Stellenbosch Municipality recently appointed Katherine Robinson as Senior Heritage Planner. She joined the Department of Planning and Economic Development in February 2021. Stellenbosch Heritage Foundation asked Katherine a few questions about her interest in heritage and her new position.
Q: You have worked for several years with heritage related issues. Why Heritage? Was it a natural progression of your career or were you interested in heritage since you were a student?
A: I have always been fascinated with any form of structure, in particularly the intricate details of how materials and junctions can join to not only be aesthetically pleasing but also structurally sound. I am in awe of how our predecessors constructed largescale structures that still stand the test of time, without all our modern technologies. So, when it came to my practical year, required as part of my National Diploma, I asked the late Jake De Villiers, at the time Head of Cape Technikon Architectural Department, which firms in Cape Town Specialized in the restoration of historical structures. For that year I worked at Rennie Scurr Adendorff Architects, under the guidance of John Rennie. His knowledge never seized to amaze me, and his passion is contagious. From then on, my interest and fascination with heritage continued to grow.
Q: What did you study and how did your career progress?
A: When I matriculated, like most students I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to study, I did however know what I was interested in: technical drawings and the construction of all types of structures.
I started with a 1-year course at the Academy of Draughting which offered me a taste of the different built environments. From there I enrolled to do my National Diploma and B-Tech at Cape Technikon (now CPUT). Afterwards I worked at several medium and small private practices. During this time I completed both of Dr Stephen Townsend’s courses in Heritage Resource Management, offered by UCT. I started working at Heritage Western Cape in 2014, then moved to the Department of Transport and Public Works: Education Infrastructure where I managed the Mobile School Program. And now Stellenbosch Municipality as a Senior Heritage Planner.
Q: Any highlights of your career that stand out thus far?
A: Firstly; at HWC, I loved that with each approval, I got a glimpse of how Cape Town was slowly being moulded and developed, but at the same time the conservation of the historical fabric played a key component in this potential future. The second was at DTPW:EID. Here I found extreme satisfaction in knowing that each mobile unit offered, maybe not amazing architecture, but a means to uplift the children in the less affluent areas, which in turn allows them a better chance in this ever-changing world.
Q: You have joined the team in Stellenbosch. Why Stellenbosch?
A: In all honesty, I was sent to market the Senior Heritage Planner Position, to pass to recommend colleagues, which I did, and just spontaneously added my name to the pot and left things to the hands of fate.
Q: Who are your team members?
A: The Heritage Section is only a small cog in the greater scheme of the Stellenbosch Municipality. We reside in the Department of Planning and Economic Development which is spearheaded by Anthony Barnes: Director of Planning and Economic Development. Craig Alexander is a Senior Manager: Development Planning who is responsible for Spatial Planning, Heritage, Development Information (GIS), Economic Development and Tourism, is my Direct Supervisor.
The Heritage Team solely consist of Kaizer Makati and me. However, we do also rely on Mduduzi Nhleko – for all GIS matters, Viola Anthony, who assists with administrative matters and Bernabe de la Bat, who assists in an advisory capacity and as mentor.
Bernabe de la Bat: He obtained his master’s degree in Town and Regional Planning at the University of Stellenbosch. He has been employed at the Municipality since 1992, initially as a town planner taking up many responsibilities including heritage which at the time did not have its own designated section. He later became the Manager for Spatial Planning and Environment. During this time, the Municipality employed a Heritage Planner and an Environmental Planner to form part of his team. Bernabe believes that Spatial Planning, Heritage and Environment are disciplines that are intrinsically linked as they deal with space, all that is contained in that space including the built environment. Bernabe is also responsible for the drafting of various important policies and strategies such as the MSDF, Environmental Management Framework, the Stellenbosch Conservation Strategy and recently the Heritage Inventory and Management Plan.
Recently the Heritage component has become its own section, however Bernabe still willingly serves in an advisory capacity regarding heritage related matters and works closely with the heritage section which is vastly appreciated.
Viola Anthony: She is an Administrative Assistant who works closely with Bernabe de la Bat and assists the Heritage Component from time to time. She has been with the Municipality since 2015.
Kaizer Makati: He obtained his National Diploma in Town and Regional Planning at Cape Technikon. He then worked for the City of Cape Town a Town Planning Technician. He decided to try his hand in the private sector and took up a position as a Technician at VKE Engineers, where he was introduced to Heritage Management. Now bitten by the Heritage Bug, he returned to City of Cape Town as a Heritage Officer, he later joined HWC as a Senior Heritage Official. He has been a Heritage Planner at Stellenbosch Municipality for the last 14 years and is a key component in this department.
Mduduzi Nhleko: He is employed as a Professional Office: GIS. Without his expertise in computers I would be completely lost in this department. He will be vital to the future development of Heritage Management at a digital level in our attempt to update the Municipalities resource inventory and formulating better digital catchments which will allow the Heritage Section to offer a better, more comprehensive service.
