Alexandra township in Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIME
Alexandra township in Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIME

Dondo Mogajane’s summary of the Treasury’s thinking concerning metropolitan areas in SA is encouraging in the sense that the government has a purposeful view of the significance of, and problems with, urbanisation (Integrate townships with growth centres, April 23). A recent column by Neva Makgetla covered similar ground with more specifics (SA must cater for new settlement patterns around cities, March 13).

The reality is that the government has been fully aware of the issues Mogajane raises for the past 40 years or more.

As far back as the early 1980s, progressive thinking, notably at the University of Cape Town Planning School under professors Roelof Uytenbogaart and Dave Dewar, was analysing and actively promoting the integration of townships into the mainstream of adjacent city economies.

They highlighted the extraordinary injustice of locating poorly paid working people furthest from job, cultural, educational and social opportunities, with poor transport.

They illustrated the dearth of even the most basic services, let alone cultural or recreational opportunities available to residents.

At the Union Buildings they met and stressed to the then minister in the apartheid-era regime the urgency and significance of these problems. This did not prevent vast new townships being built between Johannesburg and Vereeniging, and Khayelitsha and Atlanta in Cape Town, many kilometres from city centres at considerable infrastructure and subsidised cost.

This was a time when bus companies were paid handsomely by the government to alleviate workers’ travel costs, but regrettably not their health. Some would have to leave home at 3am-4am to return home at 7pm-8pm.

The totality of this intended dislocation was apartheid’s final shame.

But this is now: 2018, about 35 years on. Describing what are the same general platitudes and quoting statistics, however well-meaning and informative, will not solve what is currently a potentially explosive national situation.

It is not in any way unique, and nor are the solutions. Historically, 19th century European cities were the first to rapidly morph into 100% urbanised populations, with all the pathologies that this entailed.

They were the first to research and then make massive infrastructure investment to exploit rather than prevent this inherent potential.

There should be massive investment in infrastructure such as transport linkages, subsidised inner-city, low-cost housing and serviced land so that vastly more work opportunities can be created around existing townships.

It should be made easier, especially with efficient and enhanced utility and communication services, for intra-township housing land to be redeveloped for mixed use, small-scale domestic, industry, offices or retail accommodation.

All these are normal and healthy factors for urban evolution over time. But accelerating such processes needs heavy subsidisation and a legal bias that cuts out red tape.

Above all, township suburbs must become desirable socially and culturally, and be safe. Perhaps this requires not a committee within the Treasury so much as a dedicated presidential task team driven and financed by both government and the private sector — that 1% contribution Peter Bruce reminds us of.

We have so many intractable issues in this country. Choosing one, the most urgent, and driving it to succeed would have a massive catalytic impact and entrain others to unravel.

RWT Lloyd
Via e-mail