N2 Gateway taught some valuable lessons

A response to the Mail & Guardian article of August 14, “Gateway never had a chance”

In his book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis calls the Cape Flats the eleventh largest slum in the world, referring to the bleak conditions in the more than 200 informal settlements that are home to more than 250 000 people.

The Constitutional Court Grootboom ruling in 2 000 prescribed that the three spheres of government (national, provincial and local) should provide decent housing for Irene Grootboom and the community of Wallacedene living in these squalid conditions.

Although Grootboom’s personal story is the tragedy of a premature loss of life in these settlements, some seven years later the rest of Wallacedene has finally received their homes.

Given that, under the watchful eye of the Constitutional Court, it took that long to carry through a single upgrade of living conditions, it became clear that the three spheres had to enter into a new working arrangement to avert an impending social catastrophe.

Concerned about the enduring features of the apartheid city and the rapid growth of informal settlements, the national Cabinet directed that a strategy be framed that responded to shelter needs and towards the building of more sustainable human settlements.

The mayor of Cape Town approached the minister of housing, requesting the opportunity collaboratively to pilot such a project, focused on the upgrading of informal settlements at the epicentre of the city and thus offering the opportunity to explore and demonstrate new ways to reintegrate the living space for all of its citizens.

This strategy, called “Breaking New Ground”, was framed with the requirements to be economically proactive, socially responsible and sensitive to the natural environment. It attempted to address coherently a complicated evolving urban environment, offering critical directions for public investment through reformulated housing instruments. It was to realign financial and operational arrangements that could frame sector-wide partnerships to produce the desired pace of delivery.

A set of policy directives, legislative guidelines, financial and technical instruments, systems and procedures had to be redesigned to ensure optimal use, application and accountability. These processes are time-consuming and tedious.

The results are beginning to be realised in the massive growth of the budget of the new Human Settlements Department.

They are also only now beginning to be translated into the nature and form of public and private investments in the towns and cities across the country. Visitors as well as ordinary residents now marvel at the developments on the N2 corridor, reflecting the positive impression it creates. At the same time, to see Langa itself resolutely emerging as a suburb of Cape Town from the shadows of an apartheid township is a significant step away from the city of our past.

This is possible because we learned very difficult lessons in the application of the N2Gateway project. The cost of these lessons is the subject of your report, but the value to the development of a new way to build equitable and efficient cities is perhaps missed.

Although the development of the new tools in the arsenal now available in the Human Settlements Department had to be meticulously developed, the demand for urgent application in Cape Town at the time did not have that benefit. The collaboration was framed through a “learning-by-doing” approach by building on existing modalities and crafting new ones.

This project provoked a very public debate about the processes that are involved. Every major institution in the country has been called to offer an opinion, including Parliament and the Constitutional Court. That, in our opinion, was what the pilot was meant to be.

Four key issues continually emerge. Public funding streams are subject to complex rules for accounting purposes, and hybrid arrangements that are more likely to produce better outcomes have to develop better procedural performance to ensure effective oversight.

Although these were agonisingly recalibrated into the rules and support operations of the housing programmes, the very public pressure of this project spurred those changes. Future interventions in our cities will benefit from the hard lessons.

The second relates to new ways of framing implementation protocols for the application of human settlement resources. The performance requirements highlighted at the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) help create the confidence about how government should work in relationship to building functionally supportive settlements.

The third relates to the requirements for better project management capabilities in projects that are meant to be catalysts for reintegrating our cities. The N2 was bound to make huge mistakes in its application in an arena of policy and institutional transition. Our response has been to establish the Housing Development Agency to tackle this.

Finally, the deliberations of the Constitutional Court on the N2 that centred on the nature of public consultation demonstrated how first-generation urban dwellers want their route into the urban economy navigated through their entitlement to housing. They want it to offer the benefits of the whole city.

The lesson is that only functionally supportive human settlements offered through a process of intense engagement provide the basis for meaningful citizenship. The extensive public engagement exercise of the N2 has alerted us to the ways in which we can better transform our cities into places that have meaning for all of its citizens.

Itumeleng Kotsoane is director general of the national department of human settlements

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