Franco Frescura was born in Trieste, Italy, on 28 September 1946. Both his parents originally came from Fiume, today known as Rijeka, in present-day Croatia. His father, Umberto, practiced as a civil engineer, while his mother, Fiore (nee Cottiero), came from a family of small industrialists and landowners. A second son, Fabio, was born in 1950. In about November 1953 the family moved to Rome, where they lived until February 1956, when they immigrated to South Africa. Papers recently discovered in his father’s estate seem to indicate that other options had also been explored at that time including Venezuela and Australia. When asked why he had finally settled his choice on South Africa, Umberto replied that he had been attracted by the country’s potential for returning enormous profits.
It goes without saying that Franco’s parents, like many other European immigrants of that time, rapidly adapted to the country’s prevailing conservative and racist outlook, and although his political awakening was yet to come, from an early age his personal ideas on racial equality brought him into violent conflict with Frescura Snr.
In Johannesburg Franco attended Houghton Primary and King Edward VII High School (KES) where, unbeknown to him, a number of the families with whom he came into contact had deep-seated links with the Communist and Liberal Parties. Some of them took an interest in the young Italian’s education, most particularly in the development of his artistic abilities. As a result, he was given access to a number of well-endowed personal libraries, and it was inevitable that some of his patrons’ political values should also rub off on the young scholar. Franco matriculated in 1964 and, following a stint in an architectural office, entered Witwatersrand University in 1966. For the next eleven years, he read towards his first degree in architecture, a long period broken by a four-year spell of practical experience. In 1969 and 1971, Franco was elected onto the Wits Students Representative Council. In 1970 he married Lesley-Anne Morton, who he met during the parliamentary elections of that year, and their daughter Gabriella Lindiwe was born. In 1968, he became a naturalized South African, and in 1972 began drawing a weekly satirical cartoon page called the John Burger Saga, which found publication in the student newspaper Wits Student. In 1973 he was arrested and charged with drawing a series of cartoons which purportedly accused Prime Minister, John Vorster, of making love to his wife with a police baton; the leader of the (all too) loyal opposition, Sir de Villiers Graaff, of having a broad yellow streak as part of his political make-up; and of describing Parliament as “a pack of Neo-Nazis”. (Franco has since claimed that, in retrospect, he is amazed at his own moderation!) Nonetheless, after a well-publicised trial he was found guilty and sentenced to a hefty fine and a suspended prison sentence.
Later that year his citizenship was withdrawn, supposedly for “disloyalty to the State”. All his identity document papers were confiscated in an obvious attempt to force him to return to Italy. In effect however, this made him stateless, and regardless of the wishes of the apartheid government, Franco found himself in a state of limbo, unable to travel without the documents that had been so obligingly withdrawn. Efforts by undercover government agents to covertly supply him with forged Australian papers were only met with laughter. The situation was remedied in January 1983 when, at the government’s own request, Franco applied for, and was immediately re-granted South African citizenship.
In a separate but parallel action in 1973, the University of the Witwatersrand also charged Franco with bringing it into contempt, probably because the public furore over his satire caused a potential donor to withdraw his substantial support. As a result, Franco was rusticated for the remainder of the year, and upon readmission, was effectively banned from publishing either word or drawings on the university’s campus for as long as he was registered as a student. Since then, despite having followed a successful and highly productive academic career, whether by accident or design, not a single book or article written by Franco has been published by the Wits University Press.
Not to be outmanoeuvred, in November 1973 Franco joined the South African Council of Churches, then headed by Beyers Naude, where he was Production Editor of Pro Veritate, a journal edited by Roelf Meyer and subsequently banned by the government in 1979. He also contributed a wide range of graphics, posters and book covers to SPROCAS (Study Project of Christianity on an Apartheid Society), at the time run by Horst Kleinschmidt.
Although Franco has gone down in student folk lore as the author of a well-known lampoon published on the cover of Wits Student in 1972 which featured a child looking into a lavatory asking the question “Excuse me, are you the prime minister?”, this is incorrect for the real author was a fellow student and co-activist who has since preferred to remain anonymous.
In 1977, Franco was awarded his B.Arch degree and soon thereafter was invited by Prof Pancho Guedes, Head of the School of Architecture at Wits, to read towards an M.Arch, and a few months later, to join his teaching staff.
