There remains one major obstacle on South Africans’ journey to become a normalised, integrated society: we still live in separate neighbourhoods.
We all get along quite well on a person-to-person level in the offices, factory floors and sports stadia. But persisting residential segregation is impeding different racial groups from getting to know one another on a normal human level. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ will persist as long as most of live so far apart, as will the resentments, fears and suspicions.
Of course it is a hangover from our apartheid past, but it would have helped if our town and city planners didn’t simply continue in the apartheid paradigm after 1994. We were supposed to overcome apartheid, not just shrug our shoulders and mutter about class inevitabilities and superficial cultural or ‘birds of a feather’ arguments.
Most black South Africans still live on the outer perimeters of our big metros. Most settlements that came into being because of rapid – but badly managed – urbanisation during the last two decades were established many kilometres outside the city limits.
In most of the towns outside the metros we still have the rigid separation of the ‘white’ town with the ‘location’ on the other side of the railway track or the national road.
We will have to do something drastic about this state of affairs if we’re serious about overcoming the racial schisms and resentments. Some would call it nation building.
If we don’t, we will produce more generations of young black people who live their entire lives in townships and ghettoes far away from the main centres of economic activity and from where most white people live.
Living so far apart is one thing. Having to travel for hours to and from work every day is quite another. This is unfair and bad for productivity.
We will have to start doing things very differently.
I do not underestimate the difficulties and problems any kind of social engineering will bring to the property market and the attitudes of property owners. As a middle class person with my biggest investment being my residential home, I’m as concerned about my neighbourhood as anyone else.
But there are ways of normalising the way we live in this society without creating fears and stirring up emotions.
It was reported last year that the state might sell the 2.5 square kilometers of real estate now occupied by the dilapidated Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. This is fairly close to the city centre and the M3 highway – a good place to start.
Instead of developing more exclusive upper class or middle class suburbs, the City of Cape Town should get involved and develop the land into a good mix of upper income, middle income and lower income housing. Several thousand black and coloured working and middle class families could live here side by side with white people.
There are other huge tracts of urban land in Cape Town where this project can be extended to, for example: the land between the blossoming economic hub of Century City and the suburbs of Rugby and Brooklyn, the Oude Molen land on the edge of Pinelands and Culemborg, now owned by the Department of Transport. In fact, these three pieces of land border each other, so we’re talking about an area where tens of thousands of families can find a new home close to the city centre.
Other metros have similar possibilities, like the land around the old Durban Airport and the land owned by the SANDF close to the Durban city centre, and the huge vacant area between Waterkloof Air Base and Monument Park in Pretoria. Smaller cities like Polokwane, Potchefstroom, Bloemfontein and Mbombela all have larger and smaller patches of land that can be used for this purpose.
A land audit of state-owned land in our cities and towns could help a lot to identify more possibilities.
If this kind of project is ever launched and not well managed, it could be a disaster in terms of property prices and unnecessary resentment and friction. But it is no excuse to simply continue in the old apartheid way.
With appropriate consultation with communities, the involvement of commercial banks and property developers and proper planning – and political will – we can really re-imagine our urban spaces and the way we live. There are ample examples elsewhere in the world where different communities and income groups live together in harmony.
This will not only make social and economic sense, it will help us change the way we relate and interact with each other.
I believe it is time for bold and innovative steps to deal with the polarisation of our society and to move towards a more normalised way of living together.