Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said her department would spend close to R1 billion to deal with the backlog of housing for about 6000 military veterans. File picture: Willem Law

Redesigning our urban living spaces is as important as the reform and redistribution of agricultural land, says Max du Preez.

Cape Town - Residential segregation is the one facet of apartheid that South Africa has done virtually nothing to eliminate. This is utterly untenable 20 years after liberation.

Town and city planners simply continued in the apartheid paradigm after 1994. Most black people still live on the outer perimeters of our cities, while most of those inner city spaces that black people moved into, like Hillbrow in Joburg, quickly became slum areas.

New settlements, often not more than nasty squatter camps, arose many kilometres outside the business centres.

In the towns outside the metros, we still have the rigid segregation of the “white” town with the “location” on the other side of the railway track or the national road.

If we take the Second Transition that the government and the governing party are talking about seriously (and we should), we should now urgently take drastic steps to change this.

In my book, redesigning and re-imagining our urban living spaces is as important as the reform and redistribution of agricultural land.

Possibly more important: two-thirds of South Africans live in cities and towns and, as HSRC surveys in 2007 found, most of them have no interest in becoming farmers.

About R28 billion has been spent on land reform since 1994, with very little effect. That excludes the R29bn spent on land restitution.

I’m surprised that so many activists (like the EFF) spend so much of their energy on agitating for black people to own farms and so little on urban reform.

There are two considerations.

One is that it is wrong, unfair and bad for the economy for black workers and employees to spend so much time and money travelling to their workplaces.

The other is that residential segregation impedes our national project to put our ugly past behind us and eventually overcome the racial schisms and resentments. Nation-building, if you will.

If we don’t do this, we will produce more generations of young black people who lived their entire young lives – possibly whole lives – in townships and ghettoes far away from the main centres of economic activity where white people live.

Reports that the state is considering selling the 2.5 square kilometres housing the rather dilapidated Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town could be a good place to start.

It is prime real estate in Tokai and adjacent to the M3.

Instead of developing more middle class and upper class suburbs in this space, Cape Town City should get involved and develop the land into a mix of upper income, middle income and lower income housing.

We could house several thousand black working class families on this land to live side by side with middle class people.

The Pollsmoor land is just one example. Similar huge tracts of valuable land in the city are the Ysterplaat airstrip between Century City and the lower middle class suburbs of Rugby and Brooklyn, the Oude Molen land at the edge of Pinelands and Culemborg, owned by the Department of Transport.

Ysterplaat is adjacent to Culemborg which borders on Oude Molen, so we’re dealing with an area much bigger than the Pollsmoor land, and it’s right on the edge of the central business district.

Our other metros have similar possibilities: the old Durban International Airport and Sandf-owned land in Durban and the huge vacant area between Waterkloof Airport and Monument Park in Pretoria are examples.

It’s not only a city problem.

Bigger and smaller towns all over the country are even more rigidly segregated.

Some time in 2008 I had a discussion with the then minister of housing, Lindiwe Sisulu, about the ideal of mixed (income and race) neighbourhoods and found her committed to the concept and with a number of good ideas on how to achieve them.

Sisulu is now back in the portfolio, now called human settlements.

She is a senior minister with a lot of clout in Cabinet and Luthuli House and a lot of energy and capacity to get things done.

I’d be disappointed if she simply continued with business as usual: more little RDP box houses in rows on the outer perimeters of our cities.

Of course this is not an idea without problems, strong feelings and serious financial implications.

But with proper consultation, gentle (and some not-so-gentle) persuasion, proper planning and solid political will we can re-imagine our urban spaces and make progress in the next decade.

It will not only make social and economic sense, it will help change the way we relate with each other.

South Africa has had enough anger, threats and polarisation.

We now need action, bold and innovative steps to deal with our problems. We can’t wait.

Minister Sisulu?

* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.