Nelson Mandela Foundation

Instead of acknowledging the government's poor performance as it relates to planning, President Cyril Ramaphosa stated South Africa doesn't have enough skilled town planners. This is simply not true.

Urban planning has always been a contentious subject in South Africa in part due to our history and how it was used in the past and, recently how it has seemingly been outsourced to the private sector by our government.

We have witnessed large private sector-driven projects like stadiums, residential and mixed-use luxury enclaves, airports, and the like as drivers of city spatial form and urban development as opposed to plans developed by the government with aims to serve the poor.

Instead of acknowledging the government's poor performance as it relates to planning, earlier this month, President Cyril Ramaphosa made a bold remark during a question-and-answer session in Parliament. He stated that South Africa doesn't have enough suitably skilled town planners to help with urban planning. This, of course, sent shockwaves through the entire town planning fraternity, not because of their lack of comprehension but because the President's statement failed to acknowledge the skills of many town planners in the