EMG Spatial planning 01While much has changed in 20 years, most South African towns and cities still bear the imprint of apartheid spacial planning characterised by dormitory “townships” for the poor on the edges of town. The environmental footprint from this inefficient (and brutal) use of land is massive – daily commuting uses fossil fuels and pollutes the air, service provision is wasteful, and densification is difficult to encourage.

Local authorities are responsible for managing how land within municipal boundaries is used. They are also responsible for restricting inappropriate land use – for example dwellings in flood-prone areas, buffer zones between residential areas and industrial areas, etc. This is typically managed via “zoning”, where areas are allocated as residential, business, industrial, recreational, environmental, etc.

Conflicts invariably arise over competing uses of urban space and managing the conflicts is a political process.

How well do your local authorities deal with these and whose interests do they represent?

The Democratic Alliance (DA) aspires to prioritising spatial integration and urban planning to build an inclusive city. But they don’t seem to be getting it entirely right in Cape Town, where the council has been taken to task over its plans to sell off a large part of the Phillipi Horticultural Area for housing development. The vegetable-farming area lies above a valuable aquifer and provides employment for many. The council’s proposal to sell the land goes against its own independent evaluations, its urban edge demarcation, the provincial government’s classification of the area as “agricultural”, and very vocal objections from citizens.

In official-speak, the DA’s approach is to provide good quality services for businesses and investment, which in turn will create jobs and benefit the poor. However, opponents to the scheme could be forgiven for thinking that council decisions are driven by a corrupt and cosy relationship with business chasing after short-term profits.

Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) Western Cape chairperson, Bernard Joseph alleges that “the municipal local government is corporatised” and accuses municipalities of behaving like companies – fixated on attracting investors to the city and providing services only to people who can pay for them.

Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, EFF national spokesperson argues that unemployment perpetuates the lack of basic services to the poor, and that the neo-liberal state structure must change through nationalisation, where government advances the scale of industrialisation and job creation. On the other hand, it is likely that the EFF’s nationalisation programme will see private capital evaporate, leaving less money for local municipalities. (Chris Mann, “EFF speaks the language of fantasy”, Mail and Guardian, 24 June 2016).

The EFF is also in a rage about informal settlements. “Africans live in proximity to rats, pigs and rubbish, with no basic services,” says Ndlozi. The party proposes to abolish all informal settlements and demarcate housing stands on available municipal land – or to appropriate land (without compensation) if necessary.

The African National Congress (ANC) takes a gentler line – but also more realistic, given the multiple responsibilities for housing, overlapping between local, provincial and national spheres of government. The ANC proposes to enhance the capacity of municipalities to accelerate the upgrading and integration of informal settlements and to deliver on their promises by strengthening national and provincial support to local government.

Forward-thinking General President Bantu Holomisa of the United Democratic Movement (UDM) confesses that “Long-term infrastructure development plans are required that integrate public transport, better housing and new residential developments, in order to address the current skewed population distribution, as well as prepare for future growth in the population.” Sadly, the UDM does not control any municipalities.

It’s not only the influence of business and the leverage of the economically powerful that lead to conflict. Witness the attempts of Johannesburg and Cape Town metros to build a coherent integrated public transport system. Not only did this cause often violent conflict with taxi operators, but also with the lumbering bureaucracy that is Metrorail. As Gauteng Transport Member of the Executive Council (MEC) Ismail Vadi said, the technological challenges behind an integrated public transport system are not the problem, “…but to get all the different operators to integrate with us, it's a bit of a challenge." Just a bit?

Another area where citizens’ local interests have come into conflict with the “national interest” is in mining. Land around the village of Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape holds a significant titanium deposit, but attempts to mine it have been fiercely resisted by many in the local community. On a recent visit to the village, the Deputy Minister of Mineral Resources, Godfrey Oliphant, told an angry crowd that the titanium did not belong to them, but to the people of South Africa, and that the government, not the community, would make the decisions. “Don’t appropriate power to yourselves,” he said.  

It is estimated that some 1.6 million people live in informal settlements next to mine dumps (Mariette Riefferink, Federation for Sustainable Environment, personal communication). On the Witwatersrand, people living next to old mine-dumps suffer wind-blown radio-active dust and contaminated water. The actual gold, of course, has long gone.

Some questions fopr your newly-elected councillor:

  • Daily commuting causes traffic jams, wastes fossil fuels and pollutes the air. How do you plan to reduce the inefficient movements of people around the city?
  • How well does the council deal with conflicts arising over competing uses of urban space, and whose interests does it represent?
  • In your opinion, who should decide how a piece of land is used or zoned –national, provincial or local government – or the people living on it?
  • What system do you have in place to monitor land use so that people desperate for a place to live don’t have to be evicted off land that is unsuitable for habitation?

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