Franco Frescura and Stephanie Volpe


The Ciskei is not a happy land. The historical home of Khoikhoi, Mfengu and Xhosa, it became, during the nineteenth century, the hunting ground of traders, missionaries, immigrant farmers, labour recruiting agents and the military. Their activities effectively scoured the region of much of its indigenous traditions and material culture and effectively paved the way for the political and social radicalism which permeates its society today.

The boundaries of what was to become known as the Ciskei were established as early as 1913 when parts of this region were set aside by the Union Government for exclusive black settlement. During the 1960s and 1970s the area was used by South Africa as a dumping ground for the forcible resettlement of many black residents of the Cape. As a result some villages became little better than rural slums where unemployment and starvation were endemic. The Visagie survey of 1978 found that kwashiokor affected 27% of all infants in the 6 to 23 month age group. As late as 1985 the Herman/Windham study established that between 1970 and 1983 approximately one infant in every five born in the region died before it reached the age of five. In 1980 the Quail Commission stated that 95% of Ciskeian workers in employment held jobs in white South Africa.

When the Ciskei opted for independence in 1981 under the South African Government's Bantustan policy, it did so with the consent of only a small minority of its population and against the specific recommendations of its appointed consultants. In the process it inherited a legacy of poverty unequalled in modern-day southern Africa.

The development of Bisho, the Ciskei's new capital, must then be viewed in the context of these factors. The town lies some six kilometres north of King William's Town on the main road linking the Cape to the Transkei and Natal. Its location was dictated by a wish on the part of the Ciskei to place an economic stranglehold upon the white community of King William's Town who, Prog, Nat and HNP, stand united against incorporation into the homeland. When questioned on the subject residents point, with some reason, to the Ciskei's long history of political and economic mismanagement: the location of a new hospital below the flood plain of the Keiskamma River by Israeli "experts"; the building of an "international" airport (to be followed by an international hotel) outside Bisho; the purchase of a R36 million jet aircraft which cannot obtain a permit to fly; and the string of internecine rifts, vigilante violence, attempted coups d'etat and military invasions which have typified the government of President Sebe.

The visitor approaching Bisho is immediately struck by the surrealistic image of the town rising abruptly out of the landscape. The odd juxtaposition of a stranded CBD, ready- made and unsupported by a residential component, against a backdrop of wide-open veld, is bizarre to say the least. As evening approaches, day-trippers disappear into the veld leaving the streets empty for the goats that amble along, "wending their weary way" from nowhere to nowhere.

The Master Plan for the town has clearly been disregarded by the architects, as buildings jostle with each other, each clamouring for attention. Neighbours are rudely ignored and spaces between buildings carelessly abandoned to dust and litter.

Most of the buildings are treated in the Post-Modern idiom, a style of architecture intended to facilitate meaningful communication. Ironically, virtually no references are drawn from the region or the culture of the Ciskeian people. Unimpeded by the constraints of an established urban setting and a sophisticated and critical audience, the architects are having a field day. Given the prevailing laissez-faire attitude, buildings achieve varying degrees of success. Some, such as the Post Office, even have considerable merit.

Bisho is a town that is as unlovely as it is apparently unloved. Perhaps Italo Calvino was right when he said that "a town without old buildings is like a man without a memory"; but the problem with Bisho lies not only in its lack of old buildings but in the quality of the new.

Ultimately the architecture of Bisho will not be judged by its capacity to follow the dictates of international fashion so much as its ability to meet up to the cultural expectations and economic realities of the Ciskeian people.


This article was originally published in Architecture SA under the title of Bisho, A Post-Modernist Image. Architecture SA, July/August 1988.

  1. The gomma-gomma architecture of Bisho Furnishers.
  2. Buildings cluster and compete.
  3. Royal leopard-like gargoyles march across the roof-scape of the Ciskei government offices.
  4. The Ciskeian coat-of-arms, plastered incongruously over an office facade, creates a triumphal gateway to nowhere.
  5. Facade patterns.
  6. Facade patterns.
  7. Awning detail.
  8. The national monument at Thaba ka Ndoda, with its simplistic references to an African mask, cocks two architectural digits at passing tax-payers.
Copyright @