Healing past scars
B. H. HOLOMISA
sets out to turn the citadels of apartheid into
Africa's rate of urbanization is the highest in the world;
the number of people in the continent's towns and cities is estimated to
be doubling every 14 years. The Republic of South Africa is no exception:
28 million of its people, about two-thirds of its population, live in
urban areas. And - thanks to poor planning and the apartheid system -
these are in crisis.
There is a shortage of 1.5 million houses in urban areas of South Africa
alone. Seven million people lack proper housing, 12 million do not have
access to purified water and 21 million are without adequate sanitation -
at an enormous cost in environmental pollution and its impact on human
health. The housing backlog alone will take 10 years to eliminate.
A national development and urbanization strategy is needed to manage the
effects of a rapidly growing and urbanizing population and to address the
problems caused by the distortions brought about by the apartheid system.
For, although the 1994 national elections brought a final end to
apartheid, the city structures created by it will influence the urban
environment in South Africa for many years to come.
Apartheid urban planning was based on a zoning concept which was extended
into a form of social engineering and racial control. Partitioning people
into ethnic groups in specific areas was one of its cornerstones.
Townships were usually situated close to industrial areas or on land
considered unsuitable for other forms of development. Some developed
within existing cities and so their spatial growth was severely
restricted, giving rise to high population densities. Others grew on the
periphery, forcing workers to commute long distances every day. The
apartheid city was inefficient and expensive.
Constraint and imposition
Funds for development in the townships were severely constrained. Few
formal houses were constructed, community services and schools were
limited, and usually only the most basic sewerage facilities were
provided. Planning was imposed on communities: no meaningful participation
The coming of democracy lifted restrictions on movement - which strongly
discouraged the urbanization of black people - and people have flocked to
urban centres to search for opportunities and to try to reunite families.
Poverty in rural areas has led people to move to towns and cities to seek
jobs and a better quality of life. This has been aggravated by recent
droughts, by political and ethnic violence in some parts of the country -
and by an economic 'downswing' which has closed farms and small businesses
in the countryside.
During apartheid about 5 million people were removed from often highly
productive sustainably-used land and sent to smaller areas of poor
productivity and few natural resources. Many South Africans have been
forced by such social engineering to crowd onto land that can no longer
support them effectively. This has resulted in extreme poverty, which has,
in turn, degraded soil, plant and water resources - the 'pollution of
Soil erosion has escalated dramatically: an estimated 3 tonnes of topsoil
is lost per hectare each year. Overstocking in highly populated rural
areas has increased desertification.
The combination of dispossession and of being forced to live in degraded
environments has not only severely reduced the quality of life and
opportunities for social upliftment of many South Africans, but has
alienated some people emotionally and spiritually from the land, creating
attitudes to environmental issues ranging from apathy to downright
Cities generate and accumulate wealth and are the main centres for
education, health care, new jobs, greater economic openings, and cultural
opportunities. But they are also usually immense and wasteful consumers of
natural resources, requiring enormous quantities of water, energy, food
and raw materials, much of them used unsustainably. If they are not
planned properly, they sprawl over large areas, sterilizing big tracts of
land and causing a wide range of environmental problems. They generally
generate massive amounts of pollution, which contaminate water, soil and
air far beyond their boundaries and endanger and reduce the quality of
life of their inhabitants. They are major importers of necessities and
major exporters of environmental problems.
South African cities rank among the most inefficient and wasteful urban
environments in the world. This is mainly attributable to low-density
urban sprawl, the fragmented nature of cities, strong cultural divisions
between residential areas, and the separation of areas where work,
shopping and public facilities are concentrated. There are wasteful
technologies, underpriced resources, and great disparities in consumption.
People moving from overcrowded areas, or newly arriving in towns and
cities, often settle on the edge of existing settlements, causing urban
sprawl. Low-density urban sprawl consumes vast tracts of land - much of it
agriculturally productive - each year: so food for an increasing
population has to be produced on a diminishing amount of land. Low-density
development requires large investments in the development and upkeep of
infrastructure, which the less affluent communities cannot afford. The
efficiency of public transport is also strongly linked to urban density;
it is worse in South Africa than in most other countries.
Poorly managed industrialization and urbanization have resulted in
physical hazards and biological and chemical contamination of land, air,
water and food resources. The settlement of people in mining areas, often
contaminated with such hazards as radioactivity or cyanide, also results
in health problems.
There is an increase in air pollution both from industry and from burning
wood, paraffin and coal in homes. Elevated levels of indoor pollution -
especially when coupled with overcrowding and poor nutrition - contribute
to a high rate of such acute respiratory infections as pneumonia: already
these are the second biggest killer of South African children under the
age of five.
The top killer of young children is diarrhoea. Cholera, typhoid and other
diarrhoea-related diseases are prevalent because only a small part of the
urban population has adequate water supply and sanitation infrastructure.
Besides the many infectious and chronic diseases that result from poor
urban living conditions, such psycho-social problems as depression,
suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse account for a significant proportion
of sickness and death among the urban young.
Ensuring quality of life
Enormous challenges have to be faced in South Africa. Our society does not
only have to solve innumerable problems caused by previous generations, it
also has to develop a system which ensures sustainable development and
improves the quality of life for urban people. Sustainable development is
not an instant cure or magic formula for all the ills of our cities. It is
a pathway leading in the right direction.
We need to engage communities in partnership with local authorities to
develop their own strategies for a better and sustainable life. Global
agendas must be localized so that ordinary people can understand them and
participate meaningfully, and the importance of education and building
local capacity should not be underestimated.
In South Africa, as in the rest of Africa, we will not succeed in creating
sustainable cities if we do not urgently address the huge problems of
poverty and inequality. Nor will they be achieved without sufficient
expertise and funding within local authorities and proper democratic
participation at grassroots level.
We need cities that make provision for both high urban densities and high
quality of life. We need to adopt a compact city structure and mixed land
use. At least some urban open space must be used for agriculture and
informal trading. A national electrification programme has been initiated:
solar energy for hot water and heating could realize considerable savings
in electricity and combat environmental pollution. Strong partnerships are
needed with the private sector and communities for re-use and recycling
waste: recycling programmes by South African local authorities are almost
On the positive side, there is a growing 'green consciousness' at
grassroots level, the Government has launched key initiatives including
the formulation of an integrated national environmental policy, and three
large metropolitan areas - Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg - have
initiated local Agenda 21 strategies.
The philosophy of sustainable development offers the Republic of South
Africa the best prospect for a new, just, socially equitable and
environmentally sound society. It shows how the many and varied scars of
the past can be healed, and how the future social and environmental health
of the nation can be assured.
Major-General B. H. Holomisa is the Republic of South Africa's Deputy
Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.