Between Cape Town’s airport and its city center, visitors drive past a poorly concealed scar: the underdeveloped townships allocated for black residents during apartheid. Despite legion policy efforts, they remain similarly peopled today. Arriving at the urban center, however, this destitution is replaced by bustling malls, luxurious hotels, and a booming tourism industry insistent that segregation and institutional racism are a distant past, alive only in history books and museum tours. The city, understood in whole, debunks this notion: Cape Town is home to many, but paradise to few.

Cape Town is branded by its multiculturalism. According to a 2012 government census, the city’s most populous racial group, Coloureds (which refers to mixed-race citizens), makes up only 42.4 percent of the population, with Black Africans (38.6 percent) and Whites (15.7 percent) trailing closely behind. However, the current status of permanent housing, unemployment, and wealth distribution between racial groups evinces the challenges faced by a diverse urban population and the legacy of white superiority left by the Afrikaner National Party’s apartheid rule. Two decades after the NP’s fall from power, continued segregation in Cape Town exposes the shortcomings of post-apartheid urban policy.

A City Planned

After taking power in 1948, the NP ruled with the policy of apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “separateness.” The regime’s aim was not only to separate white and non-white populations, but also to divide the non-white population by tribal boundaries in order to undermine its political power. Several early policies set the stage for apartheid, and by 1950, marriages and sexual relations between white and non-white individuals were made illegal. The white minority was granted over 80 percent of land nationwide through a series of property acts originating from the 1913 Land Act, which forced black Africans into reserves and barred the group from taking part in sharecropping. Policies mirroring the United States’ Antebellum South became commonplace, and opponents like Nelson Mandela were silenced and jailed.

The new policies were felt strongly in urban centers, including the economic hub of Cape Town. Before 1948, the city remained one of the more integrated urban areas in South Africa. Yet policies regarding the function of non-white people within cities brought harsher segregation in Cape Town in the years to follow. Apartheid urban planning was based on the Stallard Commission of 1922, which stated that “the co-mingling of black and white is undesirable” and that “the native should only be allowed to enter urban areas … when he is willing to enter and to minister to the needs of white man, and should depart therefrom when he ceases to so minister.” Through the lens of contemporary urban planners, cities were by nature and by implementation constructed for white people, giving non-white residents no place within the urban sphere beyond servitude. In order to establish white cities, black and coloured residents were forcibly relocated to designated areas, known as Bantustans, where poverty thrived and opportunity was null.

Harvard anthropology professors Jean and John Comaroff have researched the construction and dismantling of colonialism in southern Africa, paying particular attention to apartheid South Africa. They lived in Cape Town as children in the years leading up to apartheid and as students during its prominence, and they maintain partial residency today. According to Jean, “the history of the making of colonialism [in South Africa] has a lot to do with organizing landscape, housing, civilization, and the material conditions of life. It has always been about creating the context through which people live; you create people through the houses that you put them in, the neighborhoods that you structure.”

“Apartheid wasn’t really a set of regulations for racial segregation,” John told the HPR. “It was an extremely elaborate and engineered social system that supported political economy based on racial capitalism. It was always a juxtaposition between white and coloured, and black South Africans were always just beyond the peripheries of vision.”

By 1994, Mandela’s African National Committee took national power from the NP and began to seek reformation after decades of apartheid policy. Through controversy and international speculation, the ANC has remained in power with characteristically black leadership, and today eight of South Africa’s nine provinces are governed by the ANC. Only Western Cape, the province that houses Cape Town, is governed by the opposing Democratic Alliance, led by white Helen Zille.

A City Divided

Following the termination of apartheid policy in 1994, change came rapidly. Affluent neighborhoods—once entirely white, save for domestic workers—were quickly spattered with previously relocated citizens and new African immigrants, and the submerged cultures and languages of non-white residents rose uncontested among those of the white. National legislation was written and rewritten, space began to lose its color, and Cape Town, once lauded as a paradisal European city on the African continent, traded components of its Anglo culture to form an African identity of its own.

Furthermore, the economy informalized with newfound freedom. As apartheid crumbled, immigrants began to fill the sidewalks beneath large storefronts with small, informal stalls. Economic opportunity came in various forms, though a rigid barrier remained before the upper echelon of careers where whites maintained supremacy.

Not all economic changes offered opportunity. Taxes were raised and a minimum wage was implemented, two factors which encouraged local firms to move abroad. As labor and business went overseas, employment reached critical conditions, with some communities seeing 60 to 70 percent unemployment among young black males. To worsen matters, no major civil society was in place to respond to the damages. Recent attempts at job creation and redistribution have been ineffective in supplying opportunity at the scale necessary to outweigh these early failures.

“Under [the aforementioned] conditions,” Jean explained, “you need to have massive redistribution. And the social grants right now are a) not enough, b) not competently administered in many places because of endemic government corruption, and c) [unsustainable because] the tax base is eroding. Additionally, [the government] has all these other claims, including free education, and a middle class that is more vocal in making its demands. And the money’s got to come from somewhere, so the question of priorities is a big issue.”

The ANC offered several legislative changes, including a new constitution, to promote democracy and equality. In fact, the South African constitution is studied internationally for its clauses on diversity and human rights—measures considered necessary given its post-apartheid context. In the city, however, the constitution’s ideals have not undergone true realization.

“The fact is that there was a transition in paper, and in terms of entitlements on paper, but the realpolitik of inclusion is not happening” Jean said. “In some ways in South Africa the revolution came too late, and it’s very hard to make a modern society—a modern democracy—under postmodern conditions.”

