The housing conundrum facing Cape Town

CTHousing Graphic

On 24 August 2013, Future Cape Town hosted the Open City Mini-Conference at City Hall, with numerous speakers and thought-leaders presenting on the themes of an ‘Open City’. One topic that elicited lively debate, was a presentation by Frank Cummings on urban regeneration and housing. It is a well-known fact that service-delivery and housing is a political and financial-resources minefield in the Mother City.

Although discussed on an urbanism level at the conference, the other major factors were evaded, to keep the gathering open and non-political. However, we cannot escape the harsh reality that, in a young democracy, many issues are dripping with policy-position, political-ideology and governance-ability influences.

Nowhere is this felt more strongly, than in the rampant urbanisation of Cape Town, and the way political forces play on the emotions of what is essentially, an economic issue.

South Africa’s developmental landscape is beginning to resemble the fictional nation of Panem in the Hunger Games, where major cities or The Capital are advanced, whilst the rural and marginal provincial areas get left far behind. Luckily, unlike the restricted movement within the dictatorial government of Panem, as portrayed in the dystopian movie, South Africa is a democracy with freedom-of-movement. This does present another problem though: People will flee economic and governance malaise. If opportunities do not exist at point-A, they leave to point-B; that simple.

The StatsSA figures for both the Eastern and Western Cape are alarming. Cape Town’s urban-growth figures were highlighted by Frank Cummings at the Open City Mini-Conference, to gasps of exasperation from the audience.

Firstly, life-expectancy is an overall indicator of wellness-of-populace. The Western Cape’s life-expectancy at birth post-2011, is the nation’s highest at 70.1 (female) and 64.2 (male) years; Eastern Cape: 59.3 (female) and 53.7 (male) years. It therefore goes without saying that the Western Cape’s HDI (human development index) is the highest nationally. Net-migration figures for the two provinces between 2001 and 2011 were +431 337 and -334 921 respectively. The Eastern Cape is experiencing the highest numeric loss of population to out-migration of any province, with Limpopo coming a distant second at -130 484 over the same period, but most consequential to Gauteng.

Does Gauteng have dire urbanisation issues? Indeed, with +1 507 149 migration gain over the previous decade. 2013 Population estimates put the Western Cape at: 6 016 926 and Gauteng at: 12 728 438.

Another draw of Cape Town, in a country with unacceptably high inequality, is lower levels of inequality in the city, despite the misleading political rhetoric. Cape Town, although well-above acceptable equality levels, with a Gini Coefficient of 0.67, is below Johannesburg at 0.75 and Durban and Port Elizabeth at 0.72; according to the UN State of the World Cities Report. With it being a statistical fact that more basic services are provided to Capetonian residents, at a lower cost, than any other South African metro, it is no wonder the inward migration is so rapid. Considering the city also has an entrepreneurial rate of 190% compared to the national average, the environment is in place to become self-made in Cape Town, versus elsewhere.

Then there’s the catch-22. The better the Western Cape performs, the more alluring it becomes. One cannot blame those in the economic and governance doldrums of the Eastern Cape, in seeking a better life westward. Any sane minded person would do the same. For Cape Town, it makes housing provision near impossible. The more effectively it delivers housing, sanitation and other basic-services, the more migrants will be drawn to it.

The bulk of the solution lays to our north-and-east. The issue is not purely an urban-economic or inclusive-housing one. That simply addresses symptoms, not the cause. Curing the ailment of the Panem-paradigm of nationally spatially screwed economic development, lies with the national and other provincial governments. It is imperative that economic growth, good governance and quality infrastructure be universal throughout South Africa.

Additionally, housing and services’ provision provides for alleviation against poverty, but is not an eradication measure. Quality education with coherent business and SMME-friendly economic policy is the cure. Without the structural changes to South Africa’s education and economic systems, Cape Town will be building dykes against a rising tide.

This is by no means a blanket defense of the City of Cape Town’s human settlement position. Much can still be improved and many plans can be lamented. These include the Wescape (between Table View and Atlantis) and Philippi developments; the urban edge should be religiously followed. Development has to follow the densification, urban infill and proximal-to-economic-opportunity model, not the sprawl model. We can debate the merits of new social housing developments and informal settlement eradication, versus in situ upgrading of townships; however what is difficult to debate, is the constant wave of migrants Cape Town grapples with, with limited resources.

What exacerbates the problem is the slow decline of agriculture and other primary economic sectors, the areas traditionally employing the lower-skilled. Cape Town’s economy is growing healthily in the tertiary sector, where only the skilled are welcome; this precludes economic-inclusion for many of the recent rural-to-urban migrants.  People are coming to the Western Cape seeking a better life, only to be confronted by the brick wall of a pseudo-first-world economy that excludes them.

The housing conundrum faced by the City of Cape Town is a multi-layered beast that is unlikely to be solved by any singular intervention. The largest frustration being that the levers of what could alleviate this rising tide are not under its control; not under the control of municipal officials, local politicians, or Capetonian urbanists. Islands of prosperity invariably get swamped when located within an ocean of decay.

About Andres de Wet

Passionate about all things urban, political and developmental. Have championed numerous projects, including the proposed Breede Valley Partnership, managed the local chamber of commerce and general contributor to local tourism associations. Been intricately involved in rural empowerment and agricultural sustainability through FairTrade. Worked in the USA as a lead architectural designer from 2006-2008. Although currently self-employed, maintain a keen interest in the public realm and the Cape’s march towards excellence.