It may have just been urban legend but the story is that after the student riots in Paris in 1968 architects across Europe were instructed that when building universities there was to be no “natural” area for students to congregate.
This explained, to me at least, why 400-year-old Trinity College Dublin (TCD) always seemed a little more radical than University College Dublin (UCD) whose post-1970s campus was just down the road.
The steps outside the dining hall at TCD just cried out for students to gather; and sometimes in the late 1970s they would gather and protest.
UCD in the post-1980s enjoyed no such gatherings because the architects of that campus had ensured there was no central gathering point.
As anyone who has visited the town at the centre of the farmworkers’ protest will realise, the “architects” behind De Doorns’ intersection with the N1 and the Stofland township knew nothing of the cynicism that guided post-1968 university design. That section of the N1 looks as though it were custom-built by individuals with ambitions for full-time protest.
On the one side of the N1 you have De Doorns, a formerly sleepy little town at the centre of an important farming area, where the slightly wealthier Afrikaners were conveniently kept separate from the coloured community.
In the 1990s things began to change, first slowly, then with increasing speed and trauma as we moved into the 21st century. Seasonal workers who would previously have been accommodated in near-feudal conditions on nearby farms drifted to the edge of De Doorns; many of them formed the basis of the Stofland township when the edge of De Doorns was no longer large enough to accommodate their numbers.
In the early years of the 21st century Stofland grew dramatically as the production of table grapes surged from 25 million tons in 1997 to 50 million in 2003, enticing thousands of desperate individuals in search of work from neighbouring provinces and countries.
The township grew on the other side of the N1 and now seems to overshadow the not-so-sleepy town. The bridge across the N1 connecting De Doorns and Stofland is as natural a gathering place as the dining hall steps at TCD.
It is right beside the sports stadium, which conveniently doubles as a centre for rallies and in the blistering heat the bridge offers one of the area’s few shaded spots. Then there are all the rocks that have been cleared from the adjacent fields to make way for construction or farming and are piled up on the side of the road. The larger ones can easily be used to block the N1, and the smaller ones provide ammunition against rubber bullets.
So much for the physical architecture. Unlike the comparatively spoilt students at TCD who could rarely be coaxed into protest, the socioeconomic and political architecture in which the residents of Stofland live means that despite some improvement in service delivery, like residents of so many townships across the country, they have good reason to protest.
And while some agreement may now be reached with the farmers in the Hex River Valley it will not bring a sustained end to protest action because the farmers were just part of a very complex situation.
A situation in which global economic architecture not only accommodates but is used to justify wages of R70 a day and in which too few politicians are focused on the public good.
But at least our politicians have not stooped to the cynical European response of redesigning the physical architecture.