Zahira Asmal

Zahira Asmal has not used a CV in five years. Not since she landed a job working with London starchitect David Adjaye on his African Metropolitan Architecture book and Urban Africa exhibition. It was through engaging with cities in this framework that she was inspired to found Designing_SouthAfrica in 2009.

Asmal envisioned Designing_SouthAfrica as a manifestation of what she realised while at the University of Cape Town as a business science student with a major in macroeconomic development. “Design is a way for countries and economies to change — from basic infrastructure to healthcare systems and governmental systems,” she says.

Set up and funded as an archive of the urban and design impact of the Fifa 2010 World Cup, Designing_SouthAfrica has evolved into an international media campaign and exhibitions, as well as a multimedia online report. Three years on, the project is growing beyond the World Cup to consider the overall design-led development of the country: “I want South Africans to understand the country better and see the opportunities for entrepreneurial development; for designers to stop saying where’s the brief, but to take the briefs to government.”

Her recently launched book, Reflections and Opportunities, is not only a milestone of Asmal’s work, but also announces her next milestone. Published in English and Portuguese, the book initiates the Designing_Brazil venture, which will similarly archive the design impacts of the country’s upcoming World Cup and Olympics.

It is also the beginning of a network based on creating synergies and knowledge- sharing opportunities between countries with similar socioeconomic conditions. Over the next few years Asmal envisions a string of these capsule organisations across the world, ultimately linking nations of the Global South.

One of the illustrious Asmal clan, niece of Kader Asmal, it is clearly in the 34-year-old globetrotter’s blood to push beyond the status quo.

— Nadine Botha