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New struggle is for ownership of the city

The imprint of apartheid is still evident in South African cities. As acknowledged widely by planning academics and recognised in the National Development Plan and draft Integrated Urban Development Framework, urban expansion has engendered new forms of segregation and exclusion.

Apartheid-divided suburbs have their equivalent today in fortified estates catering to an exclusive moneyed minority – a mere 3% of South Africa’s households. More densely packed, walled townhouse complexes cater to the aspiring middle class, which makes up barely 10% of South African households.

Informal settlements sprang up on vacant land during the transition, sometimes in or near suburbs and central business districts. The residents of these informal settlements were mostly relocated to transit camps or dormitory housing developments on the urban peripheries, often beyond apartheid-era townships.

Urban visions generated by progressive networks of nongovernmental organisations, activists and planning academics during the late apartheid years were projections of urban centres shared by all. Well-located low-income housing, public transport corridors, active streets and public spaces were to generate opportunities for entrepreneurship and encounters. The ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme of the mid-1990s embraced these ­ideals. Today, though, in most parts of our cities, they ring hollow.

The 2004 national policy on sustainable human settlements sought to address the “broader residential property market”, but with negligible effect. Protests from impoverished townships and informal settlements, generated by the world’s highest urban inequality, sparked only a reductionist urban politics of housing and service delivery. Political debate has avoided the hard questions about the real obstacles to the spatial integration of the poor in South African cities.

In 1994, it was understood that the planning and land use management bureaucracy at municipal level would take time to reform. Following groundwork by academics and civil society, the department of land affairs developed the interim Development Facilitation Act (DFA), which was promulgated in 1995. It was meant to “facilitate” development until such time as the planning system had been fully reformed in line with the pending Constitution. The Act allowed provincial tribunals to approve developments within municipal boundaries.

In the years after the completion of municipal restructuring in 2000, metropolitan municipalities developed spatial frameworks to transform the apartheid city. But these had no legal standing, even in municipalities.

One of the obstacles to the metros’ capacity to guide urban investment in several metropolitan municipalities was the continued application of the DFA. In the absence of planning reform, provincial tribunals became a vehicle for overriding municipal planning and land use management.

Two political imperatives reinforced this trend: rapid subsidised housing delivery on large tracts of peripheral land and economic growth, fostered by investment opportunities in the built environment and the construction of residential dwellings to “global” standards.

In the absence of planning reform, provincial tribunals continued to approve subsidised housing in poor locations within and beyond the boundaries of metropolitan municipalities. Seeing the sense in economic investment, provincial tribunals also approved privately proposed gated estates, townhouse developments, malls and business parks, despite their having little regard for municipal spatial development frameworks.

In 2006, the City of Johannesburg began to question the constitutionality of the DFA approval processes. It faced opposition from the national ministry responsible for planning reform, as well as several provinces, the South African Property-Owners’ Association and the South African Association for Consulting Professional Planners. The economy and procedural efficiency formed the basis of the opposing arguments.

The Constitutional Court in 2010 confirmed that the provincial tribunals had encroached on municipal planning, which involves development approval and township establishment within municipal boundaries. It ordered the government to complete and enact long-overdue national spatial planning and land- use management legislation.

The Court’s intention was to respect the nonhierarchical constitutional principles of co-operative government and intergovernmental relations, and to place the power of approval in municipalities alone.

The new Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act of 2013 inscribes, for the first time, spatial aspects in the right to housing. It articulates this as a right to “equitable spatial patterns and sustainable human settlements”. It requires the promotion of “social and economic inclusion” and redress for the “imbalances of the past”.

It makes spatial development frameworks at municipal, provincial and national level legally binding, though they will be up for review every five years.

Still, there remains the potential of a lingering hierarchy: undefined “national” and “public” interests can override municipal decision-making. Economic growth, global competitiveness and mass housing delivery, framed as national or public interest, irrespective of the spatial configuration they demand, may therefore continue to override municipal-level plans to redress urban spatial imbalances.

Central-local tensions have been critical in debates on the urban question. A normative ideal embracing local autonomy, going even beyond municipalities, that is gaining momentum globally is the “right to the city”. French sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre developed this concept in the late 1960s.

The city Lefebvre promotes is home to an urban society made up of people who appropriate and inhabit spaces, rather than these spaces being dominated spatially by the state or the market. Land-use management in this city allows for diversity and for complex entities to emerge. It allows the poor or excluded to inhabit conveniently located land and is not over-determined by the need to generate profit.

Lefebvre engages urban strategies and planning at great length, coming to three concrete recommendations: the city must enter the political conscience and debate squarely; local autonomy or self-management must be given space; and the right to the city must be legislated.

Although devolution is often under­stood as a prerequisite of the neoliberal rolling back of the state, leftist governments, notably France under François Mitterrand in the 1980s and Brazil under Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in the 2000s (though less directly), built on Lefebvre’s idea of the right to the city. Both governments recognised the importance of cities, creating dedicated ministries of cities, with key co-ordinating functions.

Already in 2001, Brazil, under pressure from the Urban Reform Movement linked to the Workers’ Party, then in control of several municipalities, enacted a city statute that brought all relevant urban law together.

