Defend Truth


Cape Town: Would Elvis and Fela be happy here?


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

Given its already lopsided spatial development, the need for building an inclusive Cape Town is now urgent.

In 2014 Cape Town was declared World Design Capital. According to the World Design Capital website, “this distinction is awarded to cities which recognise design as a tool for social, cultural and economic development”. As a result, Cape Town hosted over 460 design projects aimed at transforming the city.

In May this year, the City’s Transport and Urban Development Authority won the International Public Transport Strategy Award in Montreal. The award was in recognition of The Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) strategic framework adopted by the City in March 2016. The strategy prescribes how new developments across Cape Town should happen and how existing public infrastructure should be transformed to address spatial planning, the high cost of public transport, and urbanisation.

Noble plans, noble ideas, yet one cannot help but think that implementation will be tricky. One also cannot help but ask what exactly being World Design Capital meant for citizens across Cape Town’s urban sprawl. Perhaps it’s unfair to be sceptical, as surely plans and projects arose which were of value?

Nowhere is apartheid’s legacy more obvious than in Cape Town, specifically as regards our very skewed spatial development. Over the past weeks, residents of Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay have been protesting for better housing and, separately, the lack of consultation regarding the Tafelberg school sale has been a noose around the province’s neck. Many poorer residents believe they are being driven out of Cape Town and increasingly gentrified areas like Woodstock, and not being given access to housing near the city and their places of work. Almost daily, commuter trains are delayed, leaving the working class of Cape Town stranded or hopelessly late for work.

Our current reality simply cannot be sustained. Of course, Cape Town may be sui generis (unique) but all South African cities face similar challenges of urbanisation, lagging infrastructure and the remnants of apartheid’s spatial development that see the poor living outside the city and often in low-lying areas prone to floods and sewage leakages.

Sustainable, liveable cities have more than fine plans and far more than lovely cafes in a city centre closed off to the marginalised, who are ferried in and out each day on poor public transport. Liveable cities are safe. Liveable cities have a proper housing mix. Liveable cities have efficient public transport for the majority of their citizens. Liveable cities have a cultural life that is inclusive. And above all, liveable cities have high levels of trust between citizens. Given South Africa’s past, our levels of trust between citizens has always been low and probably even lower still, given the rising levels of inequality, exacerbated by ever-increasing corruption that has broken down much of the social fabric and whatever fragile social cohesion we have had since 1994.

Yet cities are where the rubber hits the road in relation to development and building communities of the future. Cities have the distinct ability to be agents of real social change. They are places in which to live, love, work, thrive and survive. Great cities are able to accommodate diverse forms of expression by those who live in them through art, music, sport, food, literature and graffiti, to name a few. They have a comfortable relationship with those who dissent and with a past that might be haunting. They are inherently at peace with themselves and they are resilient in the face of attack and attempts to divide. They stand for something.

Cities are places of community and individualism, solitude and togetherness. Community within cities often happens in those public spaces; squares, beachfronts, promenades and parks. Public transport links and joins the dots of community. In London, the city’s parks are its greatest asset, New York has the iconic green lung of Central Park and there is no greater pleasure for an Italian than meeting on a public square – places where life is lived more publicly. In Amsterdam, the city is lived in and seen on a bicycle and in Sweden’s cities, the green parks are part and parcel of the city – along with the Swedish “fika” – coffee and a pastry, over a chat. Great cities allow for the casual interaction between people, across all social and racial barriers. Sharing public space is the great leveller, after all, whether on a crammed London tube, a New York subway, a Paris metro or a Berlin U-or S-bahn. 

But, let us also make no mistake these cities themselves face the challenges of inequality with many poorer people increasingly pushed to the margins of cities. In addition, housing for those on the fringes of society has become a challenge which most countries have been unable to deal with adequately. The recent Grenfell Towers incident in London is a case in point. As the United Nations ‘World Cities Report’ of 2016 says, “Persistent urban issues over the last 20 years include urban growth, changes in family patterns, growing number of urban residents living in slums and informal settlements, and the challenge of providing urban services. Connected to these persistent urban issues are newer trends in the urban governance and finance: emerging urban issues include climate change, exclusion and rising inequality, rising insecurity and upsurge in international migration.” It goes on to say that, “Opportunities across diverse individual abilities and cultural backgrounds that historically characterise urban dynamics have stalled in many regions of the world. Too many cities today fail to make sustainable space for all, not just physically, but also in the civic, socioeconomic and cultural realms. The spatial concentration of low-income unskilled workers in segregated residential quarters acts as a poverty trap with severe job restrictions, high rates of gender disparities, deteriorated living conditions, social exclusion and marginalization and high incidence of crime.”

South African cities, for an array of reasons to do with the past and complexities of the present have also failed create those safe spaces for interaction between ordinary people in a society with such high levels of inequality and unemployment.  Of course South African cities have their own texture and while the challenges may appear daunting, there is currently much research underway regarding “adaptive urban governance”. Edgar Pieterse, probably South Africa’s leading expert on cities and resilience is currently concluding a study on so-called “turn-around cities” like Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Kigali, Lagos and Luanda. What can be learnt from these cities and their strategies for development in societies which look more like ours and less like London or Paris? Perhaps between the utopia and dystopia, we may find some implantable and pragmatic policies for our cities?

In the specific case of Cape Town, some of the debates around the appropriate use of public space arose during the “Seafront for all” campaign against development on the Sea Point promenade in Cape Town many years ago. They are all still completely valid today. The Sea Point promenade is probably one of the most diverse public spaces in Cape Town where people of all hues and backgrounds are simply free to be, walk, cycle, play football and interact. It is the place where people of the Cape flock on warm summer days to be chilled by the Atlantic ocean and where its Muslim community gathers for sightings of the moon ahead of Eid celebrations.

It remains hard to believe that had the politicians and planners had their way, a large part of the Sea Point promenade would by now have morphed into yet another parking garage and shopping area. Instead, children still play, the runners run, the football teams continue to dribble and the gogos still gather on Sundays. Some rather eclectic public art has found its way onto the promenade but we are better off being divided by debate on the selection of art than by yet another concrete eyesore creating the further atomisation of the city. Finding the balance between spaces of play, expression and development is key to a sustainable city.

That aside, we do need to be asking ourselves what kind of city we are seeking to build and how we might optimise open spaces for interaction and simply to “be”. One drive along the Garden Route in the Western Cape shows how golf course-style development is threatening the environment and our beautiful coastline. Our peculiar South African mall culture has created a particular lifestyle that has the effect of exclusion and closing off parts of the City to the other.

Given its already lopsided spatial development, the need for building an inclusive Cape Town is now urgent. That will need to go beyond plans and be translated into action. Some of those plans for inclusive housing and transport may well cause us to plumb the depths of uncomfortable but we have no choice if Cape Town truly wants to be a world city. It cannot be that if it is perceived mostly as a classy latte stop or a chic designer hub. It means poor people will have to be part of the conversation to build a city that we can say is truly inclusive and where we have, together, built high levels of trust between us.

The poet, Karen Press, perhaps puts it more eloquently in Under Construction, one of a series of poems on the urban landscape, and the kinds of questions we should ask about citizens, community, anonymity and creativity in cities.

Under Construction

test: would Vladimir and Estragon be willing to wait here?
test: would a ball kicked along the road roll backwards?
test: would a bunch of flowers stay alive all the way home?
test: would Charles Baudelaire walk these pavements?
test: how long would a goldfish survive?
test: would Frida Kahlo find enough colours?
test: would the carrots grow straight?
test: would Nawal el Saadawi be able to relax?
test: would a cellist be heard?
test: would Elvis be happy here? Would Fela?

We could ask the same of all our South African cities and find that the answers provide some difficult challenges. The development choices of today affect the sustainability of our cities for decades to come. Future generations may not thank us for failing to overcome the challenges of shaping new cities where everyone, no matter how rich or poor, feels welcome to work, play, create or simply be anonymous. DM


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