OPINION - There is a universal truth in this world that we are only defeated by the obstacles in our lives if we don’t learn from them, grow through them and become better because of them.
The same is true for countries and governments - if South Africa as a nation does not learn from the Covid-19 pandemic currently ravaging our country, then we will indeed be defeated by it.
Regrettably, it has taken a major health pandemic for the ANC-led government to sit up and take notice of the appalling conditions within so many informal settlements. This has merely highlighted government’s failure to address the socio- economic challenges that continue to beleaguer our people.
And while the focus of the national government and KwaZulu-Natal’s (KZN) provincial government should be on defeating the virus and keeping our people safe, it is important for us all to start thinking about the kind of country we want to build out of this health crisis.
A good case in point is that of Informal Settlements, which are a part of our ‘normal’ in South Africa. According to the KZN Department of Human Settlements there are 743 informal settlements in the province. A staggering 547 of these are within the eThekwini metro, with an estimated 256 559 dwellings.
It is generally accepted that informal settlements are not healthy places to live.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), in a 2016 report stated: “Rapid urbanization and inadequate capability to cope with the housing needs of people in urban areas have contributed to the development of informal settlements. Living in these settlements often poses significant health risks. Sanitation, food storage facilities and drinking water quality are often poor, with the result that inhabitants are exposed to a wide range of pathogens and houses may act as breeding grounds for insect vectors. Cooking and heating facilities are often basic, with the consequence that levels of excessive exposures to indoor pollution may occur.”
When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced South Africa’s lock down, it very quickly became clear those living within informal settlements would face the highest risk for contracting Covid-19.
This due to the difficulty of social distancing within confined living spaces and the struggle to follow the rules due to the very nature of these informal communities. Then there is the accepted best practice when it comes to protection from the virus - maintaining good hygiene, regular handwashing and using of safe and clean toilet facilities – things that many of us take for granted but which are not easy to come by in any of the 743 informal settlements.
The fact of the matter is that informal settlements are fertile ground for viruses such as Covid-19 to spread quickly and easily.
Add to this the possibility of already compromised immune systems due to insufficient diet caused by the abject poverty and you have a recipe for disaster. This situation is not helped by the fact that KZN’s housing backlog continues to grow every year.
In 1994 the housing backlog was 1,5 million, now just over two decades later it is estimated at 2,1 million countrywide with KZN’s backlog standing at 740 000. It will take many more decades before we as a nation realise our goal of dignified housing for all.
The question is – what can we do now that will have an immediate and lasting effect on the lives of those who live in informal settlements?
To begin with – we must start to think differently.
We must accept the reality and be pragmatic in our approach. Millions of South Africans live in informal settlements so we need to start by working to improve their health and the overall quality of health within these communities.
This includes obvious solutions such as improving the provision of potable water and sanitation - to more extreme measures such as actually properly planning the layout of informal settlements. This is the reality we are faced with so why not make sure that there is enough space and open areas for children to play?
And why not take other measures aimed at making these areas safer and healthier? Our towns and cities have building regulations and town planning rules. Perhaps we should do the same for our informal settlements so that, rather than punishing people or holding them back, we help them by establishing safer and healthier communities.
As we approach winter – which in informal settlements means ‘fire season’ - more should also be done to provide fireproofing within these communities.
Meanwhile, in terms of education and awareness, those living within informal settlements also need to be shown how they too can play a role. Implementing just some of these measures could go a long way in reducing deaths through disease, fire and related causes.
While government’s goal must remain getting rid of all informal settlements through the provision of dignified housing, right now we need to accept that they are a part of our South African Reality.
We need to take what we have learned from the Covid-19 crisis and create healthier environments for our people. Let us not just accept the status quo but rethink our whole approach. As Franklin Roosevelt said: ‘It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something’.
Martin Meyer is a Member of the Democratic Alliance Caucus in the KZN Legislature and sits on the province’s Human Settlements and Public Works Portfolio Committees. He is a former DA Councillor in eThekwini where he was the DA Whip for Human Settlements and Infrastructure.