Vernacular architecture in South Africa – some random examples

Sometime in the early 1960s I went with my friend James Southern to Cape Agulhas where his parents had a holiday cottage. One day while we were out exploring the area we came upon some dilapidated thatched huts, which James informed me were called “kapstylhuise”.

I have subsequently done a bit of research around this style of building and found that it is an example of “vernacular architecture”, defined by the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World as: “Architecture built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of life of the cultures that produce it”.

These rough thatched huts certainly fitted that definition.

Since discovering the concept of vernacular architecture some years ago I have realised that we are surrounded by it, there are examples almost everywhere.

Growing up in the former Transkei I was certainly surrounded by excellent examples of vernacular architecture, especially the circular huts of the people living around Blythswood Mission Institution.


It became a cliché of their advance into the interior that if a man saw his neighbour’s smoke, he moved.” – from Frontiers, by Noël Mostert (Pimlico, 1993)

By the end of the 18th Century the shortage of land in the area of the Cape under control of the Dutch East India Company had become acute and farmers were moving north and east in search of new land for settling and farming.

A trekboer painted by English artist Samuel Daniell in the early 19th Century. Image via Wikipedia

In the process was born a new type of colonist – the trekboer (travelling farmer), who moved with his flocks of sheep and cattle to wherever the grazing was most favourable. As a result of the nomadic lifestyle a type of dwelling developed derived largely from the shelters built by the indigenous Khoikhoi. This type of dwelling was termed “kapstyl”.

“All one needed to be a farmer in the new areas was a wagon, a gun and some stock. Shooting game helped them save their own herd, for the market. The wagon and sometimes also a canvas tent served as a home. As far as furniture was concerned, all you needed was a bed with no legs which sat in the wagon, few collapsible stools, the ‘wakist’ chest served as a table, a pot to make soap, plus a few smaller pots and a number of tools e.g.. an axe, hammer and a pair of pliers.” – from the website WILLEM JANSE VAN RENSBURG: accessed on 23 June 2011.

The group of “kapstylhuise” near Cape Agulhas.

As architect and writer Franco Frescura has noted, “A farming community which depends upon the continued availability of grazing for its economic survival and who inhabits a region of fluctuating grazing resources, will be forced to develop an architecture which responds in every way to their lifestyle.”

Entrance of one of the kaptsylhuise

Furthermore the availability of building materials also played a part in the development of this type of dwelling.

Cone-on-cylinder huts

Huts strung along a ridge. Typical old Transkei sceneA dominant feature of the old Transkeian landscape was the many cone-on-cylinder huts along almost every ridge, their doors all facing the rising sun. Some of them were brightly painted in whites and blues.

The Nguni-speaking people of the Transkei used to build so-called “bee-hive” huts when they first arrived in the territory, but as their settlements grew more fixed they started to build the now-familiar cone-on-cylinder huts.

A group of cone-on-cylinder huts.

These huts were originally built with wattle and daub walls and locally-sourced thatch. They had a central pole holding up the roof. They were almost entirely built by the women and had dung-hardened floors which could be polished to a fairly high sheen.

A group of cone-on-cylinder huts. Note rectangular dwelling in the centre of the group.

As “progress” continues these huts are now being replaced more and more by rectangular buildings with corrugated iron roofs and other mass-produced items like steel window frames. This has both positive and negative outcomes for the people living in such buildings.

Frescura has pointed out that the mud-walled, thatched huts were environmentally sound with some useful attributes. Fires built inside such huts effectively fumigated them preventing the spread of vermin. Huts with steel roofs and cement walls were not conducive to having fires inside without smoke flues and so this effect was lost.

Also the 90-degree plans which have begun to replace the circular huts need 90-degree furniture which means still more reliance on the cash economy.

The cone-on-cylinder classrooms of the Blythswood High School

At Blythswood Mission cone-on-cylinder huts were used as classrooms in the high school and as accommodation for female staff. These huts had properly plastered brick walls with large windows made by the Industrial School on the Mission.

The essential cheerfulness of the Xhosa cone-on-cylinder hut.

In his brilliant book Frontiers Noël Mostert wrote at length about the African hut:

“The southern African hut is one of the world’s most distinctive habitations. As a practical adaptation to environment and lifestyle it is unsurpassed in its simplicity, in its use of available materials, in its convenience and in its visual cheerfulness, which also makes it one of the most attractive of all human shelters.”

Mostert pointed out the essentially democratic nature of the hut:

“… the hut was seldom required to go beyond itself. Its modest measurements served king and commoner alike, for the most part, although a Xhosa chief’s hut occasionally could be conspicuously grand, …”

Geometric art of the Ndebele people

Geometric motif on Ndzundza Ndebele dwelling

The Ndzundza Ndebele, descended from Ndzundza, son of the founder of the Ndebele, Musi, are noted for the geometric patterns they use in their beadwork and in the decorations of their homesteads. Musi led his people, members of the Nguni group, inland from the east coast of South Africa in the 17th Century, apparently to escape from the dominance of the amaZulu. Ndzundza, after the death of Musi, challenged his brother Manala for leadership of the Ndebele but was defeated and led his group into the present-day Mpumalanga Province.

These photos were all taken around the Ermelo area in the late 1980s. Two homesteads are represented – the decorations of one are rather more muted than the other.
These two homesteads are real dwellings, not tourist showpieces. I did take notes of the names of the people shown but have since lost these notes, sadly.

Courtyard of an Ndebele dwelling

The designs that are so typical of these dwellings developed out of the social context in which the Ndzundza people found themselves, a context of oppression by the white Afrikaners who had decisively defeated them in 1883 after a three-year war, and the subsequent oppression of the apartheid regime which set up the Ndebele “homeland” of kwaNdebele and re-located many Ndebele from their homes of many years to this deprived area.

Another geometric motif on a wall

The designs can be seen as signs similar to the quilts made by African-American slaves, “…which could be ‘read’ as messages by the oppressed group. Like the African American quilts — ‘instruments of cultural transmission’ (Freeman, 1996) — that frequently served as guideposts to slaves in transit, the wall paintings of the Ndebele became guideposts for indigenous persons passing farm buildings set far back from the road. They announced: ‘We are Ndebele. Ndebele live here.’” (from “The Commodification Of Art: Ndebele Women In The Stream Of Change” By Adrienne Hoard accessed 23 June 2011.)

Frescura ( accessed 23 June 2011) sates it in this way: “Given its context, forms and symbolism, it is not difficult to show that this work is a statement made by rural women in respect to their fertility, political status, religious cosmology and, in certain instances, their family lineage.”

The second dwelling had more muted, earthy colours, porobably more like the original decorations of Ndebele dwellings.

Note: Text and all illustrations, unless otherwise indicated, copyright by Tony McGregor


  1. The contrast between the architecture you discuss and what is displayed at the top of the page is stunning! Your presentation of vernacular architecture is both informative and entertaining. I would like to see these buildings up close and personal! Thank you for inspiring curiosity.

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