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Township Talk: Overcoming Policy Weaknesses

Although most countries are signatories to international agreements on human development targets and climate change, achieving these targets have been elusive. The main problem is that policies are often formulaic and devoid of local contexts causing policy implementation failure. South Africa is committed to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. The logical extension of these commitments requires disinvestment in oil and gas exploration as well as phasing out of the carbon fuels-based motor industry. Instead, as part of its macro-economic policy, South Africa (SA) has embraced exploration and supporting the motor industries because of these sectors’ current contributions to employment and national revenue. Even though this embrace undermines the commitments the country has signed up to, including the role of public transport in relation to private transport, it is hard to fault the logic when unemployment is abnormally high and energy security is critical for economic growth. The governance pressures of incumbency cannot be overestimated. What is required are policies which recognise the commitments and realities while planning for a transition from one economic model to another. Similarly, it is necessary to have policies that deal with poverty, urban violence, public transport, or spatial transformation. The policies SA has in these fields generally have sections on international development commitments, international case studies as best practice, SA’s challenges and then the application of these to create policy interventions. The consequence has been that, like exclusive designer clothes and super cars, these policies are global yet exclusive. For example, all international development agencies promote transport orientated development as the panacea to urban underdevelopment. Cities across the world have invested in such infrastructure because of the policies they developed with the support of these development agencies. In SA it is promoted as a core aspect of spatial transformation to undo the impacts of apartheid. Because these policies are generic and devoid of local contexts, SA’s embrace of such policies could well end up in entrenching apartheid in most of its manifestations because they ignore land ownership patterns, the relationships between work and home and the economic value chains of the minibus taxi industry. As a result, in implementing these policies, officials end up engaging with irate social and economic sectors where, often survivalist, financial interests are at risk. It is unrealistic to focus on trying to undo the social and economic effects of apartheid and post-apartheid economic policies with spatial transformation at a metropolitan scale being the metric of success. Space, and by extension, old and new townships are not problems to be solved, but opportunities to create something new. Since generic policies do not adapt to local contexts, even the problems that were meant to be solved are resulting in the endurance of apartheid within contemporary manifestations. In this breach steps, the well-trodden question of what to do with the townships. Since the dawn of democracy there have been presidential programmes with the latest iteration being the township economic development programme. These programmes had patchy success and the reasons for past failures have been not explored sufficiently. For urban redevelopment in SA to gain the traction it requires and for the country to meet its international commitments in doing so, there are some basic actions to be undertaken. Firstly, transition from development policies based on the imaginations of people who see poor black people deprived of economic opportunities instead of human beings living in areas which, despite the past, have the opportunities to be mid-21st Century South Africans. Secondly, address the structural relationships between townships and other areas which still follow apartheid-era economic patterns and public transport policies which generally continue those patterns of getting people efficiently between townships and places of work. This includes providing affordable land tenure along transport corridors starting with state properties and ensuring that townships are desirable places to live in and thereby attracting investment. Thirdly, post-apartheid urban spatial growth has altered social and economic trends resulting in entrenched localised transport patterns. Public infrastructure investments can support and transform existing value chains instead of undermining them with big bang approaches. Thirdly, the ability of local interest groups to use democratic processes to undermine local development initiatives; aided by local public representatives and neglect by local authorities ought to be recognised. This requires township, social, and economic value chains as well as municipal harassment and indifference to be appropriately identified and understood. Fourthly, township economic development requires dealing with crime and violence, public infrastructure neglect, extortion rackets, shelters for traders, clinics, fixing and maintaining parks and repaving roads. It also requires support for the police, social workers, teachers, and health workers. Fifthly, to avoid repetitive instead of iterative policies, policies need to incorporate the processes of change based on actual institutional capacity. Policy making is relatively easy, but absent of the processes of change required to achieve those policy objectives, they remain elusive. Translating policy to action requires knowledge of public institutional capacity and then determining outcomes based on that capacity. Since most people in society do not expect handouts from the state, when the state does the basics, people will respond positively and be involved in their own development as envisaged in the Bill of Rights. Reviewing contemporary policies in contextually appropriate ways and located within the realities of different parts of urban areas instead of broad-based generalisations would be a start. There must be a way in which we look ahead without being stuck in the past of our own making.