Why has it been so difficult to integrate SA’s cities? The recent protests against the sale by the Western Cape of the Tafelberg School site in Sea Point to a private school has underlined the deep unhappiness about the enduring legacy of apartheid in cities. The legislature approved the sale for R135m, saying a feasibility study showed the site was not suitable for affordable housing.
It has highlighted the grave dangers continued spatial inequality poses. As the Treasury pointed out in 2017’s budget review, geographic apartheid is “a structural constraint to growth”.
Regarding public transport, about two-thirds of the lowest-income earners in South African cities spend up to 40% of their income on transport. Commuting times for black South Africans, according to University of Cape Town (UCT) economist Andrew Kerr, are 102 minutes a day — the longest in the world. This means, as the budget review reads, the first phases of subsidised bus rapid-transport systems in Johannesburg and Cape Town are running at operating deficits that are “significantly higher than anticipated”.
Ironically, says Prof Edgar Pieterse, head of the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at UCT, the more the country has spent on trying to alleviate urban poverty by providing low-cost housing, the more it has accentuated spatial inequality. The value for this spend is also questionable. The medium-term budget review reported that the real cost of a RDP house, with a subsidy of R90,000, is an astonishing R169,000. Including municipal service and infrastructure costs, the cost is probably closer to R250,000.
At the current rate of delivery it will take 30 years and cost R600bn to eradicate the backlog using the RDP and informal-settlement upgrade model.
In a time of factional political battles, evidence-based policy often gives way to easy populism. In the most recent election, the second item on the ANC manifesto was rural development in a society that is 63% urbanised. While land reform has become a central pillar in President Jacob Zuma’s vision of “radical economic transformation”, there has been scant policy discussion about how to reshape cities so the poor can have better access to jobs and economic opportunities.
The ACC and UCT’s Poverty and Inequality Initiative are planning a year-long series of workshops, involving policy makers, researchers and civil society about how to undo spatial injustice in Cape Town.
Pieterse says policy makers could do three immediate things to refashion the city more equitably: develop the township economy, integrate what were once large “buffer” zones outside townships that existed during apartheid, and upgrade and improve informal settlements.
According to Ivan Turok of the Human Sciences Research Council, since 2001, backyard shacks have increased by 128% in Cape Town townships and by 65% in Gauteng townships.
Pieterse estimates there are 75,000-85,000 backyard shacks in Cape Town, at least two-thirds of which are rentals. The authorities don’t recognise these as legitimate rental units. However, if they would and install secondary water, electricity and sanitation connections, the value of a township house would rise drastically.
“So, just in the narrow interest of growing a tax base, it is actually in your interest to help house owners in townships raise the value of their properties,” he says.
If there were “a marginal increase in safety and improvement in public transport, the property values in the township will just explode”. The gap between township and suburban property markets is huge, partly because the former are generally unpleasant and unsafe and the schools “are in a shocking state”.
One idea to improve the safety of schools and provide more housing comes from Barbara Southworth, director of City Think Space, a spatial planning consultancy. She estimates 25% of the Western Cape school maintenance budget goes to fixing vandalism, such as broken windows or damaged fences.
If the authorities were to build, on two sides of a school property, a mix of single or two-or three-storey walk-ups, some of the fencing could be dismantled. It would improve school security and provide 56,000 more housing units without building further out on the periphery.
Cape Town could also be transformed by integrating former large “buffer” zones outside townships that existed in the apartheid era, says Pieterse.
There are also large tracts of state-owned land — including that owned by parastatals such as the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) and Eskom — in centrally located areas. This “lends itself to significant interventions”, he says. It would be possible to combine residential developments for working-class people, who often earn too much for a RDP house but too little for a bank-financed mortgage, and middle-class people.
But such developments, from inception to completion, can take years. The first public sector-led initiative, a mixed-income development on the site of the old Conradie Hospital near Pinelands, has taken 22 years to get to the point of approval. Near a train station, situated between upper-middle class Pinelands and middle class Thornton, Pieterse describes it as a “brilliant location”.
Among other obvious locations is the Prasa-owned Culemborg site in the Cape Town harbour, from which a 20-storey block of flats, were it to be constructed, would have “spectacular views” from Muizenberg to Robben Island.
Pieterse also proposes developing a mixed-income settlement in the triangle between Observatory and the Black and Liesbeek rivers, called Two Rivers Urban Park. It is sandwiched between white working-class Maitland, the historically African areas of Langa and coloured areas of Athlone and Bokmakierie, “so symbolically the significance is incredible”. The area includes a golf course owned by the city.
To use public land to recraft the city is a “total no-brainer”, says Pieterse, “and there’s so much land, you couldn’t possibly absorb the market demand”.
There are challenges, though: these developments take long to get off the ground and coordinating different tiers of government in support of a common goal is a political quagmire.
The best example of this is the debacle that followed a successful land claim of a community that had been removed from Ndabeni, which was an African township, north of Maitland. Ironically, it was the creation of a previous forced removal at the turn of the 20th century of African people from District Six.
In 1998, about 800 claimants won their land claim. But they could not move back to Ndabeni as it is now an industrial area. Instead they were offered a site at Wingfield where the South African National Defence Force is based.
But the Land Claims Court did not make the city party to the agreement and the land was not serviced. Moreover, the adjacent property of Wingfield was encircled by a “6m concrete wall”, making the land almost impossible to develop.
To unlock this land, the Department of Defence would have to relocate. But there was a dispute about who should pay for this move, which meant the claimants could not realise their right to the land.
Most of them lived in Langa and had incomes too high for housing subsidies, so they were eligible for a restitution subsidy of only about R25,000.
“It’s the saddest story,” says Pieterse. “This issue was so important for integration.”
At the time, the city was run by the ANC, which was reluctant to develop the land because it had its sights on a larger integration project.
But the DA-led city has been equally stubborn about issues that should be easy to solve. This leads to Pieterse’s third priority: upgrading and improving informal settlements.
Sanitation has been a key issue. About 10% of the city, mostly the informal settlements, is without sanitation. It would be relatively cost-effective to replace the city’s current high-maintenance and unreliable chemical toilets in informal settlements with cleaner, more environmentally friendly alternatives, says Pieterse.
Finding practical solutions to spatial inequality is not easy in an environment stamped by a legacy of segregation and within the constraints of a private property market and public policies. But it is not impossible. It is time to begin the conversation.
• Pippa Green works for the Poverty and Inequality Initiative at UCT
This article first appeared on Business Day Live on 6 April 2017.