A new bridge across the Mzamba River connects a rural community to infrastructure

NPO buildCollective is collaborating with Austrian thesis students to build a sustainable bridge across the Mzamba River in the Eastern Cape.

Vienna-based non-profit organisation for architecture and development, buildCollective, is collaborating with Austrian thesis students to build a 140 metre suspension bridge to connect the Eastern Cape Mzamba community to the infrastructure on the far bank of KwaZulu Natal.

Every year children in the Mzamba community drown in the fast-moving river and during the rainy season the whole community is cut off from education, jobs and medical facilities.

The building project is called BridgingMZAMBA. The design for the bridge is the master’s thesis of Thomas Harlander and Florian Anzenberger from the Carinthia University of Applied Science in Austria. Both Swiss and local South African engineers were consulted on the plans and buildCollective has been project managing. The design is intended to have the least environmental impact and use as little concrete as possible.

“We collaborate with Architecture schools and a local construction team from the community,” says co-founder of buildCollective Marlene Wagner. “Every project is considered as a sustainable process according to resources - like available materials, skills, construction techniques. Our expertise is the sustainable planning and implementation process.”

The involvement of the local Pondo people has been crucial to BridgingMZAMBA. Tribal and political approval was given for the suspension bridge and the community (with additional manpower from students and volunteers) has been involved with every stage of the construction. This has ensured that the building of the bridge has provided jobs and skills development to the Mzamba community. Working with the community also ensures adequate knowledge transfer from the experts to the locals so that they will be able to successfully maintenance the bridge.

The design and planning process began in 2013 and in early 2014 an environmental impact assessment was made on the area. Construction began in earnest in September 2014 and in April 2015 the main load bearing structure of the 140 metre long bridge was completed. There are still a few stages of construction to come, including the actual walkway of the bridge and some rehabilitation strategies for the surrounding site.

The BridgingMzamba team are currently fundraising in order to finish the project (which is currently two thirds of the way through) before this year’s rainy season.

“The bridge is definitely the biggest project ­– financially and technically – we worked on so far!” says Wagner.

buildCollective was founded by Austrian architects Marlene Wagner and Elias Rubin in 2010. They focus on collective activity and alternative construction methods.

“We try to design in a way that most parts can be produced on site - like trusses, pillars, etc to provide income as close to the users as possible and also to shorten transportation. Alternative ecological materials that are easy to process is another key issue.”

An important part of the work buildCollective undertakes is forming cultural bridges between the north and the south. Although the organisation is based in Vienna, many of the projects they have been involved in are in Southern Africa.

“We also do workshops and programming in a cultural/artistic sense to strengthen identity and responsibility for a building. And because of working in these north-douth mixed teams a lot is about cultural exchange and knowledge production, new ideas and new partnerships. Finding ways of communicating no matter of background. People working together on the same aim - specially physical action creating something is the best bond and way to really get to know each other.”

All images © BridgingMzamba and buildCollective