s Operations Manager of EE, Michelle Adler, wrote to a contact seeking advice:

“We are a small NGO but are growing fast into a social movement and want to look into the possibilities of buying and developing some land into an office and community centre in Khayelitsha that could possibly house a number of community organizations based here including TAC, the Social Justice Coalition and possibly one other.”

Michelle’s contact put her in touch with Sally Tsiliyiannis of GAPP Architects in Cape Town. This became a key relationship that underpinned the success of the project.

By May 2011 representatives of EE, plus Sally, had met with officials of the City of Cape Town, including Andre Human, a director in the city’s property department, and were beginning to draft the concept document needed to begin a land acquisition process.

In March 2011 EE received a note from Jamie Smiley, offering the services of his firm Platform Architecture. About six months later, in October 2011, GAPP and Platform began collaboration on the architectural process. At around the same time, Donovan Brown of Brown and Barrow joined as project manager.

Throughout 2012 the search for land continued, sometimes with hope but often with a sense of despair. Both privately and publicly owned land was looked at, but after promising starts, each possibility fell flat. We pursued a few pieces of private land behind the Khayelitsha train station, but in the end, these weren’t entirely suitable and the owner proved elusive. A new development was beginning further up the railway line in Kuyasa, where a library was being built by the city, with the possibility of an integrated office facility for various organisations. But after fairly extensive talks this opening seemed to close. Another unsuccessful initiative was an attempt to buy a site from Shawco, the student NGO at UCT, which had an educational facility in Khayelitsha’s G-section (a site that had coincidentally housed EE’s first two-roomed office in 2008). By 2010 though, EE was located on the edge of Khayelitsha next to an open plot of land, which provided yet another possibility that was explored in some detail. For most of the above, the architects drew up plans and proposals, only to have them come to nought.

Land and funding start falling into place thanks to luck, hard work and Atlantic

The other obvious hindrance to the entire dream was an absolute lack of funds! Magically, The Atlantic Philanthropies, a New York-based foundation with a long history of giving in South Africa had been thinking along similar lines for some time about establishing a building as a hub for social justice organisations.

In mid-2012 EE was contacted by Gerald Kraak, the South African representative of Atlantic. By October of that year an Atlantic delegation including Chris Oechsli (CEO), Martin O’Brien (VP) and Gerald met with representatives of UCT to explore purchasing the Shawco property in Khayelitsha (a possibility which wasn’t ultimately pursued).

By March of 2013, Gerald had drawn up terms of reference to formally kick start a much more formal and professional process, backed by Atlantic, to find land and develop a facility in Khayelitsha. The introduction read as follows:

“The Atlantic Philanthropies supports a number of social justice projects based in the informal settlement of Khayelitsha on the outskirts of Cape Town. These are the Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education and the Social Justice Coalition (grantees). There is a chronic shortage of commercial office space in Khayelitsha and our grantees are working out of overcrowded, unsuitable premises. At the same time, there are few centrally located spaces, close to major transport routes, where our grantees can convene meetings, hold conferences and training workshops. These are key activities. As a contribution to the longer-term sustainability of our grantees Atlantic proposes to build a multi-purpose community centre, in Khayelistha.”

By August 2013, almost three years after Michelle started the ball rolling, things had turned a promising corner. The team, hugely boosted by Atlantic’s backing, began engaging with the Khayelitsha Community Trust (KCT) about city-owned land over which it had development rights in the heart of Khayelitsha. In August 2013 an Expression of Interest (EOI) was submitted to KCT for the acquisition of land on the corner of Walter Sisulu and Steve Biko roads. That site was also a failure—because a servitude was belatedly discovered running over it—but it was the final stepping stone to the eventual site, just a stone’s throw away.

A team comes together

The next critical move Atlantic made was to secure the services of Webber Wentzel and Jill Singer. At the end of May 2013, Gerald wrote to Doron Isaacs of EE saying that he had been talking to Jill Singer “about working with you on establishing a governance structure for what will be the Khayelitsha Community Centre.” Along with Doron, Jill would become a central driving force and pivot of the project over the next three and a half years.

Jill, who retired from being a partner at Webber Wentzel but continued working with the project, began by setting up the Khayelitsha Youth & Community Centre (KYCC) Trust, to acquire the land, receive the funds, appoint the professional team, arrange for the building to be built, and then to govern and manage it.

Webber Wentzel provided other key personnel to the team. Odette Geldenhuys, head of pro-bono services at Webbers, was a vital addition, bringing years of organizational experience. She, Jill and Doron became the interim trustees of the KYCC Trust and thus the locus of decisions for a few years. Mike Evans, one of Cape Town’s most respected attorneys, would provide guidance at various important moments.

