Urban Renewal in a South African Township

For the past six years, the Lincoln Institute has been collaborating with the Loeb Fellowship Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Established in 1970 through the generosity of alumnus John L. Loeb, the Loeb Fellowship invites about 10 mid-career professionals each year to study independently and develop insights and connections that can advance their work revitalizing the built and natural environments. The 2002–2003 fellows took their class study trip to Cape Town, South Africa, in May, focusing their inquiry on urban renewal efforts in the township of Khayelitsha.

Cape Town is as glistening a first world city as one could ever expect to see. It’s also among the most deceptive. The come-on begins with one’s first view of Table Mountain, rising behind the city’s modernist skyline. It literally peaks when you ride the sleek, blue funicular to the top and behold, along with the wondrous natural landscape, abundant evidence of apparent prosperity and cosmopolitanism. The seaport of this early outpost of globalization continues to bustle with levels of trade befitting an intercontinental crossroads. The gleaming Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is an upscale tourist vortex, and the massive new convention center with its adjoining international hotel help make Cape Town a glorious modern city.

One feels a twinge of betrayal, however, with the first visit to Khayelitsha, 26 kilometers (16 miles) out the N2 highway amid the sandy Cape Flats, a black African township of over a million residents and the sort of place where the majority of Cape Town residents live. Miles before any apparent settlement, one sees dozens of men and women walking along the shoulder of the freeway, making an hours-long commute to work, or in search of it. Closer to Khayelitsha, hordes of children are playing soccer in the road reserve, occasionally streaming across the multilane highway. Soon the shacks come into view, emerging from a smoky-dusty haze. There are thousands of them, amazingly resourceful assemblages of corrugated tin, recovered shipping palettes, found scraps of anything. Some are drab but most are swathed in vibrant hues.

In the township itself there are more shacks, then row after row of cinder block huts. Apart from a gas station there are almost no formal stores or other nonresidential buildings. But informal traders abound at most intersections: hair stylists operating in overturned shipping containers; meat purveyors with raw animal parts lying on dusty tables or sizzling on oil-drum grills fired by salvaged wood; fruit stands; a house store selling cigarettes, drinks and not much else. Even at noon on a workday the streets are teeming with pedestrians.

If it is an overstatement to call this the “real” Cape Town, it is also true that this condition is far more prevalent than the patina of affluence in the white, Euro-centric center. Certainly it is no exaggeration to call townships like this, with their high unemployment and AIDS rates, the greatest challenge to the still young post-apartheid government of South Africa. Recognizing this, the administration of President Thabo Mbeki is pouring resources into a program, dubbed “urban renewal” in an eerie echo of the earlier American episode, aimed at remaking these troubling legacies of apartheid into more livable places. It is this effort that the 2003 class of Loeb fellows has come to study.

Staggering Quality-of-Life Challenges

The urban renewal program was begun in 2001 to combat unemployment and crime and improve quality of life for township residents. Each of the nine provinces has identified several nodes of focus, with more than 30 nodes nationwide. The Western Cape province selected Khayelitsha and the neighboring “colored” township of Mitchell’s Plain because of the huge challenges they present. Both are large—Khayelitsha is second only to Soweto in size—and distant from the urban core and economic opportunities; together they account for one-third of the Cape Town region’s population.

The magnitude of the project is stunning. Not yet 20 years old, Khayelitsha is believed to have over one million residents and an annual growth rate of 5 percent. The township, whose name means “our new home” in the Xhosa language of its dominant population, began life in the early 1980s as a planned dormitory settlement for rural African men who migrated to Cape Town for industrial jobs. Initially, wives and children were not allowed to join the men. When the dying apartheid regime lifted its pass law restrictions in the late 1980s, families came flooding into the township.

Today, unemployment officially stands at around 46 percent, but that apparently counts only those who still are actively looking. The HIV infection rate is thought to be around 25 percent. As much as one-third of township residents are living in informal housing, either in squatter shacks built illegally on city-owned land, in officially sanctioned shacks on plotted and serviced lots, or in backyard shacks behind the cinderblock huts that comprise the lion’s share of formal housing.

Khayelitsha has almost no jobs of its own apart from informal trade, such as unlicensed taverns known as shebeens, hair stylists and house shops, and scant tourism jobs. The commute to Cape Town is a grueling journey by overcrowded trains, and the trip is made longer by the fact that the Khayelitsha line is not direct, but a branch from the line to Mitchell’s Plain. And increasingly the jobs are not in central Cape Town but in the booming edge city of Bellville, which is unreachable for carless commuters except by jitney taxi. As it happens, access to and from Khayelitsha is intentionally poor. Emerging at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, the township was designed so that its two entrance points could be closed in the event of any disturbance.

Given the paucity of jobs in the township and the difficult commute to existing employment centers, the most appropriate urban renewal strategy might be to relocate residents to new housing near jobs and adequate transportation networks. But that task is so monumental and fraught with thorny considerations that the government has settled for now on trying to make the existing township as livable as possible.

“The question of relocation versus redevelopment of Khayelitsha is a political hot potato,” says Pieter Terblanche, principal planner in Cape Town’s Planning and Environmental Directorate. White residents in Cape Town and its close-in suburbs aren’t eager for new neighbors, and the township residents themselves want to cling to whatever patch of ground they’ve been able to secure for themselves in the (probably legitimate) fear that they’ll never get as much anywhere else.

Addressing the housing needs within Khayelitsha itself then becomes a top priority. About 20,000 households now live in areas with only communal toilets and water taps, though most have electricity. Most of these families need to be relocated to so-called serviced sites, with water, sewer and access to a bona fide street. Several thousand others are doubled up on serviced sites intended for only one house; these too will be relocated. To reduce the risk of the devastating fires that sometimes sweep through the shack lands, the city wants to de-densify informal areas, adding to the relocation challenge.