In a federal system that devolves important powers to municipalities, the Urban Reform Movement developed the content of the statute in Workers’ Party municipalities. The party’s model of direct democracy embraces local autonomy and has built its growing political support on that.

The Brazilian experience suggests that urban planning and land-use management must be aligned and co-ordinated at national level, and that urban rights should be expanded from simply access to adequate housing to a right to the city. 

In Brazil today, in the face of strong economic pressures, the unfortunate need for political compromises and competing ideas from the political centre and the right, the urban question remains intensely debated.

In South Africa, if we want the approval of exclusionary developments or peripherally located housing not to be threaded through loopholes in the spatial planning Act, the spatial state of the city must enter political consciousness and debate at all levels.

Can such awareness, coupled with a more extensive reform of rights and legislation, plus national, provincial and even municipal trust in greater autonomy, form the basis of robust undertakings to restructure South African cities?

Marie Huchzermeyer works in the school of architecture and planning at Wits University and is the author of Tenement Cities (Africa World Press) and Cities With ‘Slums’ (UCT Press). This is an edited version of a paper presented as part of the Public Positions series organised by Wiser, the University of the Witwatersrand department of politics and the History Workshop. For more, and responses to this paper, click here.

Cape Town takes small steps to meet the demands of the urban century

Safety and security
Colin Barends (45) is not your typical gangster. He served his first sentence for robbery at the age of 16 and spent the next 18 years in and out of jail. But he is now hailed as “one of the best conflict mediators” on the Cape Flats. 

He works for CeaseFire, a concept imported from the gang-ridden streets of Chicago, which came to Hanover Park in 2012. Officially supported by the City of Cape Town, Cease­Fire’s operations are run by a Christian nonprofit organisation. Its aim is to mediate to prevent deadly retaliations between gangs. Ideally, the first on the scene of shootings, “interrupters” such as Barends focus on staunching the flow of blood. 

Then, with the help of outreach workers, they try to divert less senior members of the gangs from criminal life. They work according to an explicitly articulated public health model: “quarantining” violence “carriers” to halt “infection”. But in neighbourhoods where it is not unusual for 40 shots to be fired in a week, nobody is talking about a cure just yet. 

A recovering drug addict, Barends is sanguine: “With the young people who are starting on this road, I can give tips and I can lead, but you have to walk it on your own.” 

Weather and climate
Christina Mtandana (40) owns a takeaway and restaurant in Sweet Home Farm, an informal settlement in Philippi on the Cape Flats. Known as Siqalo – from isiqalo meaning “new start” in isiXhosa – and part of her five-room home, the business has two fridge-freezers, a microwave, a deep fryer and plumbing that she paid a contractor to install. 

But the business is frequently hampered by electricity outages. The need for electricity and other primary municipal services – running water, proper sanitation, efficient refuse removal, and installing and maintaining storm water drains – are critical to the wellbeing of neighbourhoods such as Sweet Home Farm. 

As elsewhere, the region is moving into a ­climate-altered future: heat waves, windstorms, droughts and winter floods are likely to be more frequent and extreme. She used to run Siqalo from her father’s home but it is lower than hers and was often flooded. Settlements such as these are plagued by “ponding” every year. 

Why do people settle there? Researchers at the University of Cape Town’s Flooding in Cape Town under Climate Risk Project found the reasons are complex and rational. New settlers often arrive in summer, when an area looks dry and habitable; they might buy a shack, but the seller won’t tell them how bad the flooding gets. And often they have nowhere else to go. 

Architect and urban planner Gita Goven (55) cofounded ARG Design, which specialises in urban design, architecture, environmental management and landscape architecture. 

It is providing concept planning for WesCape, a R140-billion development project that envisages the creation of a mini-city with 200 000 homes near Melkbosstrand, 15km northwest of central Cape Town. Roughly half of the planned 800 000 population will be lower-income earners. 

WesCape is planned for completion in 20 years and will offer hospitals, clinics, libraries, community halls, schools and sports complexes, plus industrial, commercial and retail opportunities, on 3?100 hectares. Housing is a key national issue. Since 1994, the government has been battling with a staggering backlog, which has swollen to 2.3-million units from about 1.5-million in 1994. 

Design, Goven says, can play a “huge role” in uplifting communities. “But the power of design goes nowhere unless you have people that are interested and committed to transformation.” 

“I can engage with someone who’s completely psychotic,” says John Parker (48), a psychiatrist at the Lentegeur Hospital in Mitchell’s Plain. “It’s about learning to speak to the human deep inside there.” About 30% of adult South Africans experience at least one mental disorder. 

In the Western Cape, which has the highest prevalence of mental disorders, particularly in poorer areas, drug use underpins a rise in mental illness. Several years ago, Lentegeur had to convert an in-patient therapeutic unit into a psychosis recovery unit. 

“The whole way our society sees mental illness is that it’s profoundly hopeless and is something that’s shameful,” says Parker. This is something he wants to change. 

Adapted from material from City Desired, a multi-platform exhibition on cities as seen through the lens of Cape Town, mounted by the African Centre for Cities at UCT. Among its core themes are wellbeing, mobility, shelter, work, land, diversity and climate. For more information, go to click here.

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Marie Huchzermeyer
Marie Huchzermeyer
Marie Huchzermeyer is an academic and public intellectual at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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