Panel Discussion: South Africa's Apartheid Cities Endure Because There Is No Political Will to Change Them

6 May 2014

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Urban land is of symbolic significance in South Africa because it is land that people of colour were historically denied access to. But the historically privileged still own, occupy and enjoy the best urban land.

The question is, why hasn’t our government been able to unlock well-located land in urban areas to provide housing for the people who need it most?

The historically disadvantaged continue to live on marginal land on the peripheries of South Africa’s cities and the apartheid city remains untransformed.

Both The South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung South Africa Office (FES) wish to promote discussion about the transformation of the apartheid landscape in an effort to foster social cohesion in South Africa’s still largely racially and economically segregated society. The organisations co-hosted a panel discussion to interrogate the issue on 17 April 2014.

The event was opened by Renate Tenbusch, Resident Director of the FES South Africa office and the panellists who spoke at the event included, Mark Napier: Principal Researcher at the Built Environment Unit of the CSIR and co-author of the book, “Trading Places: accessing land in African cities”; Thembani Jerome Ngongoma: Member of Executive Committee of Abahlali baseMjondolo (shack dwellers’ movement); Louise Scholtz: Manager at World Wildlife Fund South Africa and leader on joint project with National Association of Social Housing Organisations; and Kate Tissington: Senior Researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa.

Overall, as a result of the contributions of this panel as well as questions and comments from the floor, it became clear that there is paralysis, a lack of imagination and a lack of political will to house the poor and to transform South Africa's apartheid cities. Much of this is happening within a highly corporatized free market environment where municipalities would rather sell off their land for short-term profit than invest in the long-term sustainability of their cities for inhabitants and future generations. Rent collection and maintenance of rental housing stock are activities that South African municipalities simply do not want to burden themselves with.

Talking specifically about urban land, Napier argued that the apartheid city is different in different parts of the country. For example, in Cape Town, the middle of town has no poor people.

Napier said, "I actually heard Helen Zille in a UN event in Cape Town saying that…the poor don't belong in the centre of Cape Town. If they can't afford it, they shouldn't be there. If you look at the city of Cape Town, that's dead right. It's not morally correct, it’s factually correct."

Trying to create equal access to the cities for the poor will require direct intervention, he argued.

Some of the solutions for land reform that were mentioned by Napier include, land claims. However, there are also other incentives and regulations that can be used, such as, using property taxes to reinvest in the city. He also talked about value capture where you use public investment to claw back the profits that the private sector generates once the investment is made, and putting these resources into a redistribution fund, which allows for the funding of better located housing. Expropriation can also be used. It’s an expensive process, but it's totally legal and it's used all over the world, he said.

Napier concluded by pointing out that our housing delivery programme, in the first two decades, has exacerbated inequalities because it has been premised on finding cheap land. But cheap land equals bad location, he argued, so we really need to turn around our housing programme.

The quality of South Africa's democracy is a theme that featured strongly in Ngongoma's input.

"Do we really belong to South Africa, as the poor?" asked Ngongoma, who contended that the poor don't get the support of the middle class. The middle class remains unaware of and is distant from the struggles of the poor.

Ngongoma argued that democracy doesn't work for the poor because their attempts to make their voices heard are criminalised. "One must talk to us and not about us," he said.

Speaking specifically about the land question, Ngongoma argued there is no political will at all to address the issue. State land is the people's land, he said, so why are people who build shacks on state land evicted?

Talking about the availability of rental and social housing stock in the cities, Scholtz argued that there is a worldwide trend towards home ownership, which is affecting the availability of rental stock negatively.

In South Africa, municipalities have sold off much of their rental stock because they are unable to manage their housing stock. However, rental housing is important in South Africa because it provides flexible options to people, and in this country where people are employed in elementary occupations, they need that flexibility to move to where the jobs are.

Scholtz said that it was difficult to determine exactly what rental stock government owns because it is scattered across departments and nobody is accountable or takes ownership of the issue.

The creation of rental or social housing stock provides an opportunity to restructure and reconfigure the apartheid city and address historic inequalities, she concluded.

Finally, Tissington argued that her organisation's work was to help extend poor people's right to the city. For example, by resisting evictions and pushing local government to provide alternative accommodation when people are being evicted or when shacks are being demolished.

The absence of a pro-poor developmental local government perspective to deal with the housing backlog is a fundamental problem, she argued.

The odds are against the poor in terms of improving their access to the city. There is major contestation over well-located land. But those with money are winning, as the drive towards gentrification targets better off residents.

Consequently, affordability is a major constraint. For example, more than half of Johannesburg's inner city residents earn less than R3,200 per month. They are typically employed as domestic workers and security guards. Thus, there is a massive gap between what people are earning and what is made available to them in terms of housing options.

Wrapping up the discussion, SACSIS’ executive director Fazila Farouk said that an argument was emerging for merging housing struggles with the decent wage campaign.

Editor’s Note: The video clip above contains the inputs of speakers on the panel. For the entire event, including the Q&A session with the audience, please listen to the podcast above. If you wish to watch or listen to the individual inputs of the panellists, please follow the links below.

Watch Mark Napier’s presentation on the SACSIS You Tube channel. Listen to a podcast of his input.

Watch Thembani Jerome Ngongoma’s presentation on the SACSIS You Tube channel. Listen to a podcast of his input here.

Watch Louise Scholtz’s presentation on the SACSIS You Tube channel. Listen to a podcast of her input.

Watch Kate Tissington’s presentation on the SACSIS You Tube channel. Listen to a podcast of her input.

Should you wish to repost this SACSIS video, air this podcast or republish this transcript please acknowledge The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

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