Informal settlements will remain a feature of South African cities for the foreseeable future, the writer says, and need to be upgraded from within, with the involvement of the communities and using existing assets.

The poor do not live in Cape Town. They live next to it. They service and maintain “the city that works for you”, but the majority of Capetonians feel as though they have no right to their city. Election after election, “democracy” ends the moment the last vote is cast – all that follows are empty references to “consultation” and desperate running battles over basic services and whether your self-built house will still be standing when you return at night.

The levels of inequality, poverty and injustice in our city seem to demand easy and quick answers, usually framed in terms of growth or redistribution, but there are none.

If we really want to find solutions, then these problems shouldn’t only be the concern of government officials and poor communities. Everything we know about the economic prospects and environmental sustainability of the city of Cape Town demands that we are all involved in finding sustainable and creative solutions.

At the heart of the failure to tackle these problems is a persistent duality that has been around since the advent of democracy. The needs of business and the middle class are carefully catered for by the city to ensure continued economic growth and, hopefully, create new jobs. The revenue generated by this growth is then used by the city to deliver services to poor communities.

There are two problems with this pattern. The first is the difference in the experience of these two different groups when being serviced by the state.

Businesses and middle class residents are treated as “stakeholders” able and important enough to participate in processes that will shape the functioning and layout of the city. In contrast, poor communities are frequently provided services with little to no interaction with the city official making the decision. There are now innumerable examples of inappropriate or poorly positioned services being delivered to informal settlements which are vandalised or neglected because the community feels no ownership over the process.

There is still a strong sense among officials and politicians that the poor should just feel lucky they are receiving services. The sentiment of the poor, however, is “if the city ‘gives’ me a toilet but does not consult me about its placement in my neighbourhood or its maintenance, why should I feel any sense of ownership”?

The second is that this pattern – growth plus service delivery – does not equal greater equality or sustainability. In fact it feeds the divisions between different social groups and different parts of the city, and worsens the city’s impact on our environment. For example, infrastructure investment around the city centre may attract business and tourists, but it continues to drive up property prices. This pushes middle and working class families further and further out of the city.

What is to be done? There are three spheres of response that we, as a society, need to debate. The first is that it is imperative that politicians and the middle class recognise that informal settlements will be a feature of South African cities for the foreseeable future. They cannot be “eradicated” and we should not spend our scarce resources on hiding them (as was unsuccessfully tried with the N2 Gateway project). They are self-help solutions created by the poor to address structural problems in our society and economy. Until these are addressed, informal settlements will re-emerge irrespective of our desires.

Our challenge as a society is to acknowledge the right of these residents to be in the city (on the land they currently occupy) and make these settlements safer and more healthy places to live. This has very real implications for changes in the policy and practices of the state from monotonous, poorly located “RDP housing” towards working in partnership with communities, and existing dynamics and assets, for the in situ upgrading of their settlements. It signals a change in the attitude of politicians and officials to these communities and their rights, and it also requires us as a society to prioritise the use of this well-placed land and the investment of public money on creating poor yet sustainable communities close(r) to the city centre.

The second area of debate has to do with linking these communities to the benefits and opportunities to be found in our cities. This is about building more inclusive and employment-generating economies that create real opportunities for poor South Africans to begin to convert survival strategies (like small-scale hawking) into sustainable livelihoods.

This requires a complex set of actions from both the state and the private sector.

It also signals the need to invest in those parts of our city’s resources that connect the different parts. Leading these is a focus on transport-lead development – public investment in transport infrastructure can have a deep impact on private development, thereby increasing access to the city and also influencing the spatial development of cities. Investment in a truly useful, accessible and productive public spatial network with the poor as the primary intended beneficiaries is another unrealised possibility. Nisa Mammon, a Cape Town-based urban planner, reminds us that this is about creating venues for people to congregate, discuss, perform, protest and interact outside of the confines of their private domains. They ultimately create room for the possibilities for personal development, societal healing, the development of social networks and access to a range of markets.

“This is where social capital is produced and economic opportunity created,” she argues. “If we cannot create a spatially coherent and productive public realm, we are failing those at the bottom of the economic ladder.”

While securing the right to be in and access the city are urgent first steps, they cannot be truly transformative without a third area of debate: how to increase public participation in those political and technical planning and decision-making processes that shape the development of cities. This stretches from communities being able to access information about their rights and settlements, to being actively engaged by the state or private companies who seek to deliver services, to experimenting with novel ways of involving poor communities in wider area and city scale processes of decision-making.

It is this latter aspect of participation that remains the underexplored key to shifting the patterns that dominate our cities. Unfortunately it requires a degree of flexibility and patient respect for the interests and aspirations of the poor which clash with the time-bound, technical interests of state officials, the politicising interests of local politicians seeking to score quick points or the phobic attitude of the middle and ruling classes who “know” that “they” can’t possibly understand the complexities of decision-making at this scale.

These three sets of priorities have emerged from a dialogue series cohosted by Isandla Institute, Community Organisation Resource Centre and Informal Settlements Network, with participants from urban NGOs and organisations of the urban poor, about understanding the contextual relevance and practical potential of a concept drawn from international development discourse – the Right to the City. This is fundamentally about reasserting the poor’s right to be involved in the making and shaping of their city, and claim the benefits of being urban citizens.

The arguments in this article will be used by the participant organisations in a national dialogue in November to more clearly indicate to the government the kinds of priorities, activities and partnerships that are required to ultimately enable the urban poor to claim their right to their city.

l Tristan Gorgens is a land policy researcher at the Islanda Institute.