The rehousing program is complicated by other factors. For the vast majority of residents, the only acceptable housing is a detached hut on a privately owned lot. Multifamily rental housing is seen as a despised relic of apartheid, and mid- or high-rise apartments are anathema to these recently rural denizens. Government rental housing is being phased out as it is converted to private ownership. Most residents are waiting their turn to secure an individual lot where they can use their 17,900 rand (US$2,400) housing subsidy toward building the standard-issue, 36-square meter, cinder block hut. With enough hands, a hut can be erected in a weekend.

Naturally, this land-intensive approach leads to what we in the U.S. would call sprawl, exacerbating transportation problems and dramatically increasing the cost of extending water, sewer and other infrastructure. The effect, taken together with the wide arterial roads that are the primary street network, is a kind of American-style, automobile-oriented design, but without the automobiles.

Other issues are emerging, as well. “Ownership brings financial responsibilities and requirements that people aren’t necessarily prepared for,” said Terblanche. Many residents also were unprepared for the reality of being forced to pay rising water and electricity rates. Most had become accustomed to paying little or nothing during the late apartheid era, when the government could do little to counter the mass civil disobedience. In an echo of that era, angry poor residents today regularly participate in street protests against utility rates and collections.

Remaking the Township into a Town

With residents largely staying put in Khayelitsha, the question for the urban renewal program becomes how to make the township into something more closely resembling a real town. Step one has been to lay the groundwork for a central business district (CBD) that will allow residents to do their shopping and government business closer to home; now they must take a costly cab ride to Mitchell’s Plain to buy anything beyond convenience items.

The CBD is being developed as a joint venture between the city of Cape Town, private interests and the Khayelitsha community. It spans 73 hectares (182.5 acres) adjacent to the commuter rail station. While retailers and developers know Khayelitsha is a huge, untapped market, it is also seen as an enormous risk by financial institutions, who redline African townships. In Khayelitsha, 60 percent equity has been required of any developer or institution seeking financing. In late July, however, a tentative agreement was reached, and the Cape Town council gave approval to what will be one of the largest private-public investments yet undertaken in a South African township. A grocery chain and discount department store have signed on, but planners want to get a mix of tenants that also includes local merchants. That has required an elaborate financing scheme that allows for keeping rents affordable. Some informal traders also will be allowed in an enclosed square that planners consider the focal point of the district.

Several other planned projects aim to formalize and dignify the public realm. While the city’s transport officials are resistant, one of the most urgent needs is to provide safer, cleaner and more attractive pedestrian ways, says Barbara Southworth, manager of urban design in the city’s division of development services.

In addition to building walkways and plazas at key intersections and at taxi-bus nodes, Southworth’s office is working to provide some order to the informal trade areas by introducing rows of concrete, post-and-beam arches that can serve as storefronts for the trading stalls. Most of these are improvised from sideways shipping containers, and tend to lie in haphazard clusters. By leasing the favored storefront positions the city hopes to introduce a modest level of control over an otherwise unregulated environment.

The government’s attention to Khayelitsha has delivered other amenities as well, though not necessarily under the rubric of urban renewal. The magistrate court building that opened in early May is the most expensive government building ever built in a black township, which is taken as an important sign of progress. The national and provincial governments also contributed to the first national tourist site in a township, a cultural center at Lookout Hill. Built at the highest point in the Cape Flats, next to a fragile dune that offers a panoramic view of Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain, the center is expected to be the entry point for the increasingly popular township tours, estimated at 30,000 mostly foreign tourists annually. The center will feature exhibits on the origins of Khayelitsha and on the Sangoma healers of Xhosa culture and a marketplace selling the wares of local cottage industries.

Vexing Consequences

It is unsettling to think that, at the moment, the most promising economic path for Khayelitsha is to offer tourists a glimpse of the provisional landscape necessitated by crushing poverty, mass relocation and government-enforced segregation. It is equally disquieting to realize that urban renewal efforts at normalizing the township’s environment could reduce some of the appeal to those tourists.

While American urban renewal often meant displacing many African-American and immigrant populations by eliminating central city ghettoes, the South African variant aims to improve conditions for millions of residents who will be allowed to remain in far larger ghettoes many miles from the urban core. This immediately raises some vexing questions: Should the government work to preserve these intensely segregated artifacts of an oppressive regime? There are powerful arguments for doing so, not least the extreme difficulty and unpopularity of relocating a population that has had its fill of such government-driven exercises. But by investing in making townships more permanent, are current residents and future generations consigned to economic isolation? These questions linger even as the government proceeds with the program.

David Goldberg was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard in 2002–2003. He is communications director at Smart Growth America, a nationwide coalition based in Washington, DC.

Loeb Fellows, 2002–2003

Gabriel Abraham, Senior Consultant, Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina

Arnd Bruninghaus, Architect, A/haus Group, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Kathleen A. Bullard, Chief of Watershed Planning Division, Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, Los Angeles, California

Deborah J. Goddard, Director of Community Development Planning, Urban Edge, Boston, Massachusetts

David A. Goldberg, Communications Director, Smart Growth America, Decatur, Georgia

Linda Haar, Director, Boston Planning Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Susan L. Hamilton, Assistant Director of Industrial Development, Metro Development Authority, Louisville, Kentucky

Robert L. Liberty, Smart Growth Consultant, Portland, Oregon

Josephine Ramirez, Program Officer, Getty Grant Program, J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles, California

Jennifer Siegal, Principal, Office of Mobile Design, Venice, California

Jennifer Yoos, Architect and Partner, Vincent James Associates, Minneapolis, Minnesota

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