Crisis is an opportunity to heal South Africa’s divisive spatial geographies

South Africa is in crisis as the country descends into alarming levels of chaos, looting and vandalism. The spatial realities of our cities need to take a centre stage in our conversations now more than ever. Apartheid still exerts an insidious influence on what we are experiencing today; we are living within the constraints of what the architects of apartheid created for us. The built environment is not neutral — buildings and landscapes have meaning.  We need to be as systematic and audacious as the apartheid planners, while being driven by values of equity, access and dignity. Do we understand the urgency of this now? Or will it take more destruction for us to understand that apartheid will only be relegated to the history books after we have successfully dismantled its inherited structures, including its spatial structures?   

The structure of our cities was carefully planned to benefit a minority and keep cheap black labour close by, but not a part of, the city — it was not done by accident. Hundreds of laws were passed to uphold the structures that served the intentions of the ruling party at the time and the value systems that underpinned them, and many of these laws related to the built environment. We need to put in place hundreds of laws to realise a different vision and a different way of life. Our vision needs to be powerful, inspiring and implementable. It needs to translate into tangible and felt realities in the daily lives of people. 

How? Reward and fund innovation; penalise a continuation of the status quo. Tax the walls; reward projects that introduce mixed-functional edges — replace the walls with residential space, business space and community services. Make street edge activation a condition for development approvals. Insert housing in these edges. Provide “eyes on the street” to curtail opportunistic crime and make our neighbourhoods safer. 

Penalise mono-functional developments such as residential estates and office parks; reward developments that incorporate affordable housing and other services within project sites. Yes, within the same sites — corporate social responsibility should not be based on something done elsewhere. Educate the general public to become spatially literate. Be creative in locating affordable housing and make it rewarding for developers to innovate. Make multi-family rental housing desirable. Increase densities to ensure the success of small and medium business enterprises and so that we may have functioning transport systems. 

Innovatively insert housing in our existing landscapes. Re-create all settlements as mixed-income, mixed-function and mixed-typologies where affordable housing (with all that is required to sustain it) becomes an integral part of the city. Insert affordable housing as part of existing commercial developments. Incorporate affordable housing as  a part of every Menlyn or Sandton and every office park. In parallel, nurture the economic activity in townships (not in the form of massive malls that serve the same economic elite; we have seen in the last few days how they were the first target for looting and vandalism).

Build economic development on existing enterprises. Creatively engage with informality in all its forms, design spaces and structures that support the daily resilience strategies of communities. Recreate townships as desirable living environments for everyone. Create an environment where the youth may thrive and where the city fabric enables us to address the high unemployment levels. 

Dehumanising dormitory townships, cookie cutter houses and single-sex workers’ hostels, in a sea of emptiness, were intended to keep the black population subservient and dependent on the wealthy elite. Townships were there to serve the white city with no economic centres of their own. Putting low-density, mono-functional, low-cost housing on the peripheries of our cities in the form of single houses on single plots reinforces apartheid spatial patterns — however well designed a single house unit is. The social housing programme (well-located, subsidised rental housing) has not been able to deliver at scale. It is also stigmatised as people see it as a stepping stone to ownership options. Dismissing informal activities as illegitimate is short-sighted.

This crisis is an opportunity to heal our divisive spatial geographies. If municipalities and cities require practical recommendations, I have a few more: 

* Revise zoning laws on town planning and building control instruments as these determine the shape of our environment;

* Discourage the mono-functional use of land and revise government subsidies to fund only the neighbourhood level rather than individual houses; 

* Provide catalyst infrastructure, putting in place just enough to encourage the private sector to further invest.;

* Better articulate what culturally-adequate and dignified environments are in reality, and what these concepts mean in terms of design and implementation;

* Acknowledge that technological innovations, without spatial transformation, cannot solve the dysfunctionality of our current environment; 

* Harness technology to “retrofit” existing township space as well as existing commercial developments equally. 

This is not a problem of the poor! This is everyone’s problem.   

Despite all of these possibilities, the same professions that served the apartheid government now claim “we are built environment professionals; we are technocrats; we are trained in designing and delivering the built environment; we do not want to be too political.” Yet, all professions operate in a political space, and that space has been created through politics — there is no escaping this reality. Some will still argue: “we operate at site level, so we can’t make policy changes”. 

The built environment professions continue to operate in service of the wealthy minority, delivering poor quality design to the majority with the argument that this is what people can afford, or this is what is possible within the financial constraints. Professional institutes, councils and authorities need to become involved in a concerted, deliberate and targeted manner to change policy and motivate for spatial practices that will transform the lives of the majority of residents in cities. 

Apartheid planning was powerful, efficient and persistent. Large numbers of the population still spend hours and a significant portion of meagre salaries on transport, while children are left unattended at home. Many walk or cycle in the early hours of the morning through the gaps in the city fabric, through the industrial areas, beside dangerous fast-moving traffic and across busy highways — their routes never acknowledged, surfaced, serviced or celebrated — to get to their menial jobs and then follow the same route back at dusk; others observe this daily migration from the comfort of their cars. 

Covid-19 has further exposed our levels of privilege and disadvantage. Apparently, as many lost their jobs and businesses, some of us have thrived. These spatial divides no doubt wound deeply. Many communities are stripped of dignity, unacknowledged and rendered invisible. This makes our condition unstable and fragile making it possible for some to take advantage of a political dilemma and cause complete chaos. 

As social unrest escalates and the country falls into deep distress, we feel that we are in an apartheid condition where many are observing the chaos on their TV screens, behind high walls and strict security measures. Indeed, increased securitisation seems to be perceived as the solution. Dialogue and long-term visions are more sustainable approaches. 

This will happen again! It is important to reflect deeply and envision a future where such disasters may be curtailed. If this vision is not fast-tracked and made a reality, we will only be pacifying the situation while waiting for the next outbreak of violence and anger to erupt.

Keep the powerful accountable

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Amira Osman
Amira Osman is a Sudanese/South African architect, Professor and chair in Spatial Transformation at TUT, Pretoria. She believes the architectural profession has a critical role to play in the achievement of buildings and cities that are equitable, beautiful and lovable; she has spent most of her career advocating for these principles

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