South Africa

Op-Ed: ‘World Class’ – Cape Town’s contradictory Quality of Life

By David Reiersgord 29 May 2017

Cape Town is a city of contrasts – of wealth and poverty, electricity and power outages, and crime and safety. As a result of these contrasts, the city is often referred to as a European outpost at the bottom of Africa. A recently published survey by the Deutsche Bank reflects how Cape Town’s quality of life remains one of stark contrasts for those who live in the area, which calls into question what we mean when we invoke “world class”. By DAVID REIERSGORD.

In their annual survey “Mapping the World’s Prices”, Deutsche Bank catalogues how the cost of living fluctuates in cities throughout the globe. New to this year’s report is the “Quality of Life” (QOL) index. This index draws on data from eight categories to determine how one’s quality of life is measured. These categories are: purchasing power, safety, healthcare, cost of living, property price, traffic commute, pollution, and climate. According to these metrics, Cape Town has the 17th best Quality of Life index in the world.

Although shot-through with ambiguity and contextual variation, the Quality of Life index can be a useful metric for analysing how a range of costs and prices vary according to geography and economic particularities. Through this data, we get a sense of the ways in which one’s desire for a quality life is in part determined by a number of interrelated variables.

These variables, however, fail to recognise how Cape Town is a city comprised of stark contrasts. If the city’s Quality of Life index qualifies it to be a “world-class” city, we need to think of what we mean when we invoke the “world”. What the example of Cape Town as having the 17th best Quality of Life reminds us of is that while we might all live in the same world, we don’t have access to or share its resources equally.

From a global perspective of, say, a potential tourist, the Quality of Life index reflects that Cape Town has the kind of world-class offerings most globe-trotters are used to. What it doesn’t reflect is that these offerings are out of reach for the majority that live in Cape Town.

The study draws from Expatistan and Numbeo for data, two databases that generate crowd-sourced information to enhance studies like Deutsche Bank’s. For many of the cities on the list, this kind of information provides useful data that creates a realistic image of a city’s quality of life in relation to other cities around the world.

That being said, one of the issues with employing crowd-sourced generated data in the context of Cape Town is population and the spatial orientation of the city. In areas where wealth is concentrated, like the southern suburbs or the city centre, service delivery is consistently reliable, meaning residents are more likely to participate, because they can be reached more easily. In a city of nearly four million residents, though, these areas comprise less than one million people, according to the most recent national census (2011).

As a result of Cape Town’s historically racialised composition, the vast majority of its residents live in areas like the Cape Flats, where service delivery is inconsistent or, in some cases, non-existent. The voices of these residents appear to be left out; and as such, the study provides a skewed representation of what the Quality of Life index translates to in Cape Town.

While there are many ways to interpret the data from the “Mapping the World’s Prices” survey, three categories reflect this skewed representation within Cape Town’s Quality of Life index, and how the category of “world class” helps to gloss over and in some ways replicate structures of inequality that inhibit the growth and development of the city.

The fist category is Climate Index. Ranked number two behind San Francisco in the United States, Cape Town’s temperate climate, which the study admittedly favours over extremes like humidity, creates a suitable backdrop for a positive quality of life to be achieved. While this category is biased towards temperate climates, it incorrectly assumes that a temperate climate is always, or inherently positive. Cape Town’s temperate climate, though, is incredibly difficult for millions of people that live in inefficient housing susceptible to devastating fires during the summer months, and floods during the winter season.

This measurement also fails to take into consideration environmental extremes, like drought. Cape Town is currently experiencing one of the worst droughts in nearly a hundred years. Due to the spatial as well as economic inequalities that organise much of the city, the consequences of this drought affect different groups of people in different ways, which was poignantly depicted in the city’s list of the city’s top 100 users of water.

From this category, we get a sense of the global inequalities of climate change; namely, that poorer people and countries suffer much more than those who can afford to mitigate environmental circumstances.

The second category reflective of the stark contrasts within Cape Town’s Quality of Life index is “Property Price to Income Ratio”. In the Deutsche Bank survey, Cape Town is ranked fifth for its relatively low property prices (R11,183 for a two-bedroom apartment in the city centre) in relation to average monthly income (R15,662 after tax). It’s important to note that the data generated by Numbeo uses “apartments” as a metric for measuring this index, which is greatly weighted towards specific parts of Cape Town that are developed. As such, the spectrum of what actually qualifies as “housing” in the city, as a result of its historically racialised composition, fails to be recognised.

The third category is “Safety Index”. Cape Town’s history of racial and spatial separation contributes to its significantly high crime rates. Out of 47 cities, Cape Town ranks a dismal 44. Indeed, while many feel Johannesburg is more dangerous, the statistics tell a different story. Cape Town’s crime statistics are disturbing. Extreme gang and gender/sexual violence notwithstanding, the murder rate per 100,000 people, according to the University of Cape Town’s Centre of Criminology, is 65 (more than twice the national average). This figure is comparable with the most violent cities in South America.

These figures remind us that safety means different things to different people. One the one hand, in wealthier parts of the city, where housing is more efficiently organised and service delivery more reliable, a sense of safety can be created through high – sometimes electrified – walls, and gates. On the other hand, poorer areas of the city aren’t able to cultivate a similar sense of safety, because these communities weren’t planned well, due to inefficient space.

Each of these indexes are parts of a much larger and complex portrait of what quality of life means in Cape Town. While there are many great offerings in Cape Town that should indeed be celebrated within South Africa and displayed for the rest of the world, we can’t lose sight of the fact that these offerings are out of reach for millions of the city’s inhabitants. If we want to have a serious conversation about what constitutes quality of life in Cape Town, we should reconsider how its aspirations to be “world class” go against the structural and systemic challenges it faces. DM

Photo: Cape Town by Kyle Witting via Flickr

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