Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

While the coronavirus has wreaked havoc with our economy, plunging us further into economic decline and greatly exacerbating our issues of poverty, hunger and unemployment, it has also shown us what is possible and how quickly we can adapt.

Within the space of six short (or long, depending on how you look at it) months, our corporate community managed to turn office work into remote, distributed work, adapting and adopting new systems to support the seismic shift that had happened beneath our feet. New technologies were also employed fast and at scale, enabling us to keep many of our commercial wheels turning.

Why, then, can we not apply the same innovation, adaptability and sheer resilience to our many other challenges, to address long outdated systems and behaviours that no longer serve us as a country?

In SA, now many years into our democracy, widespread inequality is still a reality. There are clear and tangible fault lines between race, gender and class that have been amplified by the pandemic, making it abundantly clear how different the experience has been for the haves and have-nots. This despite our aspiration to dismantle the apartheid legacy and use our space to transform our cities and make them more inclusive.

A case in point: on March 23, President Cyril Ramaphosa called for all South Africans to wash their hands with soap and sanitise. That assumes there is water in the first place; 33% of our population do not have access to basic sanitation, rendering the clarion call close to impossible.

We must ask ourselves why we are so car-based. Providing access to affordable public transport should be among our key priorities as there are hundreds of thousands of people locked into townships that cannot get to the cities

The same goes for social-distancing; how does a densely populated township located on the city’s outskirts implement a requirement of a 1.5m distance between all residents when there is hardly enough room to swing a cat? Add to this the open sewers and shared ablution facilities and the crisis becomes even harder to control.

Our cities’ shortcomings have been exposed. Climate change has affected us all; some municipalities have a surplus of water while others experience prolonged periods of drought. There is collective agreement that our reliance on fossil fuels needs to end, to be replaced by a reliable source of renewable energy as we all deserve access to clean energy.

This was reinforced in the recent medium-term budget when finance minister Tito Mboweni stressed the need to improve our electricity supply by allowing municipalities to buy power from different sources.

Our infrastructure is dilapidated, despite a significant population boom, and we need to unlock new revenue streams to help service our informal economy, driven by rapid urbanisation and population movements from rural areas. This was also a focal point of the medium-term budget, with infrastructure being a central point of the economic reconstruction and recovery plan.

Our mobility transition also needs to be fast-tracked. We must ask ourselves why we are so car-based. Providing access to affordable public transport should be among our key priorities as there are hundreds of thousands of people locked into townships that cannot get to the cities to find work and create a dignified life for themselves. The Gautrain’s expansion project goes some way to address this. 

In a similar vein, our municipalities need to become digitally adapted; why are they not embracing technology to streamline their services when it is lying right in front of them? The fact that we still have to force citizens to update their vehicle registrations in person, which has also been exacerbated by Covid-19, is archaic.

Solutions to these challenges require our attention, our resources and our collaboration. The future cannot live with the current — and at the current rate of urbanisation, the current structure will not survive. While we have a sound urban development framework, too few of our provinces have taken the existing policy and exploited it, especially those in the deep rural areas. But despite all of this good work and policy we cannot achieve anything unless we have partnerships; government has to work with civil society and the private sector because, as it stands, the government sees itself as the only provider of services.

The importance of an all-of-society, collaborative approach is the basis of both the UN’s new urban agenda and SA’s Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF).

The IUDF, which was developed by the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, with the support of the SA Cities Network, promises “a new deal for SA cities and towns”. National government needs to open the space for municipalities to experiment and partner responsively with others. The IUDF needs to harness the existing energy in the system and enable development.

Covid-19 will make partnering especially important and require, now more than ever, all actors to pursue a collective, urban development agenda. Therefore, those who are put in positions of leadership will need to lead in a manner such that all of society has confidence in their decisions and resource management, and will need to achieve positive results both in the short and long term.

This crisis has amplified our issues of race and poverty in the country, but it has also shown us what is possible if we act together, collectively and swiftly. We can turn the tide to address the legacies of our past, while simultaneously rebuilding our future by enabling partnerships that address the very fundamentals that are holding us back.

• Mbanga is SA Cities Network CEO.

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