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Where you live matters: Undoing spatial injustice

Primrose and Makause, unequal neighborhoods in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photograph by Johnny Miller, 2016; to view Miller's work and discover more images from the Unequal Scenes project, follow him on Instagram @johnny_miller_photography
By Sarah Hoek
20 Jul 2021 22

The political landscape may have changed, but the landscape of our cities remains largely the same as apartheid-era South Africa. The borders are no longer legally enforced, but their legacy is still keeping South Africans separated, and divided we fall.

The accident of where you were born, who your family is and what kind of economic and social circumstances you’re born into has a really massive and material effect on what possibilities there are for your life and for your community,” explains Dr Naomi Roux, a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, where a huge amount of the nation’s wealth remains concentrated in the top 1% of the population, and the top 20% holds over 68% of the country’s income, according to a 2020 report by the International Monetary Fund. This means that income distribution remains highly skewed, and the top 10% of the population spends on average 7.9 times more than the bottom 40%, states data from StatsSA.

Aside from the facts and figures, the inequality is visible, the separation between people is tangible, and the foundations of cities run deep, built around colonial ideology that has not left us.

“It is important to understand that apartheid was a consequence of centuries of spatial inequality and displacement, rooted in agendas of conquest and colonial land grabs. Apartheid and the effects of that moment which was most visible on the global stage is still being felt,” explains Maurietta Stewart, a heritage practitioner, planner and academic.

In April 1950, the Minister of the Interior introduced the Group Areas Bill, which became law as the Group Areas Act two months later, systemising segregation, explains Patricia Johnson-Castle for South African History Online.

Though the legal borders were abolished, the effects of the act manifests in borders that are still maintained decades after the apartheid regime ended.

“Race groups continue to live very separately within cities,” says Dieter von Fintel, a senior lecturer in economics at Stellenbosch University.

Hout Bay, Cape Town. Photograph by Johnny Miller; to view Miller’s work and discover more images from the Unequal Scenes project, follow him on Instagram @johnny_miller_photography
Philippi, Cape Town. Photograph by Johnny Miller; to view Miller’s work and discover more images from the Unequal Scenes project, follow him on Instagram @johnny_miller_photography
Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course, Durban. Photograph by Johnny Miller; to view Miller’s work and discover more images from the Unequal Scenes project, follow him on Instagram @johnny_miller_photography
Hout Bay, Cape Town. Photograph by Johnny Miller; to view Miller’s work and discover more images from the Unequal Scenes project, follow him on Instagram @johnny_miller_photography

“In South Africa, pictures paint a thousand words, and within cities, we can see visual fault lines between rich and poor. When we map indicators across the country as a whole, it is often easy to visually identify the borders between former apartheid homelands and the rest of the country – without actually having to draw those borders on the map.

“Almost three decades since the homelands were abolished, the invisible line still exists: people experience hunger more regularly in these areas and they have very low access to jobs.

“Those histories are written into the landscape,” Roux says.

While these spaces are connected by highways and in some cases, are mere metres away from each other, they are worlds apart. Inequality has separated us, and countrymen live in different South Africas, a nation divided. This is apparent in who has access to what amenities, jobs, education and lifestyles.

“Within every city and town, exclusive business precincts and upmarket suburbs with first-rate amenities are juxtaposed with overcrowded townships and squalid shack settlements. In rural areas, remote villages with mud schools and no piped water contrast with luxurious game lodges and affluent country estates,” writes Professor Ivan Turok in a 2018 paper, an expert in urban and regional development and policy.

“One inequality feeds into another, and can reinforce the existing spatial patterns. Living in a poorly serviced part of the city can constrain long-term life prospects,” Von Fintel explains.

“Spatial and geographic inequality is a deliberate engineered condition which has been engraved on our City’s landscape through centuries of racist ideology which has been inherited. This is not just a physical spatial manifestation but it is deeply connected to identity, inheritance and heritage,” Stewart says. The effects of divisions are rearing ugly heads in post-democratic South Africa, with enormous consequences on mental and physical health, and the impact of the environments people traverse is carried in bodies.

“We see the spatial inequality by ways people move through space. For example, for a woman to wake up at 4am in Khayelitsha, walk through unsafe streets, wait for a bus which will take her to a taxi rank, wait for a taxi, and the get dropped off in Constantia, where she has to walk further to get to her place of work as a domestic worker is grossly unjust,” Stewart poses.

“She has put her body at risk, she is constantly on high alert. Her mental health is impacted. Her money is used on exorbitant transport costs. She has no quality time with her family and spends her days looking after someone else’s family in Constantia. Her kids have to get to school on their own. They are not safe. They have no parent at home to help with homework. There are so many of these scenarios.”

Roux believes that righting these wrongs involves “undoing the circumstance where  your life is so circumscribed by just where you were born”.

