So close yet so far

2011-04-30 10:34

My childhood was spent within the cocoon of a whites-only municipal welfare state. My mother was unemployed and we lived on my late father’s state pension. We couldn’t afford a car, so we treasured our rent-controlled flat near to a train station in suburban Cape Town.

Apart from the state-subsidised train, one block away was Main Road and an affordable City Tramway bus service.“Europeans” rode in front, the “nons” were at the back. In summer, we caught the bus to Newlands municipal swimming pool.

There were always ribald comments tossed from the back at us whiteys, already feeling a little awkward about our seating privilege, but hey, we laughed along.

Every Friday I cycled to Rondebosch and spent hours in the municipal library falling in love with French poetry and, later, of all things, the Bolshevik Revolution.

Contrary to a contemporary belief among some younger black colleagues – whose first experience of white lifestyles has, perhaps, been via the glitzy rubbish they see on Top Billing, or the even more corrosive influence of “Kebble-ism” – the majority of whites in the awful apartheid years were not megawealthy capitalists.

But we were certainly all beneficiaries. In my own family, and we weren’t that untypical, we couldn’t afford fancy things like eating out in a restaurant.

We weren’t rich, but I had a happy and, in the context of the times, a highly privileged childhood. Which begs a question: Why, 17 years after our democratic breakthrough, doesn’t every child in South Africa enjoy the same relatively modest municipal amenities and securities – an affordable flat with easy access to a swimming pool, a functional library and a park, not to mention running water, electricity and waste removal?

The answer to that is complex.

A large part of the answer relates to what has happened to local government. Before 1994, there was no such thing as wall-to-wall, elected local democracy.

Central business districts and their white suburbs provided a tax base that paid for infrastructure, amenities and services largely for a white suburban minority.What couldn’t be raised locally was topped up by national and provincial governments.

With the advent of wall-to-wall, non-racial local democracy just 10 years ago, the effective municipal tax base stayed the same. But the responsibilities and developmental challenges of individual municipalities expanded immensely.

Today the City of Johannesburg stretches 60km north to south. In addition, many towns have experienced exponential growth, driven by an influx of people from collapsing rural economies in South Africa and throughout the rest of our continent.

In contrast, in many rural towns, a pre-existing tax base has eroded.

The liberalisation of agriculture, for instance, has seen the disappearance of many white-owned family farms.

Empty Afrikaans-medium rural schools are one of the many symptoms of this major demographic change that is under way.

Apartheid spatial planning from the 1950s forged highly dysfunctional urban spaces, especially for a displaced working class condemned to daily migrancy.

But since then we have often, unintentionally, compounded the problem.About three million RDP houses have perpetuated the peripheral dormitory township pattern.

The average distance of a public transport trip in Tshwane is 25.4km, compared with 8.6km in London.

At the other end of the social hierarchy, speculative and weakly regulated property “development” has seen the middle classes move further away into new housing developments, where petro-guzzling car commutes to work and to shopping malls in limbo at non-places like Midrand are necessary.

Our cities are among the most sprawling and, therefore, dysfunctional in the world – as air pollution, productivity challenges and the cost of mobility attest.

Then there is ill-conceived municipal asset stripping, sometimes driven ideologically and sometimes out of sheer financial desperation.

It began before 1994 and has continued ever since – the outsourcing of municipal functions, with attendant loss of capacity. We blame local councillors and dysfunctional municipal managers.

I guess not all councillors are angels.

I’m sure there have been poor managerial appointments. But the real problems are deeper and systemic. Poor communities, in pressure- cooker overcrowded slums, turn frustrations in on themselves – taxi wars, spaza shops and public buildings set alight, fierce tender and housing and electoral list rivalries.

We need a major rethink on the financing of local government, how we construct more inclusive and functional urban spaces, and whether three spheres of government in the current form are sustainable.

Progressive political formations need to bring a citywide and not a narrowly “township delivery” politics into our communities.My family home is now in another Cape Town suburb – Pinelands (“Langa West”, as Pieter-Dirk Uys, who spent his childhood here, once jokingly described it).

My current local representative is a long-serving DA councillor.

He appears to be diligent and hardworking, but I have to ask myself “on whose behalf?”

Pinelands is one of the localities where the DA-controlled metro council has established a special rates area.

These are areas where, if a majority of residents (not including me, I hasten to add) agree to pay extra rates, they get extra municipal services.

How, I wonder, does that contribute to building a more inclusive and equitable city? Meanwhile, Uys’s quip has a point.

Langa is the oldest of the African townships in Cape Town.

As such, it’s a whole lot nearer to a suburb like Pinelands than the later versions of dormitory townships.

At their closest points of proximity, Langa and Pinelands are about 70m apart.Between them is a buffer zone, a canal, rail lines and a four-lane freeway (named after that original segregationist, Jan Smuts).

In the previous ANC-controlled metro, there was tentative discussion about a bridge across the buffer.

Nothing happened. Since then nothing has even been contemplated.

For the children of Langa, the parks, the library, the shopping centre of Pinelands could be a family stroll away.

In practice, we remain a world apart.

» Cronin is the deputy minister of transport and a member of the SA Communist Party

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