These shortcomings are evident in the city today. Townships bearing semblance to those sanctioned by apartheid remain almost exclusively non-white, and poverty and immobility still plague residents. Meanwhile, suburbs remain pristine behind walls adorned with electric fencing. Whites drive by black and coloured maids in luxury cars, and though some domestic workers have been relocated to affordable housing establishments on the fringe of the city, many still live in servants’ quarters occupied during apartheid. The city is changing, no doubt, but at its current rate it cannot outpace the lasting consequences of apartheid.

“These are the real problems: job creation, redistribution, and how [to approach] these under current conditions,” Jean explained. “So there’s a tremendous amount of public promising—to be anything you can be, to be aspirational—but people don’t have the means to do it, which is why crime becomes a mode of production here. It becomes legitimate to people for whom the law, and the economy, and the constitution, have failed.”

A City Reformed

The challenge that Cape Town’s urban planners face today is to reverse the structures implemented to uphold spatial segregation, promoting integration and accessibility in the cracks of apartheid engineering. The last several years have seen many such efforts, including the redesign of the apartheid train terminal to increase transportation and access for the 2010 World Cup, but these efforts have not promoted lasting change.

“There is a very long way between creating the scaffolding of an enlightened society and actually realizing that society,” John noted, “because what intervenes are structural factors of economy, global as well as local, and politics that is both international and supranational as well as national. But it seems that the most urgent thing of all is the problem of redistribution—that’s why affordable housing is so important.”

Guy Briggs is the Head of Urban Design at dhk, a South African architecture and design firm with an office in Cape Town. His work spans across the African continent, with projects ranging from city regeneration to development planning. According to Briggs, desegregation has been stunted by the government’s failure to acknowledge the spatial and structural nature of Cape Town’s segregation.

“The stated aim of the government over the past 20 years has been to redress inequality through, for example, providing housing for those who do not have access to housing, and providing access to services for those who do not have access to services,” Briggs told the HPR. “Therefore, much of the delivery of housing and services has followed the same pattern that apartheid city-making followed, and has continued to entrench those spatial patterns of inequality and segregation. Was it Einstein who said that ‘you’re never going to solve the problem by using the same methodologies that created it,’ to paraphrase?”

Cape Town’s affordable housing initiatives are ineffective for two main reasons: too few houses have been built, and existing developments are located in the same distant locations allocated for non-whites during apartheid. Consequently, the non-white workers employed within central neighborhoods must travel long distances to work every day—a commute that is typically inefficient, expensive, and in many cases, dangerous. Other cities throughout South Africa have implemented bus rapid transit in order to make neighborhoods more accessible and less insular, and Briggs believes this system is one of the few urban solutions that can successfully integrate Cape Town and its sprawl.

“What [other cities] are doing with BRT is identifying high-capacity movement corridors that run throughout the city—stitching together areas that were previously zoned for whites only, areas previously zoned for black only, areas in which people work, areas in which people live—and running high-capacity transport links between those,” he explained. “They then seek to facilitate and encourage substantial redevelopment along the edges of those corridors for higher density, mixed-use development, so those corridors essentially become integrated environments themselves. That’s a strategy that very cleverly recognizes that it will take many, many years to integrate the cities in totality, but what we can do is create threads of integration that run right through the cities.”

Central affordable developments are hard to come by in Cape Town, considering its urban density and competitive real estate market. The few available plots of land for affordable housing have become widely disputed, with one party arguing for integration and the other battling to maintain the quality and integrity of their neighborhoods. While Briggs stands firmly in the former, he notes that these developments still won’t fully alleviate the housing burden for Cape Town’s displaced thousands. For now, these land battles must be supplemented with solutions to promote local economies within the townships.

“There has to be more resource allocation to the poorer areas, and there is hope that over time, these areas will have much more robust internal economies,” Briggs said. “At the moment they are effectively dormitory environments; the population leaves the environment to make money, and the monies that are earned on the outside are largely spent outside. These environments need to be developing their own economies so that the circulation of money is not necessarily entirely internal but is at least two-way. Then, they will slowly start to be uplifted.”

Briggs and the Comaroffs agree that desegregation will take many decades (indeed, it has already taken two). These solutions—redesigned transportation systems, centrally located affordable housing developments, and dynamic internal economies—will take time and dedication to implement. An awareness of the spatial challenges the city continues to face in the wake of apartheid must remain in this generation and those to follow in order for new developments to overcome troubling histories.

“It is far easier to segregate, and to plan segregation, and to implement segregation, than it is to undo it once it’s done,” Briggs said. “I think there’s a simple reason for that: planning and implementing segregation is essentially a violent act, and violence is easy. It’s far more difficult to make peace and to stay at peace and to live at peace and to have solutions that continue to work.”

A 30-minute boat ride from the Cape Town waterfront, Robben Island, the jail at which Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, offers tourists the opportunity to learn about the island’s history and the residents who once peopled its buildings. Each group is led by a previous inmate on a walking tour inside the cells, stopping for a moment at Mandela’s, which spans two by three meters in size. The walls, now painted turquoise, were colorless during his residence. After the guide tells his own story of imprisonment—after speaking of the horror, the abuse, and the injustice of his captivity—he will tell the group that, despite all of this, he now lives in harmony with his captors. He may even say that they have become friends. The story told by the guides is that of a successful transition from a bad society to one that is inherently good, one that has overcome its past. This is lamentably reductive. Cape Town still wears the scars of its racial segregation, and they can be seen in every neighborhood and suburb within its jurisdiction. A full transition will require new, innovative housing policies, larger allocations of funding to redistribution and job creation for the very poor, and an absolute devotion to ensuring that the benefits of these policies fall upon those they are meant to serve. But for now, these changes may be considered from different neighborhoods: by the coloured in the Cape Flats, the black in distant townships, and the white in walled suburbs nestled into the slopes of Table Mountain, with Robben Island only an obstruction in the otherwise uninterrupted ocean view.


Image Source: Flickr/SuSanA Secretariat


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