Kya Sands and Bloubosrand, Johannesburg. Photograph by Johnny Miller; to view Miller’s work and discover more images from the Unequal Scenes project, follow him on Instagram @johnny_miller_photography
Dunoon, Cape Town. Photograph by Johnny Miller; to view Miller’s work and discover more images from the Unequal Scenes project, follow him on Instagram @johnny_miller_photography
Khayelitsha. Photograph by Johnny Miller; to view Miller’s work and discover more images from the Unequal Scenes project, follow him on Instagram @johnny_miller_photography

“Even separate from all other issues, the difference between being born in Oranjezicht versus Khayelitsha is so determinative in many ways of what’s available to you,” she says.

“If you live somewhere that’s 30 kilometers out of the centre of Cape Town and you have a job in the CBD, it’s kind of almost impossible for you to get proper access to the amenities of urban life. These legacies of the past, that we’ve not been able to overcome, are so encoded in how cities are laid up, where people live, what kind of circumstances we live in.”

Spatial inequality, like most unjust things, still exists because it benefits an elite minority. It is an ugly cycle that systemically maintains a standard of living that varies, determined on postal code and street name.

“One of the central jingles in real estate is ‘location, location, location’. If wealthier citizens gained access to the best locations first, their every economic decision can reinforce their existing wealth; they are likely to safeguard their premium locations in which they have invested. If poorer citizens are excluded from these beautiful and economically central locations, they remain excluded from accessing and creating new economic opportunities,” Von Fintel explains.

Further, efforts to integrate cities often come with conflict, he says.

“Introducing low-cost housing into wealthier areas brings fears of crime, high-density living and added strain to otherwise smooth service delivery. There is resistance to this kind of change. In many cases, poorer individuals have established themselves in informal settlements close to wealthier areas. But slow integration into infrastructure networks mean that living conditions remain poor: with poor sanitation, reliance on illegal electricity connections and no permanent water connections. This contributes to conflict: one part of a neighbourhood is established and enjoys world-class services, the other part experiences the opposite.”

Stewart echoes this, saying that power and economic gain entangled with race and identity are a dangerous combination, which plays out in history again and again.

“If spaces are divided, people are divided. If they do not interact across these spatial divides, then social and business networks stay the same, and there is little scope for learning from each other, and to pursue innovation. Spatial exclusion can therefore translate to a lack of innovation and opportunity for some – it has invisible impacts that are nevertheless real,” Von Fintel says.

“I don’t think all South Africans have internalised the deep-seated woundedness we are in. It is extreme. We have to do a deep reckoning [and] deal with the everyday injustices which took place against all brown bodies in our country. We need to hear the stories of dispossession, heritage, loss of heritage, and how homes were stolen. All of us need to hear it,” believes Stewart.

“We need to deal with the systemic and generational trauma which has muscle memory. When we see tyres burn and buildings torn down, we need to ask why and we need to listen.” DM/ML

All images are courtesy of photographer Johnny Miller; to view Miller’s work and discover more images from the Unequal Scenes project, click here. You can also follow him on Instagram: @johnny_miller_photography.

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All Comments 22

  • There are three avenues:

    1. Confiscate from the wealthy and redistribute. A 50% wealth tax on the wealthiest 1000 might raise R150b. Distribute that among 30 million poorest is one month’s minimum wage. That does not move the needle for the poor but it shifts the inequality coefficient nicely.

    2. Decrease the population. Our comrades in China gave us an example of the impact on GDP per capita of a one-child policy. It takes as long as the ANC is in government to pay off. Imagine the ANC implemented even a two child policy in 1994…. Imagine the Nats had done so in 1974 and invested in education. We would be about twenty five million fewer miserable people and the twenty five remaining would be sharp and employable. Now THAT moves the needle!

    3. Grow the pie. Economic growth has been pathetic – under ANC and before. We play too nicely in trade with other nations. Dumping has eviscerated several viable sectors. We waste money on silly programs like subsidizing black industrialist programs instead of best industrialist programs. We steal and waste large chunks of money that should have applied leverage to the economy.

    Our government is already taxing the rich disproportionately. Almost everything excepting food is free for the poor and the rich pay 45%
    Will our government implement a one child policy? That is probably not ubuntu because five kids is the only joy poor people have :/ 🙁

    FUBAR

  • Allow me to suggest a number of solutions: (1) We should end Apartheid as soon as possible. (2) We should implement a redistributive tax system as soon as possible. (3) We must absolutely and without delay, base property taxes on the values of properties so as to subsidise the poor. (4) We should give the people in these poor communities the right to vote, so that they can elect competent local, provincial and national government and hold them to account for corruption, in the unlikely event that it occurs. (5) We should provide free or subsidised basic education, health care, housing and implement a social grant system. ‘Long shot’, I know, but we can try.

