Advice and Opinion

SA’s cities of 2050: addressing inequality and exclusivity

By Siwe Ntombela from The South African Cities Network.

If we consider what the city of 2050 looks like, its probable images of flying cars, endless streets of skyscrapers, and ubiquitous digital connectivity comes to mind. While this may be true for some of the world’s more developed cities, for South Africa, we run the risk of having more of the same if we do not address the rampant issues of inequality.

Most of those who inhabit our cities live along its periphery which literally (and figuratively) disconnects them from playing an active role in our economy. Access to work opportunities are fewer and being digitally connected harder, placing millions in positions of exclusivity. Enabling inclusivity should be our number one goal; a yardstick to aim for within the next thirty years that dissolves the barriers to entry i.e., work, life, economic and social, which have been the experience of so many for so long,

Listening from the bottom up

It starts at a grassroots level. We can easily fall into the trap of believing that grand efforts and infrastructure improvements will solve our cities’ challenges of inequality. This is costly and most importantly, slow, meaning that it takes years, if not decades, to yield any tangible return. Rather, we should be looking at what communities can, and are, doing for themselves today.

Consider the adoption of a cycling culture; bikes are used to uplift communities economically in a myriad of ways. Not only do they provide a sustainable mode of transport, but they can also be used as delivery and safety patrol vehicles. There are also many ancillary bike businesses cropping up which include maintenance of bikes and even riding lessons.

Another opportunity is capitalising on food. In the absence of having access to Uber Eats in the townships, the youth are developing their own technology platforms that allow people to order food to be delivered to their homes using bikes. Examples include Cloudy Deliveries in Cape Town which is working with Langa Bicycle Hub or the Thumela app which is used by residents of eSikhawini in KwaZulu-Natal. In doing so, they are learning from the big players and creating an economy for themselves around a daily demand.

Communities are innovating and uplifting themselves. They are not relying on local government or partners to solve their problems because they are not being heard. Instead of being integrated into city solutions that affect them the most, they are left marginalised, especially by local government, which is viewed with much scepticism. To create a future of inclusivity, the very officials who are tasked with the upkeep and safety of these communities need to listen first.

Allowing nature back into our cities

Integrating nature back into our cities and its peripheries is also of critical importance for a more inclusive future. Urbanisation is leading to over-crowding which places a high demand on our resources. By 2050, it has been projected that more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas, and we can expect this same trend at home. Our cities will become even more over-populated, and we cannot continue to build as we are already running out of space; we need sustainable solutions that directly affect the most vulnerable.

We can start rethinking how to use wasted space. Within the inner cities, there are plenty of empty buildings that could be turned into affordable housing or be used for urban farming. This kills two birds with one stone, addressing both access to places to live and more work opportunities as well as food security. Rooftops and vacant plots can be turned into community gardens, which not only bring nature back into the cities, but creates its own economy and employment too.

Data is expensive, digital connections are weak, and while Wi-Fi should be free, it remains out of reach for most. This automatically restricts access to employment opportunities, and as we have seen from Covid-19, those who are connected, have become entirely dependent on technology for everyday tasks, from learning, working, and shopping. Those who aren’t, remain excluded from the simplest of activities.

While thirty years may sound like a long time, we are still dealing with the legacy of apartheid and spatial transformation is happening at a snail’s pace. To assimilate the many millions who remain excluded into a future of opportunity, we need to digitise our people to uplift and to empower them.

Flying cars and omnipresent technology may well be our everyday realities in decades to come but if we do not fix the issues of inequality and exclusivity today, we will only take them with us into our future.