His Master’s research programme evolved out of an interest, developed as an undergraduate, in the field of popular housing, and focused on the processes of self-built architecture in rural South Africa. In time, however, this project developed a life of its own, and eventually Franco became more engrossed with the archaeological, historical and anthropological aspects of this work that took him beyond the narrow bounds of conventional architecture. His M.Arch was awarded cum laude in 1981 and was published soon after by Ravan Press under the title Rural Shelter in Southern Africa. In 1982, he developed this topic further into a Doctoral research programme, substantially funded by the Anglo and De Beers Group Chairman’s Fund, and in 1986, he was awarded a PhD by the University of the Witwatersrand. His thesis mapped out the history and development of southern African indigenous architecture, most particularly since 1822. Since 1986 he has published and lectured widely on the subject, and although its applications to the field of housing have long been superseded by subsequent political events, his documentation of southern Africa’s rural architecture between 1976 and 1989 remains the last concerted attempt to record an indigenous tradition and knowledge base which has since largely vanished.
Franco joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1983, and in 1985, it was suggested to him that he might consider a move to one of the conservative universities in the country where he would be more useful coordinating anti-apartheid action by local students. The University of Port Elizabeth, a notorious Broederbond stronghold, was the first (unwittingly) to offer Frescura a job. The young family then “immigrated” to the Eastern Cape where Franco had been appointed Senior Lecturer in the Department of Architecture. The next ten years were to prove a difficult period for the family as, on the one hand, his wife, Lesley began working in human rights through the Black Sash and the Human Rights Trust, and on the other Franco’s activities were coming under the increasing scrutiny of the government’s security forces. At one stage one of his classes included students who had been enrolled as informers by four different security agencies. Three of those involved thought this to be an enormous joke and regularly supplied Franco with information on the methods of surveillance that were being used against both he and his wife. Telephone death threats, poison-pen letters and smear campaigns became a regular feature of their lives during this time, and although both parents took this in their stride, occasionally something would get through to their small daughter with devastating effect.
During his sojourn at Port Elizabeth, Franco was able to develop many of his ideas on material culture and conservation, and while keeping up his forays into the countryside, he and his students also managed to conduct surveys of 17 small colonial towns and villages, including King William’s Town, Oudtshoorn and the Kat River valley. As a result of this work in 1989, he was given a grant by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) to develop a strategy for small town conservation. The resultant methodology was adopted by the National Monuments Council and has since become standard practice in the survey of historical environments.
His stay in Port Elizabeth also allowed Franco to engage in a number of community-based projects, including churches, community halls and labour-intensive work generators. Once the ban on the ANC was lifted in February 1990, he served on a number of its national and regional structures as well as municipal services committees, in most cases reporting to Govan Mbeki. In 1993, he represented the ANC at the CODESA (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) Multi-Party Negotiations Commission on National Symbols.
In October 1994, Franco took up the position of Senior Manager (Philately) at the South African Post Office and until 1999 was responsible for the design and production of the country’s stamps. He also represented South Africa at Universal Postal Union and Southern African Development Community conferences in Windhoek, Lusaka, Hong Kong, Singapore and San Francisco. In November 1999, he became a member of the board of South African History Online (SAHO), and in November 2002, he returned to academia, having been offered the post of Professor and Chair in the Department of Architecture, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In 2007, he moved over to the post of Senior Research Associate in the Department of Culture, Communications and Media Studies at the same institution.
In 1981, his research on the indigenous architecture of Southern Africa received in Italy the Habitation Space International Award, while in 1988 he received the Herald Architectural Heritage Award for his work in historical conservation. In 2002 his book The Post Offices of the Cape of Good Hope, 1792-1910 was published, and has since received major awards for research at events held in Washington, Melbourne, Dubai and Wellington.
Today Franco is continuing with his research into the indigenous architectures of Africa, as well as major projects on mission stations and the origins of colonial settlement in southern Africa. He has also written extensively on the structure of the Apartheid City and is now busy researching the nature of sign and symbology in architecture. Other books on King William’s Town, Botshabelo and the nomenclature of southern African construction are in the process of being finalised for publication.
Franco has also lectured extensively as Visiting Professor both locally and overseas, including stints in Italy and the United States of America.