Post-Apartheid Reality: Can South Africa Live Up to Mandela’s Vision?

Staff writer Nico Nagle ’17 examines South Africa’s Reconstruction and Development Programme and analyzes just how well it lives up to the egalitarian vision of Nelson Mandela. 

In 1994, at the end of Apartheid, South Africa was a place of idealism. Men who had once been held as political prisoners on Robben Island moved into the highest reaches of national government and began to implement one of the most progressive national constitutions the world had ever seen. One of the most notable governance programs based on that constitution was the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which held a focus on providing the infrastructure that second-class citizens had never had. These 40 square meter houses became synonymous with the legacy of Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress. Black ownership was recognized and legitimized by a black government, which looked out for black interests and well being. In Cape Town, RDP housing applications came in by the thousands, and communities of color saw their houses, and the property rights that they represented, begin to go up.

Twenty years later, however, the sense of confidence and hope that people once had has begun to fade. Among a number of reasons, two stand out as incredibly important. The first is that it does not actually serve to break down the segregation implemented by Apartheid. In Cape Town, as in many other cities in South Africa, these RDP houses are placed in townships, some as far as an hour and a half drive outside the city proper. The logic behind this was that black and colored populations, who were the target for the program, would not have to move, and could maintain the integrity of their communities. While this is an incredibly important consideration, the proximity of townships was an intentional construct of the Apartheid regime intended to ensure that black people could not access white held amenities and services, like health care or schools. In failing to break down the lack of access to services, the RDP program failed to dismantle the essential component of Apartheid.

The second reason for a sense of failure on the part of the government is that production of RDP houses has failed to keep up with the rate necessary to house all citizens. After 20 years, those left waiting for their RDP house, many of who have taken residence in informal settlements or backyard dwellings, have lost faith in the government to provide on their promise. Some believe that this is a facile argument due to the fact that the percentage of the population now living in formal settlements has risen from 76 percent to 80 percent between 2002 and 2016, based on data reported by Stats SA in their April 20th, 2016 report: Housing from a human settlement perspective. Nationally, there is debate about this as a success, because the absolute number of RDP applications stuck in backlog has risen from 1.5 million in 1994 to 2.1 million in 2013, which shows that recent increases in efficiency are still not adequate enough to delivery in full, as reported by news24 in 2013.

Several organizations, both inside and outside of the government, have taken on projects that challenge the government’s RDP tenets. One of the most popular and controversial ideas put forward was the idea of a Wescape development. As described by FUTURE CAPE TOWN in a series of reports about the establishment from 2016, Wescape is a development plan that featured a plot of land 20 kilometers from the city meant to accommodate 800,000 citizens in 200,000 new homes. Ostensibly, this plan was highly attractive. If it were to come together, more than 300,000 new jobs would be created, which would primarily benefit the lower-middle class, a priority of new developments. There was so much initial support that the city even voted to move the urban edge to accommodate the land. This is also indicative of another important aspect of the project. It would be very cheap to buy the land, because it was far from the city center, and would therefore be a net gain economically. In this vein, it matched Cape Town’s “Built Environment Performance Plan 2014/2015,” which emphasized buying parcels of land in “growth corridors,” which are seen as the easiest way to develop residential sites.

After some analysis, however, a large backlash came from a coalition, which emphasized the belief that this ostensibly avante garde design, rooted in walkability, government subsidy, and a small environmental footprint, would actually solve the primary problems faced by the city of Cape Town. The strongest critiques were those that drew effective parallels between Wescape’s design and the RDP housing structure, such as those from Professor Vanessa Watson in FUTURE CAPE TOWN’s piece, 10 reasons Cape Town’s new city “Wescape” would be a disaster.” As the reader may recall, even a fully productive RDP program held a fundamental flaw in that it did not actually create equity in terms of access to services and amenities due to a failure to break down Apartheid boundaries.

The ground appears to be almost literally shifting out from under the Wescape idea, however, as Cape Town is now in the midst of a fundamental shift of housing policy theory that focuses much more on “densification.” This term generally describes the idea of highly efficient land use, and is practiced in terms of “building up.” It is a response to the critiques of both the RDP and Wescape-style programs, and it, in theory, solves all of those problems. By reducing the special footprint of the city, there is the idea that energy can be used much more efficiently, and more people may have access to the anchor institutions of the city, most notably the public hospitals, which all exist near to the city center due to Apartheid planning. In theory, it is a fantastic example of policy that actually breaks apart the Apartheid regime in a tangible manner, while also using public funds efficiently.

In reality, however, there are some rather alarming aspects in the adoption of this policy. Chief among them is that the government’s role in facilitating housing is severely decreased. Where the RDP system allowed the government to fully subsidize and ensure housing, they have resigned themselves to hoping public-private partnerships with real estate developers and landlords, as actors in the free market, will accommodate the entire population of the city, 60 percent of which do not participate in the formal economy. They are also planning to encourage the specific practice of renting “microflats,” which is essentially subletting of sections of apartments. For many, this brings a concern about health in tight spaces. Can the city of Cape Town provide a quality of health care and active, enforceable regulation of rental practice to ensure this is a success? That is an essential question moving forward, and one that is sure to answer itself in the coming years.

For now, Cape Town is engaged in a debate between “densification” and sprawl that must take into account the constitutional charge of service provision for all people in an egalitarian manner.

By: Nico Nagle ’17

2 thoughts on “Post-Apartheid Reality: Can South Africa Live Up to Mandela’s Vision?

Add yours

  1. Nice overview of the problem and debate. Densification is required in many places but only offers a solution for housing. WesCape offers housing and work opportunities. Work opportunity, not only during the 20-year build but also in the commercial, industrial, healthcare and educational facilities. The second problem with densification in Cape Town is that it will add to the already chaotic traffic problem. We have a sea and Mountain taking directions of access away, leaving us with a beautiful and unique city, with unique problems, requiring unique solutions. (Walking in Cape Town, is an elusion only possible in the city center). WesCape offers jobs to the people where they stay. They are not going to drive to the city center but , hopefully, walk to their work which is in WesCape.


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