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Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose… and without proper infrastructure, freedom means little


Prof Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He is on Twitter at @txm1971. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick: 22 February 2022.

Autonomy is meaningless unless it changes the material conditions of people. Many of our informal settlements lack essential services such as schools, hospitals, water, electricity and sanitation.

The Sharpeville Massacre is a dark incident from the throes of apartheid in 1960 when the police fired at black protesters, killing 69 people and wounding 180. The protestors were in pursuit of liberty and freedom.

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This massacre catalysed the banning of all anti-apartheid political organisations, the incarceration of political leaders such as Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela, and the subsequent exile of leaders such as Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki. Many expected the apartheid regime to crumble, but it persisted another 34 years and claimed more massacres, such as in Soweto, more deaths, such as of Seve Biko, and more exiles.

In the toppling of the apartheid government and system, it was envisioned that South Africa’s democracy would be defined by national unity and that we would right the injustices of the past. Reality has certainly seeped in and we are now presented with a vastly different context.

There was an expectation in 1994 that the dismantling of apartheid structures would somehow be equal to the eradication of the vestiges of apartheid. We now know that a society splintered by class, gender and race still remains wounded. In materialistic thinking, freedom is meaningless unless it changes the material conditions of people. Has our freedom changed the material conditions of our people? Is unemployment worse or better as a result of freedom?

Granted, the global economy has changed fundamentally in the last 25 years, and South Africa has not succeeded in identifying its competitive strategy in this changing world. Given all these challenges, what is to be done?

Freedom is more than the eradication of Draconian laws such as the Group Areas Act, it must also mean freedom from poverty and unemployment. It should also mean decent shelter for all that is safe and sustainable.

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 calls for Sustainable Cities and Communities.

This means we should not allow anyone to live in shacks with no sanitation, clean water, and infested with violent gangs that maim and rape. The proliferation of informal settlements indicates that freedom did not usher in the necessary material conditions we ought to have achieved. These informal areas that continue to multiply also have poor education infrastructures, robbing the nation of much-needed talent, which is wasted because of our underinvestment in these communities.

In South Africa, we have often talked about smart cities that use data and technology to offer services. We have discussed using artificial intelligence (AI) to control our traffic. We have talked about using AI to enhance the billing system in our municipalities. We have discussed how we can use Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies to improve the efficiencies and effectiveness of our cities.

While we discuss 21st-century smart cities, our cities and towns are still primarily stuck in the Second Industrial Revolution and are dying and becoming slums. One just has to take a walk in downtown Johannesburg to witness this.

It is typical for buildings in our cities to be hijacked by criminals who extract rent and run these buildings to failure without maintaining them. After studying the state of buildings in our cities, it is clear that many of these buildings are a disaster in waiting. When they have been run to structural vulnerability, the accidents awaiting them will cost too many lives. This is too ghastly a situation to even contemplate but we have to intervene now to save lives.

What awaits our cities and towns? The rate of urbanisation in Africa is astonishingly fast. In fact, the African continent is urbanising faster than any other continent and African cities are expected to double in population by 2050. What differentiates urbanisation in Africa from China is that African urbanisation is completely uncontrolled, whereas it is tightly controlled in China. What is worse is that many of our governments cannot respond fast enough to this rapid urbanisation. Therefore, many of these informal settlements lack essential services such as schools, hospitals, water, electricity and sanitation.

Research from Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitors shows clear evidence that most protests continue to occur in informal settlements in our largest metros, incapable of keeping up with the swift pace of urbanisation.

Illegal electricity connections are common in informal settlements. For example, City Power reported in 2021 that 211 informal settlements were illegally connected. Often the wiring is done improperly with live wires exposed, posing a serious danger to people. Seven-year-old Zoë Sauls was electrocuted and died due to an illegal electricity connection. At least four more people have been electrocuted just this year.

The extent of illegal electricity connection, especially in informal settlements, is extensive, and the authorities do not seem to have a good handle on it. While City Power has been quick to tackle illegal connections, the response to service delivery requests seems to not be as urgent.

Additionally, the sanitation in these informal settlements is so poor that children die by drowning in latrines. Five-year-old Michael Komape drowned in a latrine. Since 2014, four children have perished in school pit latrines. South Africa has approximately four million pit latrines, and over 4,500 are in schools.

Furthermore, many of these informal settlements are located close to water sources, adding to water pollution. These informal settlements are in flood lines, and as a result, they experience frequent flooding, leading to the spread of diseases and environmental pollution.

Studies have shown that the proportion of people who live in informal areas globally is 30%, while in Africa, this proportion is more than 60%. Between 2002 and 2021 in South Africa, informal settlements have increased from 300 to a staggering 3,000. The drivers of migration to informal settlements are the desire to be close to economic hubs and activities, the need for strong social infrastructures such as health and education systems, and the escape from financial hardships in other African countries, such as migration to South Africa in the wake of the devastating collapse of the Zimbabwean economy.

Given all these difficulties, what is to be done? Firstly, we need to take back the illegally occupied buildings and turn them into affordable, safe, high-density housing. This will require cooperation among the local, provincial and national governments.

We need to ensure equitable distribution of infrastructure. This means whenever markets fail, the government must intervene to provide good services, especially in rural areas. One example is the Universal Services and Access Agency of South Africa (Usaasa), established to offer internet connectivity in areas where the market forces fail. Unfortunately, this agency has been plagued with corruption rather than being lauded for its work.

We should establish a similar mechanism to ensure that essential services are delivered and limit the number of people who go to urban areas and end up in informal areas. This naturally entails dealing with corruption.

We need to reimagine social housing. The RDP houses were a sound project that went a long way towards fulfilling housing. The drawback was that it was free, and studies have shown that free goods are not well taken care of. In Singapore, the government in the 1960s and 1970s realised that people did not take good care of the houses they were given. The government then introduced a fee that was not intended for financial recovery but as a mechanism of enacting the ownership.

In South Africa, we should allocate the recipients of these houses social responsibility, such as cleaning the streets or being part of the neighbourhood safety team, in exchange for these houses.

We need to identify and use sustainable and affordable materials for building these houses. Most importantly, we need government presence in our communities, towns and cities. We need a government that acts to ensure that settlements are controlled and safe and that those without shelter are afforded shelter.

One solution pivoted is to build the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) infrastructure, which integrates with existing economic and social infrastructure. The infrastructure I envision is software-based, data-enabled and should have access to the cloud. Digital infrastructure is set to improve access to information, thereby promoting transparency of government procedures and activities and building interconnected empowered communities.

For example, we need to look at the generation and delivery of energy, the extension and improvement of water infrastructure and health and educational infrastructure to create a coherent and comprehensive infrastructure network. The government must develop an all-inclusive set of infrastructure priorities for the country with realisable timelines. In 2012, the government approved the National Infrastructure Plan as a job generator to reinforce the delivery of basic services. This is but a basis to chart a way forward.

There are solutions that can be pivoted — without which true freedom will continue to evade huge swathes of our population.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.



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