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Reversing the legacy of apartheid spatial planning

The legacy of apartheid spatial planning – which condemned the majority of the population to live far away from their places of work and other amenities – forces many working-class people to spend too much time and money getting to work and back home.

Between laws like the Group Areas Act, the pass laws and the migrant labour system, black South Africans were subjected to dehumanising circumstances during colonial and apartheid rule. They were bulldozed out of their homes and communities, dumped on inhabitable land and their movements into places of work were restricted by unjust laws.

The pain of our cruel past is hard to forget, especially for those people who still live far away from economic opportunities because of the enduring legacy of apartheid’s unjust spatial patterns.

To get to work on time, the working class and the poor spend a lot of their day commuting. Some use two or more modes of public transport to get to work and often leave when their loved ones are still asleep. After a day’s work, they face the long commute home and the result is that they hardly get to see their families.

According to Statistics South Africa, more than two-thirds of households in the lowest income quintile spend more than 20 percent of their monthly household income per capita on public transport.

This is a feature of poor households and when the ever-increasing cost of living is brought into the fray, a huge hole is left in their budgets, which leads to households struggling to make ends meet. This acts as an obstacle to creating social cohesion and building the nation.

Integrated Urban Development Framework

But this issue can be changed and is being addressed. Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA) Deputy Minister Andries Nel says the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) is one of the mechanisms that the department is utilising to bring about spatial justice.

“The legacy of apartheid spatial planning, and things like the Group Areas Act, the pass laws and the migrant labour system, have had a profound impact on our cities and towns, which remain highly segregated and highly fragmented,” said the Deputy Minister in an interview with PSM.

He said that urban areas are spatially unjust because, very often, it is the poorest in society who have to travel the longest distances.

“Some of the great achievements of our democracy at the level of service delivery have, ironically, reinforced apartheid spatial planning. We have built over 3.5 million houses over 25 years. There are very, very few societies in the world that can claim to have done so much in so little time. But when you look at where those houses have been built, they are very often on the peripheries of our cities and towns.”

This has reinforced segregation and fragmentation, he said, explaining that it has also stretched the capacity of our water, sanitation and transport infrastructure.

It is for these reasons that the National Development Plan (NDP) recognises the need to transform South Africa’s national space economy.

“And the integral part of transforming our national space economy is also strengthening the linkages between urban areas and rural areas. When we talk about urbanisation and urban development, what we are really saying is that our urban areas and our rural areas are inextricably connected. You need strong urban areas to promote rural development, but you also need strong and viable rural areas to support strong and viable urban areas,” he pointed out.

The objective of the IUDF – which was adopted by government in 2016 – is to transform urban spaces by reducing travel costs and distances, preventing further development of housing in marginal places, increasing urban densities to reduce sprawl, improving public transport and the coordination between transport modes, and shifting jobs and investment towards dense peripheral townships.

Fundamental change needed

During his recent reply to oral questions in the National Assembly, President Cyril Ramaphosa said it was unacceptable that the working class and poor, who are overwhelmingly black, are located far from work opportunities and amenities.

He said the urban spatial patterns that government inherited from apartheid, and which persist to this day, contribute to the reproduction of poverty and inequality – and must be fundamentally changed.

The President said government should make cities generators of wealth and reservoirs of productivity.

He added there is a need to eradicate the economic inefficiencies of transporting a workforce from dormitory townships into centres.

The radical transformation of our urban spaces is, therefore, both a social and economic imperative.

He also stressed that it was through instruments like the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act of 2013 and the IUDF that South Africa is now approaching spatial planning guided by principles of social equity and economic efficiency.

Fostering social cohesion

Deputy Minister Nel echoed the sentiments of the President, saying addressing apartheid spatial planning is a priority and can work if the country approaches urbanisation – which has picked up in South Africa and other countries – at an accelerated pace.

He said by 2012, when the NDP was adopted, 63 percent of South Africans were already living in urban areas. By 2050, urbanisation will be up to 71 percent.

“We are looking at eight out of every 10 South Africans living in urban areas. On the one hand, there are tremendous social and economic benefits to be derived from urbanisation.

“Cities give rise to a tremendous amount of energy and creativity and many people living together closely, and especially young people, fosters social cohesion because people from different backgrounds come together and they are forced to live together. Cities can also, if urbanisation is managed correctly, be a lot more resource-efficient and environmentally sustainable,” added the Deputy Minister.

On the other hand, if a city does not plan for urbanisation and fails to manage it properly, “it can give rise to a concentration of poverty. It can give rise to huge sprawling informal settlements characterised by unsanitary living conditions, by high rates of crime, huge social problems like drug addiction and gender-based violence.

“If you don’t manage urbanisation properly, it can have devastating consequences for the environment. It can create huge vulnerability to natural and human disasters. So really, that then is one of our biggest national challenges.”

Role of local government

Deputy Minister Nel believes that spatial planning and efficient urbanisation need to be addressed at the municipal level, which means that local government needs to be strong and viable.

“In CoGTA, our assessment is that out of 250 municipalities, one-third are doing well.”

However, he said that while these better performing municipalities get many of their basics right, they face an array of challenges which, if not arrested, could allow them to slide into dysfunctionality.

“One-third of our municipalities – about 87 – are either dysfunctional or in distress,” the Deputy Minister pointed out. He added that the Back to Basics initiative, aimed at improving municipalities, is based on five pillars – it puts people first, ensures the delivery of basic services, dictates that municipalities practise good governance, promotes sound financial management, and builds strong and resilient institutions of developmental local government.

It is vital that the right people with the right qualifications are appointed to municipal positions, he emphasised.

Forging a social spatial compact

The Deputy Minister said while inroads are being made in dealing with the legacy of apartheid spatial planning, government needs the involvement of social partners to ensure that spatial justice is achieved.

All tiers of government, and society as a whole, need to work together if South Africa is to realise the NPD’s vision of transforming the national space economy, he added.

“I think it is a point that the President has emphasised over and over again – that we need to build a social compact and also to build a social spatial compact. It is something that he articulated very sharply in a reply to a question on urban land in August in Parliament.”

The Deputy Minister said as a result of that call, the department hosted the South African Urban Conference, which allowed government, business, labour and civil society to discuss the best way to implement the country’s urban agenda.

“Out of that, we agreed that we would work towards establishing a national urban forum that brings together those social partners… in an ongoing dialogue about implementing the urban agenda, leading next year to an urban summit,” he added.

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