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Stable urban centres need more than RDP housing

Date Released: Tue, 10 February 2015 14:00 +0200

IN THE lead-up to last year’s elections President Jacob Zuma and other state officials argued that where service delivery protests were concerned, the African National Congress (ANC) was a victim of its own success — people’s expectations caused cascading demands that the state did not always have the capacity to meet immediately.

Writing in Business Day, Municipal IQ researchers Karen Heese and Kevin Allan agreed that government success did create unrealistic expectations but warned that "the danger of the ‘victims of success’ argument is that it papers over some of the serious developmental cracks that manifest in service delivery protests…. It overlooks (numerous) protests where there are very clear delivery failures. It sidesteps the very pressing issue of inequality in our largest cities."

The point about creating sustainable cities is critical and very complex, especially for politicians who are working on a five-year election cycle. This is important to grasp because it is clear that our towns and cities are struggling to provide adequate economic and social services for growing populations.

In that sense there is another way in which to understand the ANC being a victim of its own success. So successful has the delivery of RDP housing and associated amenities been that this has become the de facto urban development paradigm. The most believable evidence that the government "works" for its people is the expansive roll-out of RDP housing. The state has thus continued with the momentum of the winning "RDP" formula and has to some degree become trapped by it.

This is understandable because, apart from the cry for jobs, everywhere you go in SA people tend to say one common thing: "Sifuna izindlu" (We want houses). There is nothing wrong with this, of course. In fact, the RDP house has become a kind of catch-all compensatory mechanism for all the economic and spatial injustice wrought by colonialism and apartheid. Housing is not just about shelter but about restoring some dignity to black South Africans who have lost more than they can be compensated.

The problem, however, is that in the South African urban context, the state has to go beyond housing provision and grapple with the economic and social realities that come with SA being a global destination for migration. In policy terms, the shift from "housing" to "human settlements" was the beginning of a much more holistic approach to urban development.

The promulgation of the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act of 2013 and the drafting of a National Integrated Urban Development Framework are productive steps in shifting towards a more integrated notion of what developing our urban areas would entail.

But these new policy trajectories continue to take "historical redress" and "reversing the apartheid spatial legacy" as a point of departure. This is a backward-looking premise as 20 years into democracy — even though SA’s towns and cities bear the marks of segregation — new dynamics of settlement, mobility and trade have entrenched themselves.

In the recent wave of xenophobia-related violence, it was noteworthy that well-meaning politicians tended to still talk of township economies as spaces that were quintessentially South African in character. However, this is only the case because, historically, apartheid forcefully kept certain people in and others out. In reality, places such as Soweto and, indeed, Johannesburg itself, are global cities whose populations are going to become more culturally, linguistically and socially diverse. It is inevitable. I must qualify that the citizens of Soweto and other places hit by xenophobia actually do and have always accepted diversity.

The trouble is that for as long as inequality persists and the state cannot practically implement new forms of urban development, bigotry and resentment will flare up where people are hardest hit by unemployment and poverty. We need to now move from the theory of holistic urban development into practice. Even though the RDP house package wins trust and votes, it is no longer enough to create stable and cohesive urban centres.

By Nomalanga Mkhize

Source: Business Day

Photo: An RDP house in the Matthew Goniwe area of Kwazakhele, Port Elizabeth. Picture: THE HERALD

Mkhize is a lecturer in the history department at Rhodes University.

 

Source:Business Day