Conventional wisdom has it that urbanisation is a positive phenomenon: it is supposed to be easier and cheaper to deliver services, education and jobs to concentrated populations.
But certain realities have meant that over the last two decades urbanisation in South Africa has brought with it more bad than good and has contributed to the crisis the country is in now.
The first is the pace of people moving to urban areas: about one million a year (the last reliable figure I could find was 5.5 million between 1996 and 2001). The second is the alarming inability of local and provincial governments to cope with the influx.
It is surprising that government, the ANC, the DA in the Western Cape, civil society and the business sector have paid so little attention to urbanisation and its impacts.
Surely it must have been expected that the end of influx control in the late 1980s and the destruction of the Bantustans in 1994 would have opened the floodgates of rural people wanting to move to the cities? The proportion of South Africans living in urban areas increased from 52% in 1990 to an estimated 65% to 67% in 2014 – an annual rate of change of just under 2%.
And yet little planning was, and is, being done to cope with this huge movement of citizens. I remember how confident the government was in 1995 and 1996 that it would wipe out the backlog of housing, water and sanitation. It has done fairly well, in fact, with close to three million so-called RDP houses built in the last 20 years.
But the housing backlog is as big now than when the ANC took power. The faster houses are built and services provided, the more people stream in from the former homelands. There are more than 3 000 squatter camps (informal settlements in government speak) in and around our cities and bigger towns today.
The shockingly squalid conditions in these settlements with their massive unemployment figures, failing schools and high crime rates are among the main causes why South Africa had become the “protest capital of the world” with a community uprising virtually every single day of the year, many of them violent. Just in the last ten years at least 43 protesters were killed by police, and this excludes the 34 miners killed in Marikana in 2012.
An increasing number of these conflicts take place around the illegal invasion of private or state land. It can be argued that the real land ownership crisis in the country is not about agricultural land – the issue commanding all government’s attention – but about land where people in urban areas can settle.
Gauteng, geographically the smallest province in the country, has 12.2 million people, according to the 2011 census. This is a 34% increase compared with 2001. The population of Durban and Cape Town has also increased dramatically, but smaller cities like Polokwane, Rustenburg, Nelspruit and Vanderbijlpark show even higher growth rates of more than 2% in the last decade.
To this picture should be added the large numbers of people from Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa who had poured through our borders over the last two decades.
I think it is a fair suspicion that the ANC puts more emphasis on rural development than urban growth – this certainly appeared to be the case during the ANC’s campaign before the May elections. Perhaps, like Zanu-PF to the north of us, it sees the rural population as its most loyal constituency. The strength of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and the traditionalist tendencies of President Jacob Zuma are contributing to this trend.
So, instead of using urbanisation as a plus, as a gift to make delivery of services and education more efficient and to supply a steady workforce to business and industry, government has turned it into a threat to our stability.
I don’t need to get into detail about the spectacular failing of most local governments, or the neglect of township schools – the depressing evidence is clear for all to see.
The pace of urbanisation is of course stimulated by the neglect of the former Bantustans and the pathetic performance of provincial governments in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, the Free State and Mpumalanga.
I visited Butterworth in the old Transkei not too long ago. Almost nothing is left of the vibrant small industries and businesses I remember from twenty years ago. There isn’t much agriculture going on in the area or in the former Ciskei – the fertile rolling hills and valleys are largely deserted.
When the former prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, took power in what was then a failed state in the early 1990s, he foresaw the likelihood of sudden and massive urbanisation and its potential threat to stability. He launched an ambitious smallholder farmer programme, putting about a million families on small patches of land with strong government support and successfully slowed down the pace of urbanisation.
The problematic system of migrant labour, that old colonial and apartheid hangover, is part of the urbanisation picture. Around half of all deep rural households have at least one migrant worker in the urban areas. Men mostly work as mineworkers, drivers, security guards or manual labourers and women as domestic helpers or cleaners, as only about 15% of them have a Grade 12 education.
Many – probably most – migrant workers prefer not to bring their families to the city, which often results in social dysfunction. Research shows that men who own cattle and have access to land prefer their wives to stay in the traditional areas and their children to have a rural and traditional upbringing. Even those who had worked in urban areas for many years keep their ties with the old homelands and plan to retire and be buried there.
In fact, a large number of struggling migrant workers now slumming it in the urban areas are quite wealthy if one puts a monetary value to their land and cattle.
The Marikana Massacre demonstrated how problematic the migrant labour system still is. Many of the miners had a family near the mine and a family in the communal areas, which meant that even R12 500 per month was an insufficient income.
Mining and industrial companies have continued the migrant labour system as if nothing had changed in South Africa over the last two decades. Government simply blamed the private sector. Nobody did anything to deal with the complex problem.
And so we continue in this country, ignoring the writing on the wall, simply waiting for the day our stability is going to disappear.