Healing past scars

Healing past scars


sets out to turn the citadels of apartheid into sustainable cities

sleeping children

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 was allowed.

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 poverty'.

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 hostility.

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 non-existent.

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.

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