Why a blanket approach to redressing spatial inequity is flawed

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South Africa faces many problems: steady population growth, increasing unemployment, lack of adequate housing for the homeless, limited access to land by the poor and fragmented urban structures among them. Places of residence are far from places of opportunity for the poor. Many of these problems can be traced back to apartheid spatial planning. 

Merely removing the segregation laws in post-apartheid South Africa did not reverse their effects. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how deeply spatial injustice reaches. Many people living in informal settlements are without access to basic water and sanitation and many barely manage to feed themselves. 

This is not to say that the government has not been aware of these issues. In fact, for many years government has been speaking of the need to redress the impacts of spatial apartheid. Many presidents have made mention of this as a priority; however, there is little evidence of success from one administration to the next.

The South African government aims to provide opportunities for free healthcare, free education and free housing for all those who meet a certain criterion. “Provision”, however, does not always mean “access”. 

Economic and social barriers make access to these opportunities difficult for the urban poor. For example, education facilities may be provided, but quality education facilities may only be accessible if one is able to pay for them, or even if one can pay, the different social customs associated with these facilities still make people feel uncomfortable with accessing and using them. 

The blanket approach to provision of resources is where many problems begin. There is an old saying that there is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of non-equals. Public amenities should be provided with understanding of the association between amenity distribution and the population that needs the amenities. Public amenities should then be distributed with the aim of achieving spatial equity. 

To achieve spatial equity, the number of amenities that are provided in all areas should meet the population’s needs and demands. 

The reality, however, is that this is not the case in many areas where the poor reside. Further, state interventions themselves have also often been questionable in the fight against spatial apartheid. As an example, many recent state-sponsored interventions in housing have done little to redress the impacts of spatial apartheid; instead, they have further contributed to the problem. 

Most new low-cost housing developments happen on the urban periphery. This leaves the responsibility for post-democratic residential integration to market forces, as well-located land that is close to opportunities is still controlled by business interests, which excludes the majority of poor black people. 

The majority of black people are still not able to afford property in well-located areas, which means that the historically better-off white minority is able to defend its territorial advantage with relatively high levels of success.

Even though post-apartheid South Africa has seen elite blacks moving into exclusive formerly white-only suburbs, social interaction among different races and ethnic groups still generally remains limited. 

What these well-located areas have in common is their proximity to well-equipped government services such as schools and hospitals, in stark contrast with schools and hospitals in disenfranchised townships and neighbourhoods. 

Section 26 of the Constitution, which deals with the right to housing, stipulates the South African government has a responsibility to the poor, who are usually the most affected by poor spatial planning decisions. 

By their nature, governments have the legislative and administrative power to help reduce poverty or at least buffer the poor against the impacts of poverty, like the South African government has been trying to do through a series of policies and strategies, such as the accelerated and shared growth initiative for South Africa (Asgisa), the growth, employment and redistribution strategy (Gear) and others that have been targeted at redressing the negative impacts of the past. 

However, the political and economic affirmative action strategies adopted by government have failed to redress the apartheid spatial city. A study conducted by the Development Action Group as early as 2008 revealed that RDP housing was encouraging sprawl through extending existing housing areas to the urban periphery and achieving limited integration with the rest of the city. 

The state’s fascination with a physical top structure (a house) has compromised its ability to bolster livelihoods and create viable, liveable communities. This is because the state invests a lot of money on the top structure and is not spending enough money to ensure that land used is well-located, and the state is not providing enough facilities such as schools, clinics and public transport in the areas where they do develop.

This has left the state with a problem of compounding spatial inequity, making spatial justice almost impossible to achieve, at least as things stand. In Cape Town, for example, areas such as Khayelitsha and Langa are peripheral townships that continue to grow rapidly due to the demand for housing and the fact that the state can offer it cheaply in these areas. 

Many people in these peripheral settlements and townships travel one to two hours to work on bitterly cold mornings in trains that are often unreliable. And it’s not just in Cape Town. Similar problems exist in Johannesburg with Soweto, Durban with Lamontville and East London with Mdantsane. All are apartheid-engineered townships with similar problems: inefficient public transport systems, lack of adequate housing and limited economic opportunities.

We urgently need to redress the impacts of apartheid spatial planning, not only for the residents of townships like Lamontville and Mdantsane, but also for the overall development of the country. The government needs to be proactive in implementing the policies it has already developed, such as the integrated urban development framework, with its integrated spatial planning, integrated human settlement and other policy levers, and government needs to ensure municipalities follow the spatial principles found in the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act that calls for spatial equity, spatial sustainability and other important principles.

Government also needs to adopt a focused equity planning approach, emphasising the redistribution of resources and focusing on investment in public amenities in disenfranchised areas. 

Even though many apartheid development laws were repealed, the reality is that further work is required to strengthen the positive role that spatial planning can play in the restructuring of our cities and regions. This requires a collaborative effort from both national government and local municipalities. We need to encourage experimentation in efforts to accelerate urban transformation. Government also needs to prioritise investing in well-located vacant land close to areas of employment and actively invest in affordable public transport connections that link dispersed residential areas to places of work. 

There needs to be a reprioritisation in terms where government funds are spent.  For example, more money needs to be set aside for acquiring good well-located land, providing at least for the basic needs of all people as a first step towards the progressive realisation of rights to water, sanitation and housing; building better schools, clinics, and other public facilities and public spaces in poorer areas; and  improving public transport. 

With a relatively fixed budget, there is a need to cut money from elsewhere to prioritise the above needs. This could mean that less money needs to be spent on top-structure housing interventions and in state-entity bailouts as well as reductions in budgets for many other departments that are not meeting their existing targets. 

Granted, these are not measures to be taken lightly. However, by transforming spatial apartheid patterns into new, more integrated patterns, the state will be making a significant impact on people’s lives, ensuring shorter travel time between home and work, providing improved access to more public facilities, improved healthcare and education access and a better and improved economy.  This will be money well spent. 

Qhamani Neza Tshazi is a sustainable settlements programme officer at Afesis-Corplan, an NGO contributing to community-driven development and good local governance in the Eastern Cape. He holds a master’s degree in urban and regional planning and writes in his personal capacity

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