Mpahlwa studied architecture at the University of Natal and Natal Technikon in the late 1970s before being incarcerated for anti-apartheid political activities when he refused to give up the name of one of his comrades to a judge in 1980. After five years in prison, his release to Germany was negotiated by Amnesty International where he completed his MS in architecture at the Technical University of Berlin. For Mpahlwa, it was a transformative experience to study in a foreign country where his abilities were never questioned. After graduation he was project site architect for one of the Nordic Embassies projects in Berlin and was coordinating architect for the Berlin Embassy and co-initiator of the South African Embassy project.
He always intended to return home, which he did in 2000. Once there, Mpahlwa’s innovations included ingenious designs for low-cost homes, including the 10×10 Housing Project in the township of Freedom Park, a shantytown on the outskirts of Cape Town. The project, commissioned in 2007 by Design Indaba, South Africa’s premiere design expo, paired ten local and international architects with ten Freedom Park families to build experimental homes on the government subsidy budget of 50,000 South African rand, or about $6,900 US.
Mpahlwa replaced traditional brick-and-mortar foundations with a less costly two-story structural frame made from timber combined with sandbag construction as fill for the walls. The design borrows from indigenous, mud-and-wattle building techniques that keep homes cool in summer and warm in winter. In addition to its thermal and sound-absorbing properties, sandbag construction also requires little to no electricity or skilled labor to erect. The building of the houses turned into a community project, with local women pitching in. Several Freedom Park families now live in new two-story homes with built-in terraces and private gardens—a major step up from their old one room tin shacks. Subsequently he adapted the sandbag technique to apply to other forms of building, including a community center and schools.
Mpahlwa’s firm has grown significantly since winning the Curry Stone Prize in 2008 and has taken on projects ranging from housing to sports centers to schools to railway stations. For a recent project, his team created fifty schools, applying a modular design that could be adapted to a wide variety of sites.