South African cities must creatively respond to structural unemployment


Edgar Pieterse from the African Center for Cities talks about the dynamics of urban development in South Africa, housing policies and public transport, and the measures that need to be taken to reduce unemployment.

Around 60% of South Africans are living in urban areas. Apartheid’s land distribution and, urban settlement policies systematically reinforced structural inequalities between Black, Coloured and White people. Has democratic South Africa been able to soften these over the last two and a half decades?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, because formal race-based residential segregation came to an end when the Group Areas Act was abolished. However, residential segregation was reinforced by market forces. These forces are more virulent than ever before. In fact, the private real estate market in South Africa performed better than most in the world since 1994, and those who were already entrenched in this market—predominantly the white minority—benefitted profoundly. Practically, this means that black South Africans who had the means and income to buy property in these residential areas did so, and this has invariably produced a measure of de-racialisation of upper- and middle-income suburbs. This is also inevitable because the White group is only 9% of the total South African population and their penetration of the formal market is saturated. However, the answer is also no because the provision of public housing for the poor has far exceeded the delivery of new housing opportunities for the middle-class by the market. New public housing opportunities have almost exclusive gone to black and coloured families since they fall below the income-poverty line that make one eligible for public housing. It is estimated that almost 3.5 million of these housing opportunities have been delivered since 1994 and they are exclusively for black and coloured families, but often on the periphery of cities, far from economic opportunities. It is significant though that in cities like Cape Town where there is a substantial coloured presence, many of the new public housing areas are occupied by both black and coloured families who used to be segregated by Apartheid. Unfortunately, we understand very little about the nature and dynamics of everyday life in these new communities that are arguably truly post-Apartheid.

What needs to be done to decrease the structural inequalities in South African cities?

An important starting point is work. South Africa is plagued by an epidemic of large-scale un-and under-employment. This only afflicts poor black and coloured families and is manifested in an unemployment rate close to 50% among youth in the age range from 15-24. Since the public education system remains in crisis and will continue to undermine the social mobility of working class black children for the foreseeable future, it is difficult to see how this will be reversed. Furthermore, the formal economy has already completed its transition to a fully-fledged services-dominated structure, which means that the only new jobs are skill intensive and out of reach of children who are let down by the schooling system. As a short-to-medium-term stopgap measure, the country should embark on a large-scale public works programme targeting youth but intentionally designed to promote and reinforce a variety of placemaking activities. For instance, the myriad of informal creches in poor neighbourhoods could be upgraded using sustainable materials and technologies, constantly maintained and connected to a series of safe, activated public and green spaces in these communities. The planning, design, implementation, maintenance and constant enhancement of such public infrastructures can mop up large numbers of youth. Furthermore, if the ecosystem services, green spaces, water systems, drainage infrastructures and cultural substructures are also reimagined through participatory design and implementation, even more youth can be enrolled. I am certain that if we can get these circular-economy inspired systems to work to intern value and generate pride, it will dramatically alter the perception of investors about the potential and market of township areas, generating a stimulus for new businesses and formal employment.

Another urgent and practical answer is to map, identify and activate available infill land parcels in the middle-class suburbs so that cheap, affordable and decent rental stock can be built. In a typical South African suburb most families employ support staff to perform child-care, cleaning, gardening and security services, among other tasks. These poorly paid and often exploited workers also have to spend a large chunk of their salaries on getting to and from work. Affordable rental opportunities in the neighbourhoods where they work can go a long way to improve their livelihoods and dramatically alter the socio-cultural fabric of these areas; something that is long overdue in most South African cities.

Many people from poorer communities are travelling long distances every day to reach urban centers for work, spending much of their salaries on transport. What needs to be done to change this situation?

Structural inequalities cannot be solved by simply focussing on the liveability and dynamism of townships; it also requires interventions to improve affordable and safe mobility so that work seekers can get to employment opportunities and those in work can function more efficiently. The biggest difference will be made if South African cities get public transport reform and investment right. The most urgent priority is to rethink the massive capital investments into bus-rapid transit infrastructure (dedicated lanes and expensive buses) and rather focus on supporting and modernising the minibus industry, alongside rehabilitating the mismanaged rail infrastructure. At the moment, public subsidies are only provided for the national rail utility that oversee city-based services and various bus companies that are licenced by provincial governments. The minibus taxi industry does not receive any subsidy, but they manage to outperform both rail and bus in most South African cities. To be accurate, they do receive a once-off capital subsidy to replace vehicles that are no longer road worthy and do not meet minimum safety standards. However, since the minibus taxi industry operates on the basis of cash payments, it is highly competitive and instils an incentive for speeding, reckless driving, factional conflicts over routes and exploitation by the owners of drivers. On the plus side, this form of (public) transport is very well suited for the sprawled, low-density urban form that is typical in South African cities and it can reach most nooks and crannies, offering a very useful service to customers. Going forward, there is an urgent need to transition these taxis into modern and safe vehicles that are equipped with digital technologies to ensure cashless (and cash) transactions, speed monitoring and control, passenger safety and comfort, and a digitally activated system that can be transacted with via mobile phones and other smart devices. This will require a rethink of the unaffordable BRT investments, an increase and re-division of public subsidies, and most importantly, an integrated operating system that allows for smooth transitions between modes.

In the last local government election opposition parties led by the Democratic Alliance snatched several key metros from the ruling African National Congress. Has the increase in political competition had any benefits for these cities and their people? What are the most pressing issues in the coming 25 years for South African cities?

It is difficult to come to a clear conclusion about the impacts of coalition governments in some of the metropolitan councils. It seems to have induced enormous instability and administrative caution since the participating political parties don’t yet seem to know how best to manage these arrangements. In the case of Johannesburg, where the coalition government seem more stable, it has engendered contradictory policy actions.

Returning to my opening reflection, the most pressing issue for the next 25 years will remain the economy. Unless South African cities are able to come up with creative strategies to address the crisis of structural unemployment, it will be difficult to address associated questions such as inequality, insecurity and social strife. Another critical priority is to reconfigure planning and investment processes so that township areas become economically vibrant, safe, desirable and new centralities as our metropolitan regions continue to morph. The third and equally critical issue is to establish democratically negotiated trajectories of growth and resource management that can bring our city-regions into a sustainable operating system.