South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. According to the World Economic Forum’s Inclusive Development Index 2018, no other nation has higher income inequality.
Much of this has to do with South Africa’s historical legacy. The majority of the population was dispossessed by colonization and further impoverished by apartheid. People were first chased from their productive agricultural land, and when they moved to the cities to escape rural poverty, they were systematically shifted away from economic opportunity.
Unfortunately, the spatial patterns created through this process still persist in the cities that inhabit this country. The majority of the urban black population continues to live in townships that were set up under apartheid, far from centers of opportunity. Almost without exception, the infrastructure in these townships is sub-standard. Roads are not well maintained, schools and health facilities are poorly resourced, and public transport systems are inadequate.
Building houses but not homes: successful infrastructure alone won’t foster wellbeing
This is widely recognized, and many local governments have prioritized addressing these infrastructural challenges. However, the problems are much more nuanced and complex, and will take decades to shift. In addition, focusing only on infrastructure often fails to address the true wellbeing of citizens.
In Cape Town, for instance, there are parts of the city where local governments spent millions on new housing developments. As infrastructural projects, these are incredibly successful, having delivered new dwellings to thousands of citizens. However, these areas are often bleak and without thoughtfully constructed public spaces. There may be hundreds of houses without a tree in sight.
The reality is housed in the truth: giving someone a home does not get them out of poverty. In fact, an asset like this can bind them to poverty if it is situated in an area where there is no economic opportunity and no way for a community to develop a sense of collective identity and purpose.
This bleak reality is often overlooked. Developing cities tend to focus on infrastructure because it is tangible and measurable. However, it is increasingly being recognized is the approach that if you design a city for people rather than infrastructure, you end up with a higher sense of urban wellbeing, even when inequality and poverty remains.
Growing up in Philippi: from poverty to pride
Our own experience in Philippi, one of the poorest areas in Cape Town, has borne this out. The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) established a hub in Philippi to create a space for a new level of community engagement. The GSB Solution Space offers university stakeholders (which includes students and funders), local entrepreneurs, and community leaders somewhere to meet, share experiences, learn, and develop socially relevant solutions to their daily challenges.
We are seeing something new happening every day. Not only is it a space where people from Philippi can experience a sense of belonging within their own community, but it has become one where they are no longer excluded from the greater city they inhabit. The engagements this allows are not to be overlooked, either. We at the UCT GCB have been working extensively with young adults in Philippi between the ages of 19 and 35. This is an extremely vulnerable group since South Africa’s unemployment rate for this segment of the population is at 38.2 percent. Less than one in three people in this age group has a job. Many have never had one.
In Philippi, many are the third generation of families that have been unable to escape poverty. They are looking for opportunities but found they are deeply frustrated by being they are excluded from the broader economy. That leads to a lot of anger, which potentially finds expression in violence.
We are working with this group because we want to change that pattern. We want to create a sense of hope, inspiration, and the ability to be change-makers in their communities. We want them to feel less excluded, and not that they are somehow living outside of society because they find themselves on the physical margins of the city. Through our engagements, we are creating ambassadors and role models who can lead and motivate others. As this community of young adults grows together, they are demonstrating how societies can pull themselves out of the cul-de-sac of poverty.
Wellbeing requires putting people before cities
For us, it is obvious that you cannot have a city thriving in wellbeing if the most productive members of society feel dejected and separate from the city they live in. You also can not change that simply by building them a house or fixing a road.
Improvements in infrastructure helps in other ways. But what we found is that local governments are able to embrace people first in their strategies if they change their agenda. Place more focus on developing public spaces where people are encouraged to meet, share and grow together, and they will fundamentally improve the sense of wellbeing in their cities.