Cities of Wellbeing: Letter From South Africa

What do ordinary South Africans need to do to make sure that wellbeing is a top priority for policymakers?

I live and work in Grahamstown, a small South African university that prides itself on being an excellent educational center attracting young people and scholars not only from South Africa but from the whole of Africa and even from abroad. The town is known for its role in nurturing future community leaders in a globalized world.

Unfortunately, the small town has recently suffered some setbacks. However residents from all parts of town are determined to work together to put things right. To achieve the turnaround, residents have been asked to contribute their support and expertise and to come forward with ideas for workable solutions to make the town a happier place.

In South Africa, shared happiness is important. It is thought that cohesive communities can only flourish where the South African spirit of ubuntu, a sharing ethic, is alive. Recent discussions with local township dwellers on community quality of life have produced some useful tips on how to achieve strong communities. Ideally, discussants told us, you should be considerate as neighbours, trusting and respectful of each other. You will want to know that you can depend on other people to help out when needed. Jealousy and malicious gossip are no-nos; joining in community activities, including ceremonies and rituals, are to be recommended.

Turning to the role of policymakers, our discussants also considered how members of local authority can contribute to citizens’ wellbeing. Most important, they stated, is for local government to adopt a ‘caring’ ethic – a policy that considers citizens first. To be practical, ‘caring’, in their view, would mean that basic services are delivered – something people in other parts of the world may take for granted. The list of local priorities included safe water to drink, electricity without interruptions, sanitation, regular refuse removal, and no pot-holed roads.

South Africa’s democracy adopted an enlightened constitution that guarantees the welfare of its citizens. But, as our discussants wisely pointed out, good policy for citizens’ wellbeing is only beneficial if it is implemented.