With the land finally looking possible and the legal structure taking shape, the project team began to come together in earnest. Working with Sally at GAPP were Katlego Motene (now with Toro Agency), Ella Löb and later Hazel Momberg. On Jamie’s team at Platform was Cecile Van Loggerenberg. The quantity surveyors were MultiQS, with Gary Stevens, Paseka Ramakhula and later Mervyn Schafer. Steven Chapman of MCAS came on board to provide financial forecasting for the project. Later Vuyo Mthi joined Donovan Brown for much of the on-site project management. Rounding out the core professional team were Arup Engineers.

Starting to believe

The land acquisition process was complicated. The city had authorized KCT in April 2003 to undertake the development of the land, concluding a Land Availability Agreement with KCT in August 2004. Thus only KCT could buy the land from the city, meaning that there had to be a double sale, first from the city to KCT and then from KCT to the new KYCC Trust. After subdivision, various internal legal opinions within the city, public notice and objections periods and final council approval, the transfer of the land to KYCC Trust was finally achieved in 2015. The deeds office registered KYCC Trust as the owner of the land on 28 September 2015. At long last, we had an empty, dusty piece of earth in central Khayelitsha. Tragically, Gerald Kraak, who had been so fundamental to the project, passed away in October 2014, and never got to see Isivivana come to fruition.

Throughout this period there was ongoing engagement between the project and Atlantic, with Chris Oechsli, Martin O’Brien and David Sternlieb (COO) becoming increasingly personally involved and invested. There were various rounds of submissions to the Atlantic board in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Each time there was an understanding of the unfolding complexity of the project and renewed support. Moreover, based on their extensive experience with capital projects, Atlantic was critical to nudging the building’s design towards maximum synergy with the surrounding environment and community.

By May 2015 it was time to decide who would actually build the building. Four companies had tendered for the main contract, and their bids were evaluated based on price, timeline, black ownership, local subcontracting and local labour. Group5 was chosen because it was at the top in most of these categories, agreeing to award 20% of the entire tender value to Khayelitsha-based subcontractors (meaning an R10m economic injection into the local economy) and to employ 100% of the workers from the surrounding community.

Building Isivivana

Group5 took possession of the site in June 2015 and promised they would be done within a year. Indeed, less than a year later, the city engineer awarded an occupation certificate to KYCC Trust on 1 June 2016.

Getting to that point had been a collaborative process involving many hundreds of people. Framed in the building’s entrance are the names of the workers who spent almost a year of their lives physically constructing the centre under the direction of Group5 managers such as Rowan Benjamin and Mujahid Safi. On 14 April 2016, a function was held at the building to celebrate its near completion. Phumeza Mlungwana, General Secretary of the SJC (and a trustee of the building), and Ntuthuzo Ndzomo, Deputy General Secretary of EE, paid tribute to the workers, thanked them for their efforts, and invited them to come and enjoy the completed facility with their families.

The creation of Isivivana was far more than a physical process. There were multiple rounds of engagement with community members, briefings for Khayelitsha leadership structures and consultation with some of the NGOs that would be housed there. Thando Siwisa of Classic Consulting facilitated engagement throughout the critical period. The future NGO tenants, for whom Atlantic had been motivated to provide the building in the first place, engaged directly with the design team about their needs. The consultative process also helped to solidify the ground floor components, including the hall, auditorium, restaurant, library, classroom, legal advice office and the retail space facing the street. The latter was included primarily in order to give local businesses a place to operate.

As the building began to rise out of the ground a transition was made to a fully constituted board of trustees. All future tenants were invited to suggest names, with Atlantic as Founder having the final say. The trustees assumed full responsibility and oversight of the building management and staff. Finally, though the building had been open since June, the grand opening was held on 14 October 2016.

An act of activism

In a sense, this story goes back a lot further, beyond the founding of EE in 2008, perhaps as far back as the establishment of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in 1998. TAC, one of the earliest and perhaps most important post-apartheid activist movement, had quickly established a strong base in Khayelitsha. Subsequent movements built on this legacy.

Speaking at the opening of the building, Doron Isaacs said that it is ultimately the struggle of tens of thousands of activists in Khayelitsha that built Isivivana. Were it not for them, Atlantic would not have made the gift, and the building would not exist. Isivivana is, therefore, a widely-shared achievement, which shows in the way it has been embraced by the thousands of people that have already visited it.