General view of the Moravia shantytown in Medellin. The resurrection of Medellin is an example of what is achievable in the face of gangsterism, violent crime, joblessness, political instability, social blight, deep inequality and draining disaffection. File photo: Raul Arboleda
General view of the Moravia shantytown in Medellin. The resurrection of Medellin is an example of what is achievable in the face of gangsterism, violent crime, joblessness, political instability, social blight, deep inequality and draining disaffection. File photo: Raul Arboleda
A stencil depicting late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar is seen at the Pablo Escobar neighbourhood in Medellin. Picture: Raul Arboleda
A stencil depicting late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar is seen at the Pablo Escobar neighbourhood in Medellin. Picture: Raul Arboleda

Medellin in Colombia - once the world’s most violent city - is turning back the tide on deep social blight. With the right political will, Cape Town can do the same, Ivan Turok tells Michael Morris.

Cape Town - One of the most powerful men in Colombia’s recent history once wrote a note for his sister to keep in the cubbyhole of her car. It read, with surely unnerving understatement: “This car belongs to my sister, Alba Marina. If you steal it, please return it, in order to avoid problems.” It was signed: Pablo Escobar.

The murderous king of Colombian cartels even saw fit, perhaps as a joke, to include his thumbprint. It wasn’t necessary. Nobody needed reminding just who he was and what he was capable of doing.

A photo of this note in the 2007 Paris Review conveys at once the chilling reach and the shabby would-be panache of Escobar’s brutality. But there was more to Medellin’s nightmare.

Behind Escobar’s casual assertion of bandit power – something we glimpse now and then in the everyday, near-commonplace, killings on the Cape Flats, and the cocky talk of gangsters – stood a society deeply riven by inequality, political instability, poverty and despair.

Medellin’s pathology is all too familiar. But the remarkable thing about Medellin is that it has turned things around.

Reports in recent years highlight elements of the turn-around strategy; former mayor Sergio Fajardo is acknowledged as having pioneered, post-2003, what he called “urban acupuncture”, using strategic projects to reclaim areas from the cartels. A landmark instance is the Parque Biblioteca Espana – a strikingly impressive library built in a deprived area where Escobar once recruited his killers.

It goes much further than that, though.

Ivan Turok visited the world’s former murder capital earlier this year when it hosted the World Urban Forum, and made it his business to examine the Medellin experience in some depth, precisely because he understood the lessons for South African cities, and Cape Town especially.

Turok, whose scholarship spans economics, planning and geography, is the acting executive director of the Human Sciences Research Council’s Economic Performance and Development Unit, an honorary professor at the universities of Cape Town and Glasgow, and a regular expert adviser to the UN, OECD, European Commission and the South African and British governments. He has a keen sense of what can make or break the testing social organism of a modern, growing city.

And he returned from Medellin with a vivid impression of what is achievable in the face of gangsterism, violent crime, joblessness, political instability, social blight, deep inequality and draining disaffection – conditions depressingly familiar in Cape Town. Medellin, he says, shows what can be done.

“Given its history, you would have thought Medellin was a place of despair, from which anyone in their right mind would flee, and which investors wouldn’t go near. The level of violence was unbelievable – a murder rate three or four times ours.” What transformed that – bringing down the murder rate tenfold, among other things – was a groundswell of opinion that “enough was enough” coupled with political leaders bold and imaginative enough to work together, agree on a plan and share the responsibility for seeing it through. This gives tremendous hope that things can change, and this is terribly important for us.”

National, provincial and local politicians from different parties succeeded in “putting aside their political differences and engaging with real issues without trying to score points or seek credit”.

Cape Town shares with Medellin socio-economic challenges such as violence, unemployment, poverty, inequality, pressures from urbanisation and a history of political conflict and instability.

But a measure of Cape Town’s highly contested political environment is “lots of short termism”.

“Every issue seems to become politicised. In Medellin, though, they have managed to put that behind them. Leaders have been able to say: ‘Let’s rise above short-term politics ... this is so serious, we need to find some way forward together’.

