South African cities: The Good Hood Stories campaign seeks out tales of hope amid despair
The Good Hood Stories campaign comes at a time when cities are the sites of contagion, unemployment, inequality, crime and, more recently, deep socioeconomic and political unrest. Amidst it all, ordinary citizens are silently, and without reward, innovating and collaborating to make their cities better places.
Rashiq Fataar is an urban practitioner and founding director of Our Future Cities, an urbanism organisation and consultancy. Fataar has worked for over a decade on projects to shape cities, communities and spaces to become more future-focused, innovative and inclusive. Kayla Hanna Brown is an architect and urban designer, and is Project Manager at the South African Cities Network in the Inclusive Cities Programme, where she conducts research into the issues and dynamics affecting municipalities and their goals of achieving spatial transformation.
South Africa is currently faced with multiple socioeconomic challenges related to persistent poverty and high levels of unemployment and ranks as one of the most unequal societies in the world. The recent unrest that unfolded in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng last month is a reminder of our deep fractures; a symptom of decades of unequal development and limited economic opportunities for a large proportion of South African residents whose realities remain bleak.
Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated poverty and inequality and negatively impacted the informal sector, leaving thousands of households in precarious economic circumstances.
But amidst the doom and gloom, there are many stories of hope that break the mould of apparent despair. That’s what we set out to find in the Good Hood Stories.
It would be more convenient if urban and community development processes were linear, stable and predictable. But from the Good Hood Stories, we see how these processes are dynamic and fluctuating, and include negotiation, sacrifice, agility, active partnership and collaboration. We travelled to Cape Town, Johannesburg, Tshwane, Gqeberha and Durban to share stories of the power of collaborative action, networks of connection, successes, losses and persistence.
The Good Hood Stories are a celebration and demonstration of what is working in cities. They were submitted as a response to the South African Cities Network’s call for inspiring projects that were making residents proud of their city. In total, 34 projects were submitted, of which four were selected to be made into short films that would each showcase the complexity and creativity of their partnerships.
These stories offer practitioners an inspiring impression of what’s possible when the right people come together, as well as instructive lessons to take forward into future practice.
The Good Hood Stories campaign comes at an interesting time in our country’s story. It is a time when cities are the sites of contagion, unemployment, inequality, crime and, more recently, deep socioeconomic and political unrest.
It is a time when municipalities find themselves financially squeezed while simultaneously needing to address ever more complex and competing demands. Shrouded in reproval by the media, academia and our social discourse, there is rarely good news about what cities are getting up to. Yet, amidst it all, ordinary citizens from across sectors are, silently and without reward, innovating and collaborating to make their cities better places.
These people are the heroes of the Good Hood Stories and, listening to their voices, we can find hope to keep going.
From a distance it seems difficult to extract the individual lessons from each project that we can apply to different urban contexts. But a common thread between the projects is the unpacking of not only processes and policies, but uncovering and celebrating the kind of people needed to spur tangible change, their leadership skills and their resilience.
Timing and the importance of the government-NGO interface come to mind when we think about the journey of Monique, Michael and Belinda and the many parts which came together to ignite the Bellhaven Harm Reduction Centre in Durban. The centre illustrates an important collaborative partnership where government objectives align with the NGO sector’s goals at the right time. Key to the success of this project was the timing of the pandemic and the massive need from the vulnerable homeless community in Durban, some of whom are dependent on substances and who were in desperate need of shelter and psychosocial support during the harshest levels of lockdown in March 2020.
Bellhaven’s series of victories was also in part due to the partnership of the eThekwini municipality and, in particular, support from the former deputy mayor. The South African Police Service in Durban also bought into the project and became sensitive to the kinds of struggles that drug users face on a daily basis.
The project has become more than just a way to engage with drug addiction. It has become a shared community space and active placemaking project. A space of socialisation. A recreational space. A space open to all within the community. The centre has indirectly and organically become an example of placemaking, spurred by social action.
In Cape Town, Mzikohna “Mzi” Mgedle, a Langa resident, is promoting a vibrant cycling culture and nurturing future generations by using cycling as an empowerment tool through the Langa Bicycle Hub. Mzi demonstrates a youthful optimism, a commitment to bringing about positive change in his community and an unjaded view of cycling that has allowed him to take action without support from the City or the business sector. He has also single-handedly taken responsibility for marketing, promotion and advocacy strategies to strengthen his small enterprise.
The need for a national movement and agenda to improve walking and cycling routes becomes even more apparent on visits to Tshwane and Joburg. The local government in Tshwane highlights a commitment to partnerships and international networks such as the C40. These relationships have enabled the City to capitalise on policy action and transfer policy plans into tangible non-motorised transport outputs – including the redevelopment of Solomon Mahlangu Drive in Mamelodi to be more pedestrian-friendly and also more accommodating to cyclists.
For the City of Johannesburg, the Johannesburg Inner City Partnership (JICP) is coordinating and promoting the Inner City Walkable Network, a project managed in partnership with the City. This project promotes greater walkability and the integration of people and business within core inner city precincts. With their important oversight and strategic coordination skills, the JICP is playing a crucial role in getting this plan off the ground and aims to leverage off existing inner city urban development and public space projects.
The JICP is also driving the Urban Agriculture Initiative (UAI), which has made the business case for rooftop farming in Johannesburg. The JICP understands the value of partnership and coordination and was a key role-player in bringing various unlikely parties (inner-city property owners and farmers) together to facilitate the establishment of the UAI.
What we’ve learned from the UAI is that there is an invisible layer of parts holding the project together. This layer is the network of key role-players including the JICP, the UAI farmers, Jozi Housing and ultimately the markets and end-users where the produce from UAI rooftop farms ends up. The JICP was able to open up doors of funding, partnerships and knowledge to ensure the successful incubation of the UAI.
Our time in Helenvale, Gqeberha, was a humbling experience. The Safety and Peace Through Urban Upgrading (SPUU) revealed the possibility for meaningful community-government partnership and trust-building in a historically neglected area. One of the lessons that emerged is that partnerships need not be static or linear processes, and that they require endless lobbying, legwork and negotiation. We learnt how the Mandela Bay Development Agency – the agency behind the Helenvale SPUU – walked the tightrope between government agency and community activists.
Helenvale SPUU reveals how a government agency can be nimble and responsive, and can adjust in the process of pivoting. Overall, we highlight the humanity of the project and its emphasis on soft infrastructure and building soft skills.
It is vital to continue sharing and promoting inspiring stories of urban champions steering impactful projects, and how positive change can be facilitated through small actions at the local scale. We have learnt of the immense intricacies and challenges of these Good Hood Stories, but also of their potential, their capacity to inspire and their tangible positive impacts at the community level.
In telling and documenting these stories, we acknowledge and celebrate the richness in the research process. The question remains how to partner with the government in a manner that provides mutual benefits and in pursuit of the common public good. All of the Good Hood Stories underscore the value of partnerships and a commitment to effect social and economic change.
We would love to see all of these projects replicated in other South African cities while responding to context-specific conditions. If local action and leadership is matched with the appropriate government and private sector support, it can catalyse community action, ensuring sustainable and successful precedents for future urban development projects.
While the objective of the Good Hood Stories is to share lessons for good practice, we need to acknowledge that there are no quick wins or easy ways to replicate these projects. Each context will have its own networks that need to be finessed to find opportunities for collaboration.
As Mzi says in his interview, “there is no formula for success”. He is speaking to his own experience of trying, failing and learning to grow forward. While these projects cannot be identically replicated elsewhere, the principles behind them certainly can.
And if nothing else, they serve as a necessary reminder that South African cities continue to be places where good things happen. DM