When the corona virus named SARS-CoV-2, or Covid-19, hit South Africa, we all knew it would mushroom when it reached the townships from the privileged suburbs that imported it. So it did. Few of the people in these constricted settings had been able to build up reserves of strength and a robust immune system. In addition, regular handwashing with an inadequate water supply, and social distancing in overcrowded conditions were pipe dreams. In particular, I want to look at the case of Cape Town, where these neglected areas were soon the hotspots.
We inherited, after apartheid, a divided city, with and the poorer (and darker) citizens deliberately stuck on the outskirts in poorly serviced townships. When cities develop organically, the poorer citizens almost always end up in the inner city, but this was apartheid spatial planning. Today, those townships do mercifully have electricity, but they still exist – still on the outskirts and still locked in poverty – and now the electricity supply is being cut off regularly for load-shedding, which leaves vulnerable people literally in the dark. They are more overcrowded than ever, because urbanisation naturally continues (it had been artificially delayed by Apartheid), and many hopeful new arrivals find homes in backyard shacks. Also, the townships have not been developed or improved, so that more successful residents are not tempted to stay.
The City has often boasted about its administration and claimed to be a shining success. A successful city is one that cares for its people, provides the infrastructure for their needs and tries to improve their lot. In fact, to its shame, it created soulless drop-spots like Wolwerivier and Blikkiesdorp, at least as desolate as anything conjured up by the architects of apartheid. Most of the people dumped there were the children of indigenous groups, descendants of slaves, whose labour helped to create the city, while Cape Town was catering for newer types – with money. Families that had been established for generations were elbowed out of Woodstock, Newlands, Wynberg, and other suburbs. Yet, somehow land was always found for developers of new gated communities and high-rises, while service provision for the poor lagged disgracefully behind. In fact, Cedric Nunn has commented that the townships are now worse off than they were in his youth. He has said that unemployment is high, and most townships are flooded with drugs and a sense of hopelessness.
In the case of Masiphumele, or Site 5, for example, the city has strung the leaders along for decades, delaying, obfuscating, working with selected favourites, but not making a firm, fast commitment to house decently the 30 000 people who live there. A full 30% of the population of the far south is crammed into this small area. Instead of making it a priority to improve conditions and find more land, the City actually lied to leaders in Masi, saying that SANParks owned the land which they had in fact bought from them more than 10 years before! SANParks earmarked it for the development of Masiphumelele. The residents of Masi and other informal settlements once again suffered unbelievable hardship during the recent storms. The Council has made things worse for Masi by extending the road around the vlei without considering people already living in its path. They seem to want to choke Masi, and do not have the political will to extend it, but expand it must, or explode, because it is bursting at the seams. The housing and zoning processes are crippled by over-bureaucratisation.
Particularly telling was the City’s reaction to the homeless at the beginning of the epidemic. They shunted them off to a camp that they erected in Strandfontein – suitably out of sight. Did this facilitate handwashing, social distancing and the wearing of masks? Quite the contrary. It was a give-away of their attitude: get the poor out of “our” city. The poor are Capetonians, the very people the city should be serving. As if more evidence of their motives were needed, they took the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to court when the SAHRC appointed monitors to track the City’s responses regarding homeless and vulnerable groups during the epidemic. The City criticised the monitors and alleged that they were trying to spread misinformation. Now that is a useful allegation when you disagree with what someone is saying, whether it is the truth or not, a point made by Mr Justice Siraj Desai himself during the virtual hearing. He also noted that it was unusual for an organ of state to seek an interdict against a constitutionally mandated guardian of democracy. The City seems to imagine it can operate as a law unto itself. With breath-taking arrogance, they were actually trying to circumscribe the core functions of the SAHRC! It became clear that they would have to provide proof of their allegations, and lo and behold, they withdrew the application they had so carefully, and expensively, drawn up. These points were made by Advocate Norman Arendse, for the SAHRC.
Of course, Cape Town is not the only city that has been battling Covid-19 problems, but my point is that it claims to be a world-class city, ideal for tourists. Its beauty is spectacular, but it turns a blind eye to sections of the community. Recently, a primary school principal complained that he could not even get a fence erected around the school for the children’s safety, while other provincial schools were receiving far more elite deliveries. We are educating our children, all our children, for our future – this should absolutely not be done on a preferential basis.
According to the government statistician, Johannesburg has made better use of the time since Apartheid ended, and is the most integrated city of South Africa’s six major metros. Here is what a chartered financial analyst, Tinyiko Ngwenya, wrote in Fin24 in May 2018, after returning to Johannesburg from Cape Town. He had enjoyed positive experiences, but, in the circumstances, he asked, “How do you convince a child in Khayelitsha that they, too, can achieve financial freedom? … I truly hope that my generation will be the last to experience what I felt while living in Cape Town, and that the city will transform to be a proudly South African city – one that is well integrated and diverse.”
The city needs long-term planning in favour of the working classes. The City owns huge tracts of inner city land that could be used to solve the problem of over-crowded shack towns. The people of Cape Town deserve more than rhetoric.