    • A solution requires more than just the statement itself…U want world peace to, but it doesn’t just happen because I want it.
      Almost all of your suggestions have major stumbling blocks that need to be addressed. Simply stating that you want to raise taxes without looking at who is paying and how much, how that tax is currently being spent (or stolen in our case), is absolutely meaningless.

      • Your sarcasm detector appears to be unserviceable. Read my comment again. All five ‘suggestions’ have been with us for decades, some even during Apartheid. I’ll contend here that inequality has gotten worse under ANC rule. I’ll also contend that true equality ie. equality of outcomes is unattainable and even unnatural. Our best bet is to aspire to equal opportunity – to ‘deal them better cards’, but the actual outcome will depend ‘on how they play those cards’ and perhaps other factors no one controls. Focusing policy on inequality is often misguided. In all countries with high inequality, poverty is the actual problem, and that’s where policy should focus.

    • 1) Done in 94
      2) This is the Government that you talk about. Half of the money the rich earns go to them and they say they give it to the poor. Half the profits the companies make go to them and they say they give it to the poor. It is not the tax scale that is the problem. Don’t tell the poor that you will look after them teach them responsibility. Rich countries like USA & UK have a poor problem because they give them money for nothing.
      3) What do you think your property tax is based upon? Even electricity is more expensive in Bryanston than in Edenvale due to rich people in Bryanston.
      4) Who in these communities doesn’t have the right to vote? They’ll vote for the ANC though.
      5) State schooling & hospitals exists. But the problem once again is government must fund these, you know those people who feels we may not see their financials and should be paid a few million a year. There is a social grant already.

      Rather let’s be practical:
      1) Reduce the amount of work kids do and school but increase the quality they learn. (Learn from the Finns)
      2) If you give social grants for those that earn nothing, give those that earn small amounts a smaller amount and then eventually swing to where you can tax. Otherwise, it is more lucrative to go on social grants than to work.
      3) Don’t increase social grants for people of working age with inflation, forcing them to go find a job.
      4) Don’t make a race a victim. Treat all the same.
      5) If you have no excuse & don’t pay tax, no state service

  • Naive at best.
    Start with proper education and by world standards we have the budget. But when you allow the unions to run education the inevitable disaster unfolded. Unemployable people are well…..unemployable ! This is worsened up by the ineptness, lack of caring, and corruption of the ruling party ! Reducing pass mark percentages does not assist society at all.

    Without skills and with corruption our beautiful country will continue on the path to hell in a hand basket !

    Perhaps vote with more intelligence !!!!

  • Time to focus some town planning capital on purchasing land and creating greening within townships – properly maintained. Redistribution is not all we need -we need Place Making. Safe Space making.

    • Jennifer, if you look carefully at some of the low income areas, you will see a pattern of similar and spaced homes. Those were RDP homes, one per plot, spaced out. Almost immediately, the new owners put up shacks in the yard for extra income.

      You can plan all you want

  • This is such an important matter for us all. A small but critically important step is to speed up land restitution, for example, for Protea Village residents who were forcibly removed in the 1960s from Bishops Court – the claim has been awarded but 25 years later the slow bureaucratic processes mean that nothing has changed for the past and present residents of the area. The return of 86 families to Bishops Court holds great promise to rebuild a community for the benefit of all the residents.

  • We desperately need economic development with education and training aligned so people can work, earn an income and look after themselves. We have empirical evidence that the Government driving everything, promoting entitlement delivers a poor outcome. Facilitating and creating opportunity is the goal. Unleashing individual potential. ANC economic policy, restrictive legislation etc, are just not cutting it. I’d rather trust my future to millions with vested self interest than a few thousand bureaucrats that by and large cannot keep their hands out the cookie jar. Centralised BIG is bad! It’s common sense that rule of law must be a fundemental element of any society, and yet powerful political leadership seem intent on rather tearing it down for selfish gain. Just how sick are these people! Most South Africans want to work together to make a better future for all, but the power placed in politics is distracting us from our real mission. The pictures are a graphic expose of social disaster, but redrawing the lines, or integrating people with dramatically different economic resources whilst satisfying a small element of the problem will still leave us with an unacceptable level of disparity. An unskilled, unemployable person given a house in a leafy suberb will not help them to make a meaningful life and look after themselves. Time to tackle the real priority issues. Change the way SA is governed, get the economy growing and provide our people opportunity to build a future.

    • Spot on Andy. Education is at the core of this issue and the ANC has done its worst here. Wealthy South Africans already pay high income tax and indirect taxes by paying for security, health care , education, solar electricity etc etc in addition to their taxes. On top of that we deal with racist BEE laws and naive labour laws.
      Disincentivising them further will simply see more people leave and the poor will get poorer.
      There are no short cuts to generating the wealth we need as a country to create sustainable opportunity for the poor.

