Nelson Mandela Foundation

It was in 1973 when public policy scholar Aaron Wildavsky posed that, “if planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing”. This was influenced by his frustrations on how spatial planning had become so elusive that even planners themselves had forgotten what their role in shaping the outlook of cities was. Today almost 50 years later, I find myself relating with Wildavsky, as I note the challenges faced by our cities in South Africa, I am starting to slowly share into some of his frustrations.

Traditionally, the idea of spatial planning has always stood between actors and their societies. It has sought to condition the way people perceive social problems and subsequently guides their choice of solutions. Societies’ understanding of planning is what has helped frame societies’ questions around planning and the answers they therefore find. In South Africa, spatial planning has always been a contentious subject that has continued to cause division amongst many in society. For example, the apartheid government was very intentional about using spatial planning as a tool for exclusion. The Group Areas Act and many other policies that aimed to ensure separate development were integral in facilitating this spatial exclusion. The impact of these policies is still felt till this day where the legacies of spatial apartheid planning still linger on in our society.

The impacts of spatial apartheid planning have been so vast that even today our planning still creates an opportunity for separate development, except that currently money has replaced race as the tool for exclusion. The question of where the bulk of this money sits racially is another topic that’s worth its own discussion. This is largely because the upward mobility of black people into previously white spaces has done little in transforming these environments to be receptive to black people outside of using them as cheap labour. In contrast, poor black people have had the unfortunate responsibility of shouldering the impacts of this new apartheid. The rich, through their neighbourhood associations and prevalent “not in my backyard syndrome” have continuously created enclaves for themselves, building exclusive spaces that cannot be accessed by the poor (outside of their labour) further contributing to these entrenched patterns of spatial inequity. As a result, we have witnessed a growth in gated communities and security estates where, under the guise of increasing crime and diminishing levels of safety, the rich have created fortresses for themselves where they are not confronted with the prevalent poverty, we witness in South Africa daily.

As a response to this, the poor have taken it upon themselves to redefine what spatial planning is. As a society, we have witnessed a growth in informal settlements and day by day land occupations continue to define the fabric of modern-day South Africa. This is both an indication of the failure of government beauracratic processes to promote pro-poor spatial planning and simultaneously a display of the inherent ingenuity people have to lead their own development in environments that are not supportive to their cause. Government on the other hand has instead of supporting people’s actions to spearhead their own development, chosen to criminalise their efforts or allowed them to wallow in the detrimental effects of their actions.

In all these instances the voice of planning has either found itself co-opted by private sector developmental interests or caught up in lengthy and often frivolous government beauracratic processes that haven’t done much to change the lives of poor people in South Africa. The events of flooding that affected many parts of the KZN province, subsequently taking with them many lives and displacing several poor people, served as an unfortunate reminder of how spatial planning in South Africa hasn’t had an intentional focus on the poor.

Granted, one cannot predict how and when natural disasters occur, nor can their impact be predicted. With proper planning and an intentional pro-poor spatial planning process, however, the impacts can be mitigated. Thus, we cannot continue to place the blame squarely on climate change when other factors have contributed to how the impacts of these events have been felt by poor people.  Spatial Planning has created an environment that has allowed our cities to endlessly sprawl. The difficulties poor people experience when trying to get land through formal channels has allowed for people to build on impervious surfaces and sometimes over wetlands, in floodplains, and in steep slopes. Therefore, the fact that flooding occurs every time there are heavy rains in KZN does not come as a surprise; what is surprising is how the city seems unprepared and shocked every time these instances of flooding occur.

What makes matters worse in this occasion is that this isn’t the first-time flooding has affected various parts of KZN. In 2017, similar events engulfed various parts of the province, leading to devastating impacts, albeit not of the same scale as the recent flooding. Those floods served as a warning of what was to come in future. There were lessons to be learnt and forward planning to be done by the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality post the 2017 KZN floods to reduce the impact experienced this year. A natural disaster plan was supposed to be drawn and people who have built on slopes and on floodplains were supposed to be notified of the potential dangers that may affect their structures, with assistance in relocating their homes or making their structures flooding proof provided. Yet, if anything, it appears as if business continued as usual – there were no efforts made to prepare for future instances of flooding and, 5 years later, we find ourselves dealing with an even bigger incident of flooding.

The story of eThekwini is, however, not unique and is a common thread in most if not all our metropolitan municipalities. One could point to the 2017 shack fires in Imizamo Yethu that could have helped the city of Cape Town prevent further incidences of large-scale shack fires. Yet recently we saw the devastating impacts of the N2 Gateway informal settlement fires in Langa. A similar case could be made for the long-lasting water challenges experienced in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan municipality or the demolition of housing structures in the City of Johannesburg and Buffalo City Metros respectively.

All these incidences, amongst others, beg the question of whether any planning ever really happens in our Metropolitan municipalities? Looking from the outside in, it looks like planning has been confused with the existence of a formal plan and planners, or an institution of planning as opposed to the actual act of planning itself. Thus, instead of planning, city officials have been inundated with attempts to plan instead of doing actual planning. These attempts are through Spatial Development Frameworks, Integrated Development Plans, Built Environment Performance Plans etc, all good references when one has ambitions of planning, but the reality is that when they are not followed through with action, they become mere documents that detail ambition and not effort.

Its high time that authorities in South Africa recognised the role of spatial planning and started to use it to buffer the poor against instances of natural disasters. We cannot continue to hide under the banner of climate change in attempting to justify the impacts felt by people after natural disasters. Our cities need to be disaster ready, and our spatial planning needs to have a pro-poor lens to ensure we mitigate the dangers that come with natural disasters for the poor. Our government needs to be intentional about the lessons learnt from past disasters to ensure we don’t fall into the cycle of repeated consequences where the poor must perform their poverty to get assistance. In a world where Spatial Planning could be everything, it is of utmost importance that it starts to protect the poor and prioritises their right to the city. It was after all the American scholar Wildavsky who posed that “Attempts to plan are no more planning than the desire to be wise may be called wisdom or the wish to be rich entitles a man to be called wealthy.” Promise must be dignified by performance.