How South African activists hope to integrate cities built to divide

Why We Wrote This

What does opportunity look like, or justice? That abstract question sometimes boils down to a pretty concrete answer. To housing activists in South Africa, it means being able to live in cities once designed to keep people out.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Sophie Rubins stands in the doorway of her new apartment in the Fleurhof housing development, west of Johannesburg. Like many South Africans, Ms. Rubins spent years on a government waiting list for free housing before receiving her apartment in September.

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When formal segregation ended in South African cities in the mid-1990s, their planners faced an existential puzzle: how to bring people together in cities set up to keep them apart.

For decades, planners largely sidestepped it in favor of addressing an even larger issue – how to simply provide decent housing to people who had been forcibly crowded into poor, segregated communities with few public services. But much of the government-built housing sits on the edges of cities, in places that reinforce inequalities. 

In recent years, housing activists have begun pushing city governments to reverse that trend. Living far from city centers is logistically complicated, and expensive, but for many South Africans, it is a matter of injustice in more symbolic ways as well. Under apartheid, these were the spaces they were allowed to access only with government permission, and often had to leave by the time the sun went down. 

Late last month in Cape Town, a court sided with such activists, ruling that the city must cancel the sale of a property it owned near its central business district that activists want turned into subsidized housing. The judgment, experts say, could have a ripple effect, forcing cities to begin reversing a deeply unequal status quo.

The last night Sophie Rubins spent in her rusted tin shack, the first rain of spring spattered against her roof. From her bed, she watched it slide between the gaps in the walls. The holes were so big “you could see the stars,” she says, and when the water came in, it pooled on the floor, just as it had every time it rained here for the last 30 years.

For nearly all of her life, Ms. Rubins had lived here, in a zozo – a sheet-metal shack – in a backyard in Eldorado Park. The township on Johannesburg’s southern edge was built for a mixed-race and Indigenous community known in apartheid’s racial hierarchy as “coloureds.” It had few jobs or services. Most work opportunities had always been a long bus ride away, in the “white” parts of town.

But this early September night was her last one here, because the following morning, she was moving to the other side of the city, to a free government-provided apartment that she would own herself. She’d been on a waiting list to receive it for 24 years. “I thought I would have this house to raise my kids,” she says. “But I am still glad I will have a beautiful place to die.”

When formal segregation ended in South African cities in the mid-1990s, their planners faced an existential puzzle: How do you integrate cities that were built to divide? For decades, city planners largely sidestepped it altogether in favor of addressing an even larger issue – how to simply provide decent housing to people who had been forcibly crowded into poor, segregated communities with few public services. Since the end of apartheid, the country’s government has built housing for millions of people like Ms. Rubin.

But many are located at the edges of cities, in places that reinforce deep inequalities, rather than shrink them. In recent years, housing activists have begun pushing city governments to reverse that trend and build subsidized rental housing near city centers, close to jobs and schools. While not free, activists say this low-cost housing is a foot in the door for working-class people trying to access parts of the city from which they were once excluded.

On Aug. 31 in Cape Town, a court sided with these activists, ruling that the city must cancel the sale of a property it owned near its central business district that activists want turned into subsidized housing. “Unless meaningful attempts are made by the authorities to redress the situation,” the judges wrote, “spatial apartheid will be perpetuated.”

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Since 1994, the South African government has provided over 3 million housing units to poor South Africans, including these apartments in Fleurhof, west of Johannesburg.

The judgment, experts say, could have a ripple effect, forcing South Africa’s cities to at last begin to reverse a deeply unequal status quo.

“It’s significant because for the first time a court is saying, well-placed affordable housing isn’t something that’s nice to have, it’s something you must have,” says Nobukhosi Ngwenya, a junior research fellow at the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town who studies housing inequality in the city. 

Mixed success

That goes against the tides of history, but it also cuts against the present.

The apartment Ms. Rubins moved into last week on the western edge of Johannesburg was built as part of the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), a herculean government effort begun in the 1990s to reverse decades – in many places centuries – of segregation and Black dispossession from land. Building on the South African Constitution’s mandate to provide “adequate housing” to every citizen, the project promised to provide free housing to millions who had been denied basic services and decent living conditions by the white government.

By some measures, the RDP has been a major success. By 2018, government had built some 3.2 million housing units, and was still delivering. That year, approximately 13.6% of South Africans lived in either free or state-subsidized housing.

But to cut costs, nearly all of it has been built on city peripheries, in the same kinds of marginal areas that Black, Asian, and mixed-race South Africans were once confined by law.

Ms. Rubins’ new apartment, for instance, backs up against a mine dump on the city’s western edge, in a rambling, low-slung neighborhood of factories and warehouses. It costs about $2 – more than the country’s hourly minimum wage – to travel to the city center.

Distance from city centers is logistically complicated, but for many South Africans, it is a matter of injustice in more symbolic ways as well. Under apartheid, these were the spaces they were allowed to access only with government permission, and often had to leave by the time the sun went down. 

“There have been a lot of struggles for access to land in cities and towns across South Africa, and they have done a lot of good for people,” says Mandisa Shandu, executive director of Ndifuna Ukwazi, a housing rights nongovernmental organization in Cape Town, which brought the court challenge there. “But one thing we’ve done in our fight is say that not just access, but location must be considered too.”

Many-pieced puzzle

In early 2016, Ndifuna Ukwazi heard that the city of Cape Town had sold a central site, called Tafelberg, to a local private school. Although the sale had already gone through, the NGO brought a court case arguing that the land wasn’t eligible to be sold, because the city was obligated to use the resources it had to provide subsidized housing – including this parcel of land.

The case dragged on for nearly four years, until the court’s decision last week to cancel the sale. And the city and provincial governments were given until the end of May 2021 to present a plan to create low-cost housing in Cape Town’s inner city.

“I think this judgment will have a major impact beyond Cape Town,” says Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities. “Nationwide, it’s likely to give greater momentum to the social housing agenda,” he said, referring to what in the United States is called public housing.

Even with the added momentum, subsidized housing is only one piece of the puzzle. He says that government must find ways to make sure free and low-cost housing is built not only to put a roof over people’s heads, but to make South African cities more equal places to live. In Johannesburg, for instance, the city government recently spent several years improving public transport and encouraging construction along key routes – designed to make it easier to move between neighborhoods once cleaved apart by segregationist city planning.

But when Ms. Rubins moved into her new apartment last week, she wasn’t thinking about any of that. A swarm of government movers in red overalls carried in her shelves and armoires, whose wooden legs were warped and bloated by 30 years of rainstorms. She peeked out the window of her new bedroom, which overlooked a field strewn with garbage.

Her niece, June Rubins, who had moved into an apartment one floor up the week before, helped her aunt sort through the bags and boxes coming in the door.

She wondered aloud if there were any good public schools around, or if the nearby factories might be hiring. She hoped so, since the city center was a 30-minute drive.

“If you’re desperate and God provides, you must not complain. You must just say thank you,” June said. “It’s a great opportunity for us, even if this place is far away.”

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