Let Us In

The Financial Mail
December 2012

<< <  >

“The events of the past year have left many South Africans uncertain about the nation’s future. Phrases such as ‘police massacre’, ‘credit rating agency downgrade’ and ‘failed state’ have slipped into conversations for the first time since the end of apartheid.

In light of these significant challenges, particularly with a view to an increasingly murky future, South Africans are questioning how we got here exactly, and why after eighteen years of democracy South Africa’s bright, kaleidoscopic future has been demoted to an over-ambitious dream.

An abstract concept not explored by many South Africans regularly holds some answers. Beyond the centimetres between two paintings on a wall, an engine capacity, the size of an en-suite bathroom or an expansive field, ‘Space’, is central to the fractious nature of South African society, and remains at the core of our social, and economic divides.

Apartheid’s most pervasive, most obvious and often most subliminal impact on our society today is spatial. While apartheid legislated division, it essentially built itself on a firm foundation of segregation laid by successive colonial and capitalist processes. Towns and cities were planned on racial and socio-economic grounds, mine-workers were housed near the mines, factory workers near the factories and the wealthy far away on large plots, removed from the rough and tumble city.

Apartheid drew on these early spatial divisions in society, and enforced them aggressively. Central to the apartheid plan was an anti-urban strategy; a diverse, dense, messy city similar to the likes of New York and London would have been obsessive apartheid’s worst planning nightmare. Separating races, into different, dislocated neighbourhoods, combined with the coring out of the little urbanity we as South Africans had in the nineties, has resulted in largely disconnected, suburban communities burdened with an entrenched culture of exclusion, mistrust and otherness.

This dislocation remains visible in a city such as Johannesburg through its sprawling urban appendages, where the likes of Lenasia, Soweto, Orange Farm and the post-apartheid Diepsloot remain largely peripheral to any urban and economic centre, hampering social integration and economic opportunity.

Our cities are underpinned by this legacy. Instead of racial divides, socio-economic difference is pervasive, with very little true social mixing occurring. In this sense, an economic apartheid exists in our cities, and despite the fact that spatially we as citizens occupy a more diverse, shared city, this is ineffective without true social overlap, encounter and real public experience. One of the greatest challenges to a truly public society, has been that of private interest, where property value and the individual trump a sense of public good. This urban selfishness is a daily reality in our cities, rooted in a forced historical social, cultural and racial disconnect. In his 2010 book entitled Seeking Spatial Justice, renowned urban theorist Ed Soja described Johannesburg as a ‘polarised cityscape of fortressed urban extremes,’ - an apt description for an often-abrasive city.

For example, towering walls festooned with barbed wire do not make integrated communities; aggressive disregard for pedestrians by motorists cannot create a harmonious society, and increased self-exclusion in the form of security and ‘nature’ estates divide society more successfully than apartheid ever managed to achieve, with private security companies and walls to boot, albeit at a socio-economic level.

While violence in our society, and an often-ineffective police force are listed as reasons for the fortification of our suburbs, it is perhaps the deep mistrust felt between polar communities that underlies this self-isolation. This socio-economic spatial exclusion and marginalisation has been in the news as its frictions erupt in different incarnations globally.

The Occupy movement over the past two years has been staking their claim in public space all over the world, and calling for greater financial transparency together with the relinquishing of global financial power by the fabled top 1%. While the South African Occupy protests were small, large demonstrations such as the mine and vineyard worker’s strikes can be seen in a similar light, as employees demand significant increases from company owners who are often seen as detached and hyper-wealthy. This significant movement doesn’t call for a global rebalancing of financial power, but rather for greater financial control that enables wealth to migrate down the pyramid.

Urban Marikanas in the form of often-violent service delivery protests have flared up in South Africa during the last decade too. It is important to note that these occur in places usually on the urban periphery, and come to represent a spatial frustration that is presented through a service delivery argument. In effect, these communities would greatly benefit from being much closer to the economic heart of the city, where even if opportunity isn’t available, its possibility inspires hope.

Being spatially located closer to the city, in dense communities allows services to be provided on a far more cost effective basis, where well reasoned installations benefit larger communities, as opposed to small peripheral pockets reliant on significant stretches of piping and cabling. It is up to significant strategic planning on behalf of municipalities to ensure that urban migrants are supported and catered for, inner-city evictions and demolitions here represent the failure of the city to accommodate inevitable inner-city growth, and not the failure of residents to fall within formalised processes.

It is useful to question too, why a more public and equal city is important if, as is the case in Johannesburg, the increased privatisation of services seems to make delivery more effective. The answer is quite simple. In order for all South Africans to draw social and economic benefit from living in or near a city they need to be able to freely access the space of the city, its squares, parks, streets and plazas. Should these become more and more privatised as is the case in Johannesburg where malls replace squares, gated communities control roads, and private transport operators replace public options, those without economic and social capital will continue to be increasingly marginalised. An economic division again replaces a legislated apartheid. It is thus without surprise that those sectors of society who continue to be excluded, under serviced and disenfranchised are becoming increasingly frustrated.

While capturing an essence of current waves of public discontent, urban solutions are not impossible. A large scale rethinking of what the notion of city in post-apartheid, post-Marikana South Africa is necessary. This implies that the city has to be seen as the domain of all its residents, where neighbourliness and common good needs to replace mistrust and scepticism. The city needs to be seen as a place where everyone is welcome, and where all can apply their trade and benefit from being at an important node in a global network. The city cannot remain the exclusive playpen of the profit hungry developer where cut-price buildings result in a cut-price urban experience for the rest of the population.

Looking forward at 2013, it is of pressing urgency that city planners, developers, urban designers, engineers, architects and citizens understand the effect their decisions have on the equality of our society. Before building a solid wall around your house, moving into a secluded security estate, developing a Sandton skyscraper without any form of public realm provision, closing off a road or forcibly removing a hawker, consider the impact these decisions have for our society. The continued spatial marginalisation and isolation of South Africa’s underprivileged majority will further fuel increased public discontent, and very little nation building and city binding can take place in this context.

In 2012, sectors of South African society told the rest of the country that the status quo wasn’t good enough, for the first time unions were denied representative rights from members, and large scale strikes shifted into states of anarchy. 2013 should be a year of reflection and urgent action, for very little will be achieved without the spatial divisions of our society being significantly challenged, and our cities working as cohesive communities.”