“And that’s what we need to do, too, instead of repeatedly blaming one another for every problem that arises. That comes at a huge cost, because it means you cannot really work on resolving problems. All our major issues – overcoming the legacy of the apartheid city, transport and housing – which are difficult problems, are only made worse by short-term politics.”

“We want our leaders to reach out and build alliances and put short-termism behind them. The shocking crime statistics released last week should be a call to everyone to say we have to find a way forward. Crime is a symptom of inequality, yet we don’t talk enough about the causes of crime – or focus energy into getting young people off the streets into productive activities. Instead, we retreat behind higher walls and electric fencing, or move into gated communities, and that’s not the way to a sustainable future.”

Where might Cape Town start?

“We want our leaders to sit down and agree on the top three or four priorities – say, unemployment, housing, transport – for the next three or four years, and determine how to make progress. It is through progress that you build confidence, and trust. Trust is a key word. We don’t have trust in our system. People don’t trust the city, the city doesn’t trust national, parties don’t trust each other. In contrast, there’s a high level of trust in Medellin and that comes from working together and having joint plans and delivery targets. This is the way we need to go.”

Turok gives ample credit for the things he judges Cape Town to be doing right, among them, the strong emphasis on jobs (a priority he would like to see deepened and extended across the whole administration), mayor Patricia de Lille’s championing expanded public works job schemes, and the city’s commitment to public transport – a key feature of Medellin’s regeneration – especially the “excellent” MyCiTi initiative. Much more needs to be done – in extending MyCiTi, and bringing greater pressure to bear to transform a chronically under-performing Metrorail.

But the absence of a coherent overall plan for informal settlements – housing – is a major deficiency that needs addressing urgently.

“We don’t have a housing plan, and that’s a problem where one in five people lives in a shack.That’s a source of continuing protest… people can see they are living in appalling conditions and can see the prosperity elsewhere in the city. It’s a recipe for unending conflict and friction and will always be a source of instability

“The absence of a plan means we are just doing projects here and there and dealing with it in bits and pieces. A plan, ongoing consultation and steady results, would help people accept that the solution will not happen overnight. At present many people feel the city doesn’t care.”

Above all, our political leaders need to collaborate, and provide the example for civic, voluntary collaboration, too, on a much wider scale.

“When you have a lot of agreement – which calls for hard political work – implementation is easier and nobody can undermine it. As things stand, national, provincial and city don’t work well together, and that’s a huge difference from Medellin. They managed to get beyond blaming each other, and got their hands dirty by working together, and we need to match that.”

This is critical to encouraging “bold thinking”.

“Boldness means thinking big. To overcome an apartheid city, we have to break the mould – but politicians are nervous of this, partly because of the politics of short-termism. If they do something bold, it could fail, and they’d have egg on their faces and not get re-elected.

“We need citizens to say: ‘Be bold, take risks, experiment’. It’s important to get out of the mindset of cautious, short-term decision-making and an unwillingness to do things differently. The city has long had a policy of encouraging densification but does not implement it because it is nervous of ‘nimbyism’. It goes for the easy option of business as usual.

“All the current international thinking in urban planning is about integration, densification, consolidation…which requires us to be much more creative in integrating the city, rather than perpetuating fragmentation and expensive sprawl.”

Here, again, the Medellin lesson is telling.

“Of course, Medellin is still an unequal society with its fair share of problems, but the fact of all their key players agreeing to work together – on improving conditions for the poorest parts of the city, tackling crime, ensuring greater political stability – is the lesson for us. There is a long-term payback in matching their example.

“All of Cape Town needs to accept that we are in this together and we need to work at it together. If we fail to act in concert, the quality of life even of the prosperous will decline.”

Turok pauses, as if imagining the life of the shack dweller enduring floods and fire and unending want.

“I don’t think there’s enough understanding of the atrocious conditions under which so many people live. If we cannot make more progress on integration and employment, the future is bleak.”

We need, in short, a bold, new way of doing things.

* Weekend Argus has invited Mayor Patricia de Lille and ANC leader Tony Ehrenreich to respond to Ivan Turok’s challenge, and will publish their responses next week.

Weekend Argus