India Baird is a human rights lawyer who has taken the bench out of the courtroom and installed it in public spaces to create safe areas for women.
Titled Rock Girl, after the slogan “strike a woman, strike a rock”, Baird got the idea three years ago when she was volunteering at the Red River School in Manenberg, Cape Town.
“Girls were not participating in the after-school running programme because they did not feel safe on the sports field,” she explains.
“[We] began documenting the conditions around and at school, and created a plan to make their environment safer, starting with a safe place to sit at school when the older boys and gangsters harassed them.”
This simple intervention has inspired artists and designers such as Paul du Toit, Laurie van Heerden, Aidan Hart, Boyd Ferguson and Tracy Lynch to get involved, resulting in some 17 benches installed in central Cape Town, each with a sister bench installed at a school in the township, over the past two years.
“Each bench is linked to a toll-free number, which connects women to opportunities, resources and support, as well as inspiring stories of 75 successful South African women, from Life and Soul: Portraits of Women Who Move South Africa, compiled by Karina Turok and Margie Orford,” Baird goes on.
Earlier this year, the first bench in Johannesburg was installed at the Sunlight Safe House, designed by Switch and sponsored by Investec. A sister bench is installed at De Waal Park in Cape Town.
Just after Rock Girl announced that they have been short-listed as an official World Design Capital 2014 project, the newest bench, designed by architect Mokena Makeka, was unveiled at the Prestwich Memorial alongside Cape Town’s fan-walk bridge — although this location is temporary.
“I thought of a piece of furniture that was quite elegant and tough; might seem angular or austere from certain perspectives, but quite forgiving when you come into contact with it,” says Makeka.
The powder-dusted grey steel bench comprises faceted planes that make it seem both modernist and futuristic. It comes with a padded weatherproof jacket that is securely fastened with very strong magnets.
Relying on corporate sponsors and goodwill for funding, the Rock Girl budget is tight and Makeka admits to having extended his stipend to up to R30 000 from his own pocket.
“There’s this discourse around making benches uncomfortable so that you don’t lie down on them because of prostitution, you don’t make them wide enough so that people don’t sit for too long.
“Instead I wanted a bench that was more like a chaise longue, rather than a bench that could only be sat on for five minutes. Three people can sit on it or one person can take a nap,” says Makeka.
The cover is adorned with line art infographics that relate the city of Cape Town to its larger context in Africa and the world — the distance to Kilimanjaro, for instance. This is the first Rock Girl bench that has no fixed location and is travelling around the city seeking a home.
“Benches have a very specific location but I also wanted people to think about the broader city when they sit on the bench,” says Mokena.
Regarding permission, Baird says “the city and in particular mayor Patricia de Lille have been great support”.
In a city that still doesn’t have a public art policy and is hosting the World Design Capital in less than six months’ time, these functional creative interventions with social good at heart uplift the spirit.