  • This is an exquisite problem that has to be resolved in so many places. Intergenerational poverty has to be addressed. The only fair way to do it, is a significant change in Inheritance Tax. Equal individuals, starting off in their adult lives in 1945, would end up with hugely different outcomes, based on race, due to serious social engineering. This flows into the generations that followed. Of course, just acquiring ‘clawed back’ riches does in no way assure that those funds would be used correctly. In fact, history presents an opposite outcome. Somehow, a way must be found. Our future depends on it. (The USA has the same challenge, with regards to slavery/John Crow era repatriations. Native Americans, although still suffering greatly, have found some solace in their reservation lands & special status.)

    • What hogwash. People do better in life for many reasons. They might work harder, take more risk, simply be smarter irrespective of colour. Years ago I read a book about US $ millionaires, when this was a lot of money. 80%were worth a million because they worked two jobs in their own business working 60 or 80 hours a week for 20 years. Another person chooses to go to gym 30 hours a week, another to spend time with their family and friends, then some are just plain lazy. Why can those who choose to work not keep the money they made, incidentally they also created work for others and paid taxes. Your tunnel vision view is part of the reason SA is in such a mess. Give people opportunity, but those that work harder, and or are smarter should keep the spoils, they deserve them. We are trapped in communistic/socialistic dogma where big brother controls what we do trying to make everyone equal, and promises/promotes entitlement, not working for a living. It’s time SA stopped trying to invent the world order and just got on with building a nation built on honesty, integrity and hard work.

    • The problem is not the money you inherit, but rather the importance of books, education etc.
      If you don’t allow people to pay for farms over generations, you will find that it is not profitable to create food for a nation.

      The UK has the same problem, the only difference is that both rich and poor are of all the races in similar quantities. The thing is that education & priorities are different in different areas.

  • In many cities across the world property developers are given incentives such as tax breaks to incorporate affordable housing units in more upmarket, attractive areas close to services, good schools, jobs etc. Would like to know more about whether this has been tried in South Africa and what the experience has been.

  • The facts speak for themselves, but I am tired of seeing the bungling government that has had 27 years to institute changes. Empowerment should not rely on extra taxation but rather compulsory free primary education, and giving property title to all who reside on their patch of land, thereby having security for a loan to develop business. Irrespective of all factors integration is happening organically by people escaping the dismal crime ridden suburbs.
    The author raises the self evident problems but has not proposed any solutions.

  • Spacial disparities exist in cities all over the world.
    A reliable, safe and affordable public transport system would make a huge difference in giving people easier access to facilities and potential jobs and would address all the valid detrimental side effects that were mentioned in the example of the woman having to commute between Khayelitsha and Constantia. Get on a Subway in New York, London or Berlin and you will encounter people from all walks of life and spheres of income, commuting from one side of town to the exact opposite within an hour. This level of public transport is a massive enabler and would facilitate another load of substantial further developments.

    The notion of the last quote of the article that the looting could be seen as a result of inequalities is a slab in the face of all those underprivileged people who resisted walking away with a free TV and instead chose to risk their own safety and came to defend their infrastructure and jobs. And there were many of those.

  • It is essential to separate opinions from facts. To provide solutions it is essential to look at causes. The article frames that perfectly. The colonial and apartheid legacy have compounded the current problem. Add conflict and collapse of neighbouring countries resulting in people crossing the border (often illegally) to the equation and the problem starts to change. Inept and underqualified local government officials have exacerbated the problem so a wealth tax will not solve the problem by any means. Find the cause and work on solving that instead of covering the symptoms with a band aid.

  • These photos really bring it home the huge disparity in the living conditions between the haves snd have nots. It is not to do with race anymore. These physical separations established during apartheid have become firmly entrenched by a generation of ANC misrule. They missed the opportunity in 1994, when we were the worlds darling, of embarking on a massive infrastructure programme. Something akin to council houses built in UK after WW2. Add to that a massive migration from rural areas and neighbouring countries. This infrastructure building would have created employment and developed work skills. This translates into better education, and more employment opportunities. Instead they embarked on a massive programme of self enrichment, lost control of any element of urban planning and adherence to planning regulations. Now in the midst of economic chaos, massive unemployment and continued corruption and ineptitude we are sadly beyond the point of no return.

  • “The accident of where you were born, who your family is and what kind of economic and social circumstances you’re born into has a really massive and material effect on what possibilities there are for your life and for your community,” explains Dr Naomi Roux. OMG, never would have known until Sarah pointed this out.
    “Race groups continue to live very separately within cities,” says Dieter von Fintel. The learning curve continues with dramatic disclosure of new facts.
    Ah … forget it. That kid born to drug dependant parents in Naples is just as OK as his counterpart born to a business tycoon in Milan. It’s South Africa that has a problem – and we all know who caused THAT problem.