We may have to turn to China for Father Christmas role
THE timing of US President Barack Obama’s two-day state visit to South Africa was hardly ideal. Overshadowing the political arena was a distracting historical backdrop: former president Nelson Mandela’s faltering but determined struggle to live.
Both leaders were acutely aware that they had to avoid any perception of insensitivity to the prevailing national mood of gloom. Neither, however, wanted to forgo what political traction they could extract from the visit: Obama to establish an African legacy that until now has been virtually invisible; President Jacob Zuma to maintain a feel-good momentum as the 2014 election approaches.
The prospect of Zuma sharing a
APARTHEID transformed Cape Town from South Africa’s least to most segregated city. The clear economic and racial zones perfected by apartheid’s social engineers have survived largely intact. Predominantly white, wealthy residents live in the City Bowl and along the slopes of Table Mountain to the west and south, while the city’s “coloured” and black population is dispersed across the Cape Flats and its floodprone land, with black newcomers occupying the worst areas.
These racial and economic zones are clearly defined by major features of topography, often “fortified” and enhanced as a political barrier by apartheid planning. One of the clearest examples is the belt of golf courses, industrial land and transport infrastructure that cordons off the wealthy Southern Suburbs from historically “coloured” suburbs.
Cape Town exhibits a stark polarity between blackness, poverty and dispersal on one hand, and whiteness, wealth and centrality on the other. Each of the disconnects that so vividly mark the physical city are traceable to institutional, political and market failures that are harder to pinpoint but no less real in their effects. However, where these disconnections have been entrenched and ingrained in the social and physical landscape, opportunities and future prospects for connection also become apparent.
The emphasis of urban designers and those who shape the built environment must lie in directing cities from a state of disconnection towards meaningful connection.
The current trajectory of South African cities is, in part, towards sprawl and exclusive growth and away from sustainable densities and inclusion. This trajectory is, however, not due to a lack of policy and research. The problem begins with the lack of alignment between the interests of planners, developers and elected representatives.
Nancy Odendaal, a widely published planning academic at the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities, observes that the timescale of politics is electoral, while that of developers follows business cycles.
The planner’s timescale, meanwhile, is measured in decades, and in the harm avoided (for existing and near-future residents) as much as in the good produced. For this reason, planners spend their political capital in defence of constituents who “exist” only in the future. Additionally, property developers remain substantially free to repeat car-centric development.
Elected representatives must drive a hard bargain against developers, but financial and commercial naivety often prevents this. The system as it’s currently conceived is good at reproducing the status quo of rapidly delivered greenfield housing, typically far from opportunity and of mixed quality. Most often, it is the planning profession that is left to argue for the interests of stakeholders yet to be born or consequences that will only manifest over decades.
Despite this bleak prognosis, good projects happen. Although the city still lacks a flagship success in public housing sited close to a historically wealthy suburb, Cape Town’s new transport interchanges – such as the celebrated Kuyasa Transport Interchange – offer some examples of reconnection, where apartheid moats and trenches have been filled in to make the city fabric contiguous. The success stories tend to share certain attributes: a single, wily leader, committed to seeing the project through; a degree of financial independence, which serves as a deterrent against incursions and interference from elected representatives, and the ability to combat those in competition for the same resources.
The coincidence of all three factors is rarer than it might be. Odendaal identifies several changes that need to be made if planning professions are to become more empowered and their advocacy more successful. The first is a higher degree of fluency in the quantitative aspects of city planning: the ability to translate quality of life and environmental issues into hard statistics podium with Obama was not one to gladden the heart. Could there be a more glaring study in contrasts? On the one side there is the urbane, articulate and cerebral Obama, and then on the other there is Zuma, who is none of those things.
In fact, the South African presi- dent acquitted himself with aplomb. Zuma has an engaging demeanour and even those who rubbish his leadership must concede that it is difficult not to like him.
He applied this trait to good effect, with winningly fulsome praise of the US president’s anti- apartheid credentials, respect for Obama’s empathy with his “personal hero” Mandela, and in sketching flattering parallels between the two men.
He enjoined Obama, somewhat incongruously, to have a “happy visit” to Robben Island, where “Madiba and many freedom fighters” had been held, modestly refraining to remind us that he was among those, having spent 10 years incarcerated there.
Beyond diplomatic niceties, however, neither man will feel particularly pleased by the visit. Obama, unlike the glory days of foreign aid largesse presided over by George W Bush, has a constrained budget and the scope for grand gestures was limited. Zuma, for his part, will feel disappointed that most of the assistance that Obama is dispensing – more than $7 billion – will be continental in scope, benefiting South Africa only tangentially.
His likely degree of chagrin can be discerned in the ambitious shape of his hopes.
At the start of the visit, Zuma set out a lavish wish list, much like a youngster covering all bases with Father Christmas. There were, he said, a whole range of “bankable projects” on the table.
Zuma fancied that Uncle Sam might be enticed to deliver infrastructural development; youth skills development; investment in the School Capacity and Innovation Pro- gramme; investment in primary education and teacher training; and investment in vocational training and the Further Education and Training colleges. Oh, and by the way, an extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), scheduled to expire in 2015, would be nice.
Much of this was never going to happen, indicative of civil servants hopelessly out of touch with reality. Few donors are going to channel aid via state projects, given this government’s reputation for corruption and incompetence. Fewer still will put money into state education, given that the government is already spending 5.3 percent of GDP on this – among the highest rates in the world – to produce paltry results.
Zuma got his wish with Agoa, but nothing else. And since Agoa is another continent-wide benefit, it’s a bit like being gifted a board game that you can only play with your pals, instead of all the hot toys that you can play with on your own.
Zuma also urged Obama, given the economic and financial challenges faced by the US and Europe, “to encourage our traditional supporters not to abandon their pledges to Africa”. Britain’s recent decision to end its R270 million annual foreign aid to South Africa clearly still smarts.
Ah well, there are always the Chinese to tap. They do believe in Father Christmas, don’t they?
MUSCLE: Taxi owners protest against the MyCiTi bus system. Such continuing opposition is proof that thousands of commuters’ interests are held hostage by a smaller, but more highly organised, narrow-interest group, say the authors.