TO Molefe

Alexandra-Sandton bridge a monument to apartheid

2014-10-01 14:00

TO Molefe

A new R76m bridge is set to change the Joburg skyline. Linking Alexandra to Sandton near Grayston Drive, the bridge will provide the approximately 10 000 people who cross between the two areas on foot and by bike with a safer and more convenient way make the journey. I've made that journey on foot before. Anything that makes it easier and less perilous is welcome.

But I'm concerned about how it is being sold to the public. The bridge forms part of the City of Johannesburg's "corridors of freedom" public transportation plan, which supposedly aims to integrate communities and neighbourhoods separated by race and developed disparately by the apartheid government. Echoing the city's own beliefs, a respected architect recently told the Mail & Guardian that he believed the bridge could "eradicate the colour identification of place, one that sees Alex as black and Sandton as white, as well as address classist separation".

Problem is neither the bridge nor the other "corridors of freedom" will really do that.

Cheap black labour

The apartheid economy was a consolidation and continuation of the work done by the colonial governments to dispossess blacks of land, livestock and other resources that made them self-sufficient. This was done in order to create a cheap labour force to work newly stolen farmland and labour in the mines and factories.

Apartheid's urban centres, a continuation of this model, kept blacks in ghettos on the peripheries of cities, in townships like Alexandra, and allowed them into white areas only to work. The apartheid government also enacted and enforced other laws, like the Bantu Education Act, that would ensure the large pool of unskilled labour force it inherited grew. It also denied blacks political rights so they'd have no power to change these unjust arrangements.

From this it should be clear that the apartheid government, in its urban spatial planning, did not want to prohibit outright the movement of blacks into white areas. The apartheid was conditional, as black workers were needed for the economy to function. The restrictions in movement, formalised under the government of Jan Smuts, were aimed at ensuring only blacks who worked were allowed into white areas.

Apartheid continued

The City of Johannesburg believes that with the time and money saved from access to better ways of getting to school and work, like this bridge, black people who live in townships like Alex might one day be able to move closer to work and school or start businesses in their own communities. The CoJ also believes changing the zoning arrangements around the transport nodes into high density and mixed used (for residential, commercial, industrial and cultural) will spur the private sector into developing businesses that provide housing, shopping and leisure around the transport corridors.

Aside from being untested, these beliefs ignore that the 10 000 who undertake the journey all do so in one direction in the morning and in the opposite in the evening. They are also only one stream of several which flow out of Alex every work-day morning on foot, by car and public transport - some for work and others for school. Relatively little traffic goes in the opposite direction as there is little there to draw outsiders to Alex. Decades of persecution and neglect by the apartheid government ensured that.

The most that can ever be hoped for with better transport corridors in terms of urban racial composition is that areas like Sandton might become less white, as they've been slowly for the past 20 years. Alex will remain black and poor, as it also has over the past 20 years.

Time for a rethink

Even in this best case scenario, should the city's beliefs prove true, Alex's prospects of becoming economically prosperous are pegged to the township's workers, who are few in number and fewer still, approximately 5%, are educated beyond matric. This leaves them few options but to accept low-paying work such as domestic work, construction and factory work, or ply their trade as hawkers and in other jobs in the informal economy.

If the CoJ is serious about developing Alex and dismantling apartheid's economic arrangements, then it needs to have as part of its plans a strategy to dramatically raise the disposal incomes of township residents. As it has no power to set national labour policy, the city's options are limited, but expanding the free services it already provides to poor households, for example, is always an option. There are also other things within the city's control, like the rat infestation caused by overcrowding and inadequate refuse removal, that make living in Alex more expensive for residents.

But beyond the CoJ's own plans, there's a general need for a rethink on how the government's going about addressing apartheid's legacies. The general belief appears to be that getting more blacks into jobs and making it easier for them to get there does this in itself. But, in the absence of anything more radical to break down the geographic, economic and racial divide, initiatives like the Alex-Sandton Bridge could end up being little more than a monument honouring apartheid's urban spatial plans.

- Follow TO Molefe on Twitter.

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