Q: What are you and your team’s immediate challenges and goals?
A: The Heritage Section not only handles all applications that have an impact on the numerous heritage resources, we also handle all applications for signage. In addition, we must deal with illegal building work and illegally erected signage, without having the capacity to police such contraventions. Currently the Heritage Section is critically understaffed to fulfil the above-mentioned functions efficiently. There are only two permanent employees, Kaizer Makati and me.
The goal is thus to expand the section over time to deliver a more pro-active service to the public, developers and community. We find ourselves reacting to applications and illegal building work and do not have the capacity to influence development at the beginning of a project.
We are currently in the process of setting up a new Conservation Advisory Committee to assist the department with evaluating heritage applications. The Committee will be viewed as an important tool to obtain input and advice from specialists to enable the municipality to make better, more informed decisions on new developments.
Heritage conservation is unfortunately not always understood properly and is often viewed as obstacle to development. This can only change with proper policies and strategies that will enable the public to better understand and respect the value of cultural and heritage preservation. This section believes that a pro-active and strategic approach is required to educate society about the roles and values of heritage and culture and how it has an impact on the lives of all. This will, over time, lead to a more responsible approach with heritage resources. Stellenbosch harbours various cultures and it is important to understand that all cultures should be respected and allowed to prosper in Stellenbosch.
Q: And your longer-term goals?
A: The municipality has adopted an awarding wining heritage inventory that is GIS driven. Unfortunately, at this stage, we do not have the capacity, systems or the skill to manage and update this important planning tool. The Inventory is currently, thankfully, being managed by the Stellenbosch Heritage Foundation on our behalf. It is envisaged that the by acquiring the necessary professional skills, systems and capacity that the Heritage Inventory can be managed and updated inhouse to form part of the BPAMS system, thereby automatically become a part of the building plan approval system. In addition, we envision that the system be expanded on and will continue to be online available to the public in order to enable easy access to information on heritage resources, which can also assist developers and land owners to understand the importance and value of their assets.
Should we be able to expand the section with competent employees we envisaged applying for competency from HWC to receive the delegation to manage all Grade 3 resources within the municipality. This will enable us to deliver a much faster and more efficient service to the public and to take responsibility of our own local resources.
Signage plays a critical role in the quality of the public environment. We are therefore eager to establish a unit, within our section, to deal solely with all aspects of signage and the management of thereof.
Q: What are the team’s hopes and aims if there were no budget constrictions?
A: Budget plays an all-important role in delivering a quality service. Without budget all that is left is the passion of the people who work to preserve our culture and heritage.
The necessary skills to deal effectively with our challenges is of critical importance, particularly in a municipality, such as Stellenbosch, where we are blessed with an abundance of heritage resources.
It is our generation’s responsibility to look after and maintain our heritage resources for future generations and to educate the future generation to continue what we have started. To be able to do so we will require critical and expensive skills, normally not affordable to a municipality of our size. This can be achieved by appointing specialized practitioners with adequate experience in heritage to assist all line function departments with implementation of capital projects and drafting of specific policies inhouse.
The municipality owns various significant heritage buildings, which are in dire need of maintenance. If these resources are better managed, they have the possibility of benefiting the community and the economy. This function or responsibility deserves more attention and must be either managed inhouse (at great cost) or outsourced.
Q: What is unique about the Stellenbosch experience regarding heritage conservation (and other elements of the built environment)?
A: Stellenbosch has an abundance and a great variety of heritage resources; be that buildings, open gathering spaces or landscapes. Due to its picturesque, scenic quality and good administration, it has become a sought-after destination for tourists, visitors and permanent inhabitants. It is thus understandable that Stellenbosch is also the town that has the greatest growth potential in the country. This therefore leads to conflict between development and conservation. With the greater demand for new development, which often expands into the rural areas and continually puts pressure on the most sacred and sensitive areas in town, also comes the continuous need of private transportation, that requires the increased need for the provision of parking, which then erodes thereby the very asset that makes Stellenbosch such an attractive destination in the first place. The public space (such as road reserves and gathering spaces and green open space) play an important role in defining the buildings that creates the uniqueness of the townscape. Vehicles and parking compete for these important open spaces and unfortunately, almost always, receives preference. Therefore, a balance needs to be found to preserve the public and open spaces. To do so it is suggested that the historical cores of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek be demarcated as a pedestrian priority zone where less private motor vehicles are allowed – parking in the centre of town is therefore restricted and roads closed so that public space can be developed appropriately and utilized by the broader public. There is international precedent that shows that such measures have an enormous economic advantage and can lead to better conservation to allow for a restored appreciation of cultural and historic resources.