Still walled in by race and class

Cape Town-180502 Police arrive at Siqalo residents to control a volatilesituation as residents marched, burnt tyres and blocked the Jakes Gerwel road with rocks and rubble,when they protested for electricity and houses in that area this morning .photograph:Phando Jikelo/African News Agency/ANA

DESPITE claims that it is the best-run city in South Africa and that it is relatively corruption-free, all is not well in Cape Town.

In many ways, it is a sick city….

And it is precisely because of its natural beauty and its high standard of living for some that its problems stand out so starkly.

Whatever the Democratic Alliance, the governing party for Cape Town and the rest of the province may say, the city’s problems revolve around a shortage of land for housing for the poor, a woeful lack of decent housing, high unemployment (like in the rest of the country) and, consequently, a lack of dignity for hundreds of thousands of residents who live in poverty.

Cape Town has 437 informal settlements containing about146 000 households – with the likelihood being that the number of such settlements and households will continue to rise.

Intense dissatisfaction among residents over a lack of service delivery, the inability or refusal by politicians to tackle the issue of spatial apartheid and an attitude among many white and coloured people that the mainly African residents of informal settlements are temporary residents have sparked a series of ticking time-bombs.

Over the past week, one of these exploded in a part of Mitchells Plain between Jakes Gerwel Drive and Highlands Road, and in the nearby informal settlement of Siqalo.

It started with a service delivery protest by the residents of Siqalo. Like so many service delivery protests, it quickly turned violent, with burning barricades being set up, with private property being attacked, and with businesses being looted.

The protests came in the week of a city-wide bus strike, in which up to 350 000 commuters found themselves without transport to and from work. With roads in and out of other parts of Mitchells Plain also being blocked off, those using other modes of transport were also drawn into the dispute, creating a kind of “perfect storm”.

It did not take long for racial undertones to come to the fore. Community leaders in Mitchells Plain were quick to deny that a racist rhetoric had crept into the responses of those who were inconvenienced by the protests. But they deplored the acts of violence and looting that accompanied the protests. This, they pointed out, had nothing to do with racism.

But what again became glaringly obvious was the difference in the life experience of the different communities….

Mitchells Plain is not a rich community. Many parts of its sprawling suburbs are beset with problems centred on drugs, gangsterism and youth unemployment. But these problems are a fraction of what residents of Siqalo have to cope with. Because the settlement is on private land, the city has refused to provide it with basic municipal services such as running water, electricity and toilets.

Xanthea Limberg, the mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services, and energy said the city is not prepared to buy the land on which the settlement is located because it is not suitable for housing development. It has corroded due to illegal sand mining, she said. It was also on a floodline, which meant that electricity could not be installed there.

The violence that accompanied protests by residents of Siqalo has become a regular occurrence by at protests by poor people throughout the country. Researchers suggest that, on average, 11 such protests occur every day in South Africa, and although most revolve around labour issues, increasing numbers of “service delivery” protests are also being recorded.

They stress that most of these are peaceful, but in most instances authorities tend to ignore the issues being raised. The consequence of this is that protesters are increasingly leaning towards a strategy defined as “burn to be heard”.

Inevitably too, a criminal element has found it easy to ride on the back of protests, given that there are very few convictions for arson, stone-throwing or looting. If anything, the protests in Mitchells Plain has again brought the issue of “apartheid spatial planning” to the fore.

Since apartheid was supposed to have formally come to an end with the first democratic elections in 1994, those running Cape Town have done the least to change the legacy of the past.

The townships that were designed and built by the apartheid National Party to house communities that were moved from areas close to the city centre are still very much in existence today. The social problems that began to manifest themselves in the various townships – including sections of Mitchells Plain – soon after people were moved have become dire today.

It is glaringly obvious that Cape Town remains divided along racial and economic lines. The leafy suburbs, within easy reach of the city centre, remains the almost exclusive domain of white people. The rundown, crime-ridden townships on the outskirts of the city are, again, overwhelmingly inhabited by coloured and African people.

To make matters worse, coloured and African people continue to be divided along the lines envisaged by the National Party, where coloured people were given just a little more opportunities to make them feel just a little more superior.

What needs to be remembered and reiterated is that townships, whether for Africans coloureds, were designed and built for people who were seen by the architects of apartheid as “second-class” at best.

Thus, township schools are still inferior, police stations are inadequately staffed (meaning crime will always be a problem), transport costs are high, and healthcare facilities are inadequate.

In far too many instances, people in the townships seem to be unaware of how severely apartheid spatial planning has affected them. If they were aware, surely they would have responded by changing their choice of political representatives in local and provincial elections.

And yet, in areas of Mitchells Plain, such as Tafelsig, Eastridge and Rocklands, all of which are weighed down by enormous and longstanding social problems such as drugs, drug-dealing and gangsterism, residents continue to vote overwhelmingly for the DA.

Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising in South Africa as well as the UK in sportswriting, politics and features. He is also the opinion editor for the Independent Media Group