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The powder kegs of unmet expectations in our midst


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

Africa's future success is going to be measure by how its cities are transformed into dynamic powerhouses of development. Bold decisions are needed to prevent social instability that will threaten our social fabric.

Kibera sits like a huge sprawling mushroom of shacks on the outskirts of Nairobi. No-one knows how many people live there and not many want to be counted in official statistics, but unofficially many claim it is more than a million. It is a teeming bustling place which is now part of a familiar sight on the African landscape.

It is an inevitable fact of life that nothing is going to stop this massive migration to cities in Africa. It’s driven by young people who believe cities hold the magical aspirational goals of jobs, wealth and success.

Kibera shows little evidence of public investment. The streets are crowded with little children scrambling over the running drains and uncollected refuse.

Yet in the midst of the poverty and squalor beats a vibrant heart of entrepreneurialism. Everyone seems to be making and selling something. From cow dung fuel bullets to buckets of coal, from rocks that are calcium rich for pregnant mothers to tailors, micro-hammer mills, vegetable stalls, electronic shops and even Internet cafes. This is a thriving eco-system.

MPesa is a widespread and visible system of electronic money banking which allows money to be transferred by mobile phone. This is the poor at the bottom of the pyramid often living on less than $1.25  a day harnessing the most cutting edge technologies. It’s estimated that close to 10% of country’s GDP is held at any one point in the MPesa, with a maximum at $2,000. Today the poor can pay many of their purchases on the MPesa platform. They are not powerless anymore.

We visited a clinic for children. It was crowded with mothers and infants. The health care volunteers and nutritionist spoke about the challenges facing Kibera. Close to 43% of children are stunted and close to 15% are wasted.

They do a simple test of the circumference of a child’s arm to determine nutrition status. A fortified flour is distributed to mothers to feed the malnourished children.

Often this food in a settlement with high levels of unemployment is shared by the whole family. So in many cases, nutrition status does not improve. Health workers are trying to improve breast feeding rates, which stand at only 6%, but they are stretched too thin to be effective.

It is estimated that in a decade 60% of Kenyan people will live in cities. An integrated strategy is needed to combine public investment in water, sanitation, roads, boosting the entrepreneurialism that is so evident today and combining with access to health, education and nutrition services.

Africa’s future success is going to be measured by how its cities are transformed into dynamic powerhouses of development. Bold decisions are needed to blend public, private and donor capital investment with the social capital of such communities to accelerate densification of housing, opportunities and basic services.

Otherwise these informal settlements will become a powder keg of unmet expectations that will ignite social instability and threaten our social fabric.

The choices African leaders will make will determine our future trajectory and ability to deliver on the hopes of our people.

There is much that SA can learn from Kenya and the rest of Africa.

Hopefully we can summon the political will to invest in our Diepsloots, Khayelitshas and Mthathas to improve governance and accountability, and to ensure that we encourage dynamic grassroots civil society again that drove our struggle for freedom in the eighties.

It will threaten the unquestioning loyalty and obedience that local political leaders demand from citizens. But it will disrupt the strong patronage networks that strangle the hopes of people.

To tolerate corruption, mediocrity and demand blind party loyalty will factionalise our political structures and communities. Ultimately ownership of delivery by local people is our guarantee of democracy. We should never forget that simple fact. DM



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