/How to make our towns and cities work for us

How to make our towns and cities work for us

2019-07-09 05:00

Our economy cannot grow unless there is radical transformation of our socio-economic system to free the human potential of the more than 60% of citizens who are currently living on the dysfunctional margins, writes Mamphela Ramphele.

We urgently need to reimagine and fundamentally transform human settlements and local government to enable ecologically sound shared prosperity. There are two imperatives for this reimagination. The first is to tackle the shameful betrayal of the promise of freedom for the majority of our fellow citizens and to respond to the existential threats of climate emergencies upon us.

The legacy of apartheid spatial planning combined with neglect, unaccountability, incompetence and corruption has stolen the hopes of many people who have been condemned to continue to live on the margins of our society. The fire of rage and brutal violence that is running out of control in many poor settlements across the country is the bitter fruit of multigenerational humiliation of the majority of subjected to grinding poverty in the midst of ostentatious consumption and opulence. 

The latest Auditor General report to Parliament lays bare the devastating impact of corruption and failure of political leaders to heed audit findings over the last 25 years. That only 18 of the 278 municipalities achieved a clean audit demonstrates the level of impunity in our local governance system.

Most of our municipalities are virtually bankrupt and unable to discharge their responsibilities to provide basic services to citizens. Public servants and their political masters prioritize salaries and benefits for the elites above serving the public. Even more disturbing are the threats of violence against officials in the Auditor General’s office by elements in government determined to disrupt their oversight activities.

Supply chain management processes across the country have become captive to elite interests aided and abetted by political leaders. No party is exempt from the abuse of public tenders as tools of patronage politics. There seems to be little political will to root out abuse of public resources. The president needs to actively lead the process of rooting out the embedded culture of impunity that has made state capture tolerable at many levels of society. 

We would be very unwise to follow the advice of people like Shawn Hagedorn, an independent strategic advisor, who advocates that structural transformation of our society “may have to take a back seat whilst we figure out how to grow the economy” (BD 2/7/2019). Our economy cannot grow in a sustainable way unless there is radical transformation of our socio-economic system to free the human potential of the more than 60% of our fellow citizens who are currently living on the dysfunctional margins of our cities, towns and rural areas. Inequality is expensive for both poor and rich in any country.

Mr Hagedorn is also wrong in suggesting that “lifting people out of poverty is a mechanical exercise” done successfully in many countries and regions. The most successful countries such as the Nordic region, post-Berlin Wall Germany and closer home, Rwanda, lifted people out of poverty through transformation to ensure better livelihoods, high quality education and healthcare for all citizens. Trickle-down economic development has not worked anywhere for the poorest people of the world. Our own experience over the last 25 years has demonstrated this beyond doubt.

Failure to reimagine cities and towns has huge opportunity cost

Our failure to reimagine our cities, towns and rural areas to become more ecologically sound and compact sustainable engines of socio-economic hubs to provide high quality basic public services also comes at a huge opportunity cost to our socio-economic development. Waste management, transport and power supplies are dysfunctional in most parts of our country, instead of being skilled development and employment opportunities for our youthful population. 

Take Cape Town that is continuing to use the surrounding oceans as sewage dumping sites – a shameful legacy of colonial city planning. We should migrate to the use of well tested bio-digester technologies to process human waste into renewable energy (biogas) and fertiliser for urban agriculture. The city needs to stop wasting public funds to defend the indefensible case related to failed desalination of sea water due to faecal pollution. 

The Johannesburg Metro also needs to urgently stop the public health hazard of trucking raw sewage to maize farms as reported in the Mail & Guardian this weekend. How can this irresponsible practice go unchallenged when the alternative of bio-digester technology is available to process sewage to generate abundant biogas to reduce the metro’s power costs? 

The use of chemical toilets, whether in the form of the infamous pota-potas in Cape Town or the ridiculously expensive Ekurhuleni Metro’s R1.9bn three-year tender, is a wasteful humiliating practice. What becomes of the chemical waste that is produced? What are the consequences of chemical run-off into our river systems? In addition, the indignity suffered by poor people who are compelled to use broken dirty and badly managed toilets, adds insult to the injury of poverty in the midst of plenty.  

SA’s innovation capacity grossly underutilised

South Africa has a highly sophisticated science and technology research and innovation capacity that is grossly underutilised by the public sector. Evidence based policy making, planning, implementation and monitoring and evaluation could put us at the forefront of migrating to more ecologically sound socio-economic development models.

We are currently sitting on a ticking time bomb on the Witwatersrand due to our government’s failure to enforce the social license to mine on the mining industry. The failure to enforce mandated rehabilitation by large corporate mining companies is a major risk factor for the sustainability of the Gauteng urban precinct. Why are large mining corporates allowed to sell their end of life mines to small, less resourced companies without the compulsory transfer of the mandated accumulated provisions for orderly closing and rehabilitation? Acid mine drainage and illegal mining are hollowing out the ground under much of the Johannesburg/Ekurhuleni metros posing a real and present danger of massive sinkholes.  

Our national Water Research Institute (WRI) has developed world class technologies that could be deployed to address acid mine drainage to avert these threats. The treated water would then be redirected for more useful purposes in our water scarce country. Minister Gwede Mantashe needs to be held accountable for diligently enforcing the requirements of the social license to mine, including providing dignified ecologically sound settlements for communities impacted by mining. Impunity in ignoring requirements to rehabilitate land and natural resources disturbed by extractive activities by the mining industry needs to be urgently rooted out.

The WRI has also developed technologies to enable dignified sanitation with minimum water usage to all our human settlements – urban and rural. Imagine how many jobs we could be creating in manufacturing, installing and maintaining these scientifically sound systems! In addition, we could export this technology across the continent as part of our response to climate change as a unique African solution for our water scarcity. 

Local level government is an essential foundation for ecologically sound, equitable socio-economic development and a prosperous democracy. It is time for us to pay greater attention to the quality of leadership, management and services at the local authority level. Continuing neglect of this aspect poses a real threat to the quality and stability of our democracy.

An opportunity to punish those who failed us

Citizens have an opportunity in the 2021 local elections to elect appropriate leaders in their areas and to punish those who have failed them over the years. Our electoral system provides for direct representation at the ward level with no obligation to follow the dictates of party lists. Ratepayers and local residents, both urban and rural, need to mobilise against the culture of impunity at municipal level and put forward trusted people to lead them to transform lives in local areas. Civic education is critical to enable people to use the power of their votes to build healthier communities rather than destroy public property in anger. 

Accountable government at the local level is essential to make democracy work for ordinary citizens in their day to day lives. It is only when human dignity is restored and public servants provide services in a respectful manner, that we will be able to build the prosperous democracy so many people died fighting for.

– Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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