African Centre for Cities International Urban Conference: Day 2

The use of data to manage the world’s growing housing crisis was a pronounced theme in panels during the second day of the international urban conference hosted by the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Its use as a tool to manage Cape Town’s critical housing shortage was a particular point of discussion among urban scholars participating in the conference.

Currently the Western Cape has about 530,000 people on its waiting list for state-subsidised houses, with Cape Town alone accounting for 320,000 of the applicants.

“Urbanisation is real, people are stepping off the bus everyday,” said Riana Pretorius, director of informal settlements and backyarders for the City of Cape Town.

Pretorius, who supervises a team of 300 and has an annual budget of R200 million, was participating in a roundtable focussing on the use of community-driven data initiatives in slum settlements in Cape Town and Lagos.

Seated next to Pretorius, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Hard Data, Rich Stories,” was Rose Molokoane, coordinator of the South African Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) and committee member of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI).

Using data-collection methods provided by SDI as part of their global Know Your City campaign, SDI-affiliated housing activists in Cape Town have identified 106 informal settlements in need of upgrading.

“Our partnership is beginning to bear fruit,” proudly offered Molokoane, adding that her activists – some seated in the audience – have shared knowhow on reblocking and geo-tagged data with city officials.

Molokoane however qualified the achievement: “There are so many people still waiting for a house.”

Housing is a central theme of post-apartheid South Africa, the country’s government having developed a progressive housing policy that includes subsidy mechanisms that enable the poor to access housing.

Also participating in the roundtable, Robert Buckley, a senior fellow in international affairs at The New School, New York, said, “South Africa has one of the most ambitious housing programmes in the world.” But, he noted, it doesn’t work in its current form.

Molokoane detailed how the system of offering poorly constructed “RDP houses” (pre-built government homes) is rife with abuse. She favoured a system of granting the money it costs to build a RDP house (up to R200,000) to successful applicants. This, Molokoane said, would promote a more genuine stakeholder relationship.

Earlier in the day, Saskia Greyling, a housing policy researcher at UCT, detailed the complexities of even obtaining a home through Cape Town’s housing database.

Any South African over the age of 18 living in Cape Town and earning less than R3,500 per month can apply for housing assistance or accommodation. Greyling explained how this standardised system has created a culture where waiting for a house has become normalised.

“Residents place so much faith in waiting without a [broader] sense of the database,” said Greyling, whose doctoral research focuses on the mechanics of this software and management tool.

She emphasised that waiting had a basis in hope: people do receive housing assistance, albeit very slowly. This existential culture of waiting is a common theme in southern urban studies.

Alcinda Honwana, a social development advisor to the United Nations, briefly touched on it when she spoke of the ubiquity of the phrase “making do” among the urban poor in Congo, Mozambique and South Africa.

While interested in the alienation fostered by “techno-political” tools like a housing list or database, Greyling preferred to ground her talk in practical aspects of the system. Responding to a comment by housing researcher Liza Cirolia, who described the database as a potentially cynical political tool that could be read as anti-poor, Greyling said: “It is a road that I don’t want to go down. The city has a job that needs to be done.”

The deficiencies of housing policy and implementation in South Africa are well known, but how do they measure against those experienced by Nigeria’s urban poor?

In his impactful keynote, Nigerian-born filmmaker and social activist Michael Uwemedimo showed startling footage of the 2009 demolition of homes and businesses of 19,000 people built on reclaimed land in Port Harcourt.

“It is a militarised form of development, or unmaking of the city,” said Uwemedimo of the evictions.

Lateef Sholebo, a city planner with the Lagos State Urban Renewal Agency (LASURA), expressed genuine shock at Uwemedimo’s short documentary when he spoke in the roundtable with Molokoane and Pretorius.

“The general purpose of any government is the welfare of its people,” said Sholebo.

He detailed how rapid urbanization and overcrowding had prompted Nigerian authorities to establish LASURA to “eradicate” slums. This aspiration, he offered, is necessarily mired in bureaucratic procedure.

“One of our basic responsibilities is to collect data and plan properly,” elaborated Sholebo. The task was hampered by community distrust of the state’s motives. Government officials engaged in data research had been killed.

“How do you collect data where there is such massive distrust?” asked Sholebo.

It was antagonisms such as these that prompted LASURA to partner with SDI in order to create a more reliable database. Slum evictions however continue.

Where data is the hard currency of city planners, citizens are motivated by outcomes-driven action.

“We need to have implementable projects that are sustainable,” said Molokoane.

Her pragmatism was shared by many of the guest speakers at ACC’s conference, including Uwemedimo and Tijuana-based artist and activist Raúl Cárdenas Osuna who has long emphasised the need to meet “critique” with “proposal”.

Uwemedimo discussed his supervisory role in Chicoco Radio, a radio station designed by architect Kunlé Adeyemi and run by the inhabitants of Port Harcourt.

“Many voices make a city,” said Uwemedimo of the thinking underlying this social justice project.

The expertise of many dissonant voices also informed the debates at ACC’s urban conference. In an unrehearsed statement Molokoane criticised the chiefly academic participants in the conference for all speaking the same language.

“What is this language?” asked Molokoane, who in 2016 was elected chair of UN Habitat’s World Urban Campaign, an advocacy and partnership platform. “It is so hard. Sometimes it makes me sleep, and it is wrong for me to sleep.”

She invited delegates to leave behind their degrees and personally engage those living in slum settlements.

“Come as yourself, so you can understand how people do things and help them formalise it,” said Molokoane. “Yes, we have a messy process, which is why we need you.”

A version of this article by Sean O’Toole was published on GroundUp on 3 February 2018.

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