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Spatial Justice: South Africa, it’s time to deliver


Mark Rountree is a scientist, water resource specialist and accidental politician. He is currently the National Policy Officer for Good:

Last month the country came together to support the #StrongerTogether movement and our World Cup win seems to have united the country in a way we have not experienced since 1994. Can South Africans translate the symbolic to the physical and also support spatial justice?

Tafelberg, a government property in Cape Town’s affluent Sea Point suburb was earmarked by city and provincial housing officials for the development of affordable housing, but was instead sold by Helen Zille’s administration to a private developer. This week that sale is being opposed in court. Since 1994, not one single well-located affordable housing project has been built in Cape Town by either the DA or ANC governments who have run the city.

The dawn of democracy held great promise for South Africa, but it is undeniable that the 1994 dream has not been fully realised. The Zondo Commission is lifting the veil on State Capture and its consequences – corruption, rising inequality, increasing electricity prices, ballooning national debt, declines in per capita GDP and a 60% decline in housing delivery. The NPA seems to be moving in to begin cleaning up the mess, but what can the rest of us do to accelerate redress and make up for lost time?

GOOD’s leader, Patricia de Lille, now the Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure, confirmed that in the last two months alone, her department has released 100 properties for restitution purposes. This pace vastly outstrips the release of just 181 properties during the previous 20 years under ANC administration. She also committed to release five times more land for housing than has been released since 1999. This 14,000ha of land – equivalent to more than two hundred Alexandra’s – is a clear demonstration of how we need to use public land more effectively, for the public good.

Restitution and access to land for housing must be accelerated. In towns and cities, location is critical. Sites must be well-located – close to the economic centres or in places where affordable, reliable public transport can get you to school and work. Housing and transport are linked to accessibility and spatial justice.

Spatial justice is a term reflecting the need to undo apartheid’s spatial legacy – the deliberate planning designed to physically exclude the majority of South Africans from our towns and cities. Since democracy, both ANC and DA governments have been building housing for lower income black and coloured families on the outskirts of towns and cities, shamefully perpetuating the National Party’s system of remote townships. This cruel reinforcement of old patterns places lower income families far from opportunity, condemning them to a life where accessing work is difficult and expensive, ensuring that poor families remain excluded and poor.

Like many urban residents, I had long hoped that our cities would break these patterns in the democratic era, but it was not to be. Several leading city politicians from both Johannesburg and Cape Town – Herman Mashaba, Patricia de Lille and Brett Herron – have spoken of the internal obstructions within their own caucuses that actively resist transformation and their work to achieve a more just South African society.

In Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba said councillors in his caucus preferred to use the city’s budget to mow lawns in affluent suburbs rather than spend it in townships where, 25 years after democracy, many still wait for basic services like water, electricity and street lights. In Cape Town after De Lille and Herron’s resignations, affordable MyCiTi bus transport to the former townships of Mitchells Plain and Khayelitsha was stopped in June after five years of services. National Government’s Metrorail trains have been out of action for weeks and the taxi associations have announced fare increases. Closer to the CBD, well-located inner city housing projects have been canceled or stalled.

In my own neighbourhood of Tamboerskloof in Cape Town, this month millions of Rands are being callously spent to replace working street lights with fancier modern ones and digging up the pavements to place ‘unsightly’ overhead cabling underground. Budgets are being spent on making affluent suburbs more beautiful instead of bringing electricity and working street lights to the vast areas of Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain, Masiphumelele and Imizamo Yethu that still have none. These are not the actions of a just society.

When Mmusi Maimane says that not even his former party, the largest opposition party in the country, is able to achieve a better South Africa for all, it is time to reboot how we do things. Spatial injustice continues today. Ignoring it supports and perpetuates it. The Tafelberg case and the fight for the first real inner city affordable housing in Cape Town is an important precedent for the country. As a society, we need to decide who owns the land that government is holding.

Siya Kolisi and his team have shown us what we know – that South Africa truly is #StrongerTogether. My hope is that we can embrace the real nation building our towns and cities need – by building homes for all citizens within our towns and cities, not on the outskirts. Thirty years ago the Berlin Wall came down, integrating the affluent west with the marginalized east. Now is a GOOD time to start breaking down the walls in our towns and cities too. DM


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