SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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The Design of Lighting for Safety in South African Townships and Informal Settlements – SVA MA Design Research

Olivia Coetzee

The Design of Lighting for Safety in South African Townships and Informal Settlements

A lack of safe lighting is a daily reality for almost one million children living in South African informal settlements. Township residents described safety as “protection,” or as “not having to constantly look over my shoulder.” My research investigates various forms of lighting currently in use in Kliptown and in informal settlements in Ikageng.

High-mast public lighting is installed by the government with the idea of diminishing crime in areas deemed the most dangerous. Locally, these lights are known as “Apollo” lights, a moniker that dates back to the 1970s supposedly because the shape of the lights are reminiscent of the Apollo spacecraft.

Thladi Mothabe, local policeman in Potchefstroom and Ikageng, discusses the lighting design and what he would do to make Ikageng safer. “I would go for the Apollo lights, but I will put more, [one on] each and every street corner. There must be brightness to all the location.” But are Apollo lights the best design solution? In contrast, Alfredo Brillembourg, an architect from Urban Think Tank (UTT), critiques the high-mast lighting for promoting an unfair stigma and symbol of difference: “I understand it has been somewhat successful as a violence prevention system, but they are insane as an image.”

“We steal electricity to meet the government halfway,” says Thando. He is 25-years old, and besides installing illegal electricity, he helps lead a Soweto tour, gumboot dances, and helps out at the local nursery school. He talks about installing izinyoka, or “snake electricity” (illegal electricity) as the locals call it. He explains how he climbs to the top of poles that the community has bought or appropriated, how he holds open live wires and connects new cables from the tracks to the houses.

Tandiwe and Terrence from Ikageng use one candle in each of their four rooms per day. The cost of four candles a day for one month adds up to 360 rands (about $30 USD), more than the cost that other interviewees pay for legal electricity in a month. Candles and lamps can enhance visibility, but they do not provide safety.

There is a tension between lighting providing safety and lighting putting a person in more danger. Even in houses with electric lighting, the electricity often goes out, forcing families to turn back to candles and lamps. Residents speak of the fear of fire associated with combustible lighting sources, but when the electricity goes out, they have no affordable alternatives—yet.