The imprint of apartheid is still evident in South African cities. As acknowledged widely by planning academics and recognised in the National Development Plan and draft Integrated Urban Development Framework, urban expansion has engendered new forms of segregation and exclusion.
Apartheid-divided suburbs have their equivalent today in fortified estates catering to an exclusive moneyed minority – a mere 3% of South Africa’s households. More densely packed, walled townhouse complexes cater to the aspiring middle class, which makes up barely 10% of South African households.
Informal settlements sprang up on vacant land during the transition, sometimes in or near suburbs and central business districts. The residents of these informal settlements were mostly relocated to transit camps or dormitory housing developments on the urban peripheries, often beyond apartheid-era townships.
Urban visions generated by progressive networks of nongovernmental organisations, activists and planning academics during the late apartheid years were projections of urban centres shared by all. Well-located low-income housing, public transport corridors, active streets and public spaces were to generate opportunities for entrepreneurship and encounters. The ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme of the mid-1990s embraced these ideals. Today, though, in most parts of our cities, they ring hollow.
The 2004 national policy on sustainable human settlements sought to address the “broader residential property market”, but with negligible effect. Protests from impoverished townships and informal settlements, generated by the world’s highest urban inequality, sparked only a reductionist urban politics of housing and service delivery. Political debate has avoided the hard questions about the real obstacles to the spatial integration of the poor in South African cities.
In 1994, it was understood that the planning and land use management bureaucracy at municipal level would take time to reform. Following groundwork by academics and civil society, the department of land affairs developed the interim Development Facilitation Act (DFA), which was promulgated in 1995. It was meant to “facilitate” development until such time as the planning system had been fully reformed in line with the pending Constitution. The Act allowed provincial tribunals to approve developments within municipal boundaries.
In the years after the completion of municipal restructuring in 2000, metropolitan municipalities developed spatial frameworks to transform the apartheid city. But these had no legal standing, even in municipalities.
One of the obstacles to the metros’ capacity to guide urban investment in several metropolitan municipalities was the continued application of the DFA. In the absence of planning reform, provincial tribunals became a vehicle for overriding municipal planning and land use management.
Two political imperatives reinforced this trend: rapid subsidised housing delivery on large tracts of peripheral land and economic growth, fostered by investment opportunities in the built environment and the construction of residential dwellings to “global” standards.
In the absence of planning reform, provincial tribunals continued to approve subsidised housing in poor locations within and beyond the boundaries of metropolitan municipalities. Seeing the sense in economic investment, provincial tribunals also approved privately proposed gated estates, townhouse developments, malls and business parks, despite their having little regard for municipal spatial development frameworks.
In 2006, the City of Johannesburg began to question the constitutionality of the DFA approval processes. It faced opposition from the national ministry responsible for planning reform, as well as several provinces, the South African Property-Owners’ Association and the South African Association for Consulting Professional Planners. The economy and procedural efficiency formed the basis of the opposing arguments.
The Constitutional Court in 2010 confirmed that the provincial tribunals had encroached on municipal planning, which involves development approval and township establishment within municipal boundaries. It ordered the government to complete and enact long-overdue national spatial planning and land- use management legislation.
The Court’s intention was to respect the nonhierarchical constitutional principles of co-operative government and intergovernmental relations, and to place the power of approval in municipalities alone.
The new Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act of 2013 inscribes, for the first time, spatial aspects in the right to housing. It articulates this as a right to “equitable spatial patterns and sustainable human settlements”. It requires the promotion of “social and economic inclusion” and redress for the “imbalances of the past”.
It makes spatial development frameworks at municipal, provincial and national level legally binding, though they will be up for review every five years.
Still, there remains the potential of a lingering hierarchy: undefined “national” and “public” interests can override municipal decision-making. Economic growth, global competitiveness and mass housing delivery, framed as national or public interest, irrespective of the spatial configuration they demand, may therefore continue to override municipal-level plans to redress urban spatial imbalances.
Central-local tensions have been critical in debates on the urban question. A normative ideal embracing local autonomy, going even beyond municipalities, that is gaining momentum globally is the “right to the city”. French sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre developed this concept in the late 1960s.
The city Lefebvre promotes is home to an urban society made up of people who appropriate and inhabit spaces, rather than these spaces being dominated spatially by the state or the market. Land-use management in this city allows for diversity and for complex entities to emerge. It allows the poor or excluded to inhabit conveniently located land and is not over-determined by the need to generate profit.
Lefebvre engages urban strategies and planning at great length, coming to three concrete recommendations: the city must enter the political conscience and debate squarely; local autonomy or self-management must be given space; and the right to the city must be legislated.
Although devolution is often understood as a prerequisite of the neoliberal rolling back of the state, leftist governments, notably France under François Mitterrand in the 1980s and Brazil under Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in the 2000s (though less directly), built on Lefebvre’s idea of the right to the city. Both governments recognised the importance of cities, creating dedicated ministries of cities, with key co-ordinating functions.
Already in 2001, Brazil, under pressure from the Urban Reform Movement linked to the Workers’ Party, then in control of several municipalities, enacted a city statute that brought all relevant urban law together.
In a federal system that devolves important powers to municipalities, the Urban Reform Movement developed the content of the statute in Workers’ Party municipalities. The party’s model of direct democracy embraces local autonomy and has built its growing political support on that.
The Brazilian experience suggests that urban planning and land-use management must be aligned and co-ordinated at national level, and that urban rights should be expanded from simply access to adequate housing to a right to the city.
In Brazil today, in the face of strong economic pressures, the unfortunate need for political compromises and competing ideas from the political centre and the right, the urban question remains intensely debated.
In South Africa, if we want the approval of exclusionary developments or peripherally located housing not to be threaded through loopholes in the spatial planning Act, the spatial state of the city must enter political consciousness and debate at all levels.