Achieving Urban Spatial justice in South Africa

Oct 26, 2017

Urban Spatial justice In a highly Urbanised South Africa

South Africa is highly urbanised compared with most Sub-Saharan African countries.  Today, for example, well over 80% of all of our people live on less than 2% of the land area.

Urban Life in South Africa : High Densities don’t mean the same experience.

But these high densities don’t mean all South Africans experience urban life in the same way that say New Yorkers do.  The effects of colonialism and the apartheid state are still writ large in our cities with a highly fragmented and unequal urban system in terms of economic opportunities, social justice and environmental sustainability.   Forced removals, return migration and the fact that African South Africans were historically considered as transient workers in urban areas, has created a highly fragmented space economy between and within urban areas. 

Experience of a township resident

For example, a township worker may spend R50 a day for transport, with a commuting time of between two and three hours. After a day of work, they return home to a neighbourhood that is in many cases under-supplied with street lighting and without pavements, making their commute even more dangerous.  Most residents of former township areas still have lower access to health facilities, social services and other amenities compared to former white areas.

Urban Areas : Three main categories

South Africa’s urban areas can broadly be divided into three categories. 

Major economic growth

At one end of the spectrum are areas of major economic growth, hope and relative prosperity.  These are the major 30 or so urban areas where more than 80% of the jobs in the secondary, tertiary and quaternary sectors taken as a whole are found, and where there are relatively high levels of income.  Here, though, we find the greatest racial and income segregation, with increasingly gated enclaves of prosperity surrounded by high walls.  These contrast with informal settlements, mostly poorly managed and underserved with basic services where residents seek to survive as cheaply as possible.

Smaller Sized Formal Sector Urban Municipalities

The second category is characterized by mainly urban municipalities, smaller in size, with areas of smaller pockets of formal sector activity.  These are typically places in which there is some formal sector economic activity, ranging from farming to mining to the leisure and tourism sector. But these places usually have large hinterlands of the unemployed where backlogs in providing social services and infrastructure are very high.    There is a high degree of differentiation in size and economic context within this second category.

Little Economic productivity and major social needs

The third category are those areas where there is very little economically productive activity, but with major social welfare needs.  In these areas local economies typically revolve around government programmes of health, welfare and education, with migrant remittances still playing a major part.  Most of these areas were created through forced removals of black South Africans from areas deemed to be “white“ South Africa.

South Africa’s National Development Plan

South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP), argues that sustainable development is very dependent on the particular local context in which it takes place. Different settlement types therefore need different responses.  The Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) adopted in May 2015, provides us some guidance in reorganising our urban system and responds to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 which enjoins us to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.    More recently the global adoption of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) has given us new impetus to improve our urban areas for the benefit of those who live in them, and the country as a whole.

The NUA provides some useful guidelines for managing urbanization.  In many of these areas, South Africa is already doing relatively well, but in others we have much work to do.  For instance, in basic services, our Free Basic Services and Human Settlements programmes are possibly the best international models of this.  The NUA calls for all citizens to have access to equal opportunities and face no discrimination, and whilst our courts continue to promote the rights of all to the city, there is no doubt that discrimination on the basis of race, gender and ethnicity remain major battlegrounds.

Supporting Cleaner Cities

In promoting measures to support cleaner cities, we have much more to do to ensure that we minimize and recycle waste as much as we can.

To reduce the risk and impact of disasters, the NUA calls for strengthened resilience in cities.   Climate variability, with stronger winds and rains, are now not exceptional events but ones which we must actively plan for.  The recent rains and flooding in many of our urban areas has shown us that it is the poor who take the brunt of these events. Many shacks and homes with tin roofs were blown away, in areas with poor drainage, houses were flooded. It is imperative our urban planning ensures that we do not locate poorer and more vulnerable people in areas that are subject to flooding. 

Responsive City and Informal Settlement Emergency Services

We also have considerable work to do to ensure our emergency services are able to respond rapidly to disasters in informal areas.  South African cities have, however been very innovative in mitigating climate change through taking measures to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We have played key leadership roles in the many global climate change initiatives.

The NUA calls for respect for the rights of refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons regardless of their migration status.  Here, white racism has sadly also found a new bedfellow with our growing xenophobia.  Much remains for us to build a humane and caring society.

Public Transport across South African Cities

In improving connectivity many South African cites have gone a long way in providing safe reliable and affordable public transport, but there are many challenges in doing this:  our sprawling residential suburbs mean that we simply do not have sufficient people living in proximity to one another to make public transport viable without significant government subsidies. 

Outdated town planning schemes

Our outdated town planning schemes have created dormitory suburbs far from places of employment.  This means that in the morning, buses are full going into town and empty coming out, even further limiting the viability of our transport.  We need to accept that our urban areas must densify and diversify if they are to be sustainable.

Safe, accessible and green public spaces

Finally, the NUA calls for the provision of safe, accessible and green public spaces: places that are accessible and can be used by all residents of a city.  Yet, many of our open spaces are not well maintained and are not safe.  There are also significant variations in the quality of public open space in poorer areas compared to our older, whiter suburbs.  We must guard against privatizing public space, through making it inaccessible or expensive.

Building Urban Ares Together

Most importantly, though, is that our social, economic, spatial, financial and environmental challenges require of us a mindset that gets us all building our urban areas together.  In this regard, the continuing and residual effects of racism must get addressed.  In most of our municipalities, practically, racial segregation, which also means income segregation, has hardly changed after twenty years of democratic government.

As a result of our apartheid past, a number of large urban municipalities exist with low economic activity, but with large populations, living in fairly dense conditions.   We need a find national solution to how we can enhance their capacity to address the SDG and NUA goals.

We must develop new urban rules and regulations, with improved urban planning and design, but with the provision of developmental finance to ensure our plans get implemented.

As we celebrate World Cities Day on October 31 we must all ask of ourselves what we are doing, or can do, to address the spatial transformation of South Africa. In this process we must reflect on the challenges associated with transforming a built environment designed for colonialism and racism.  Our new deal for South African cities and towns must steer urban growth towards a sustainable growth model of compact, connected and coordinated cities and towns, where we can reach the NDP goals of spatial justice, spatial sustainability, spatial resilience, spatial quality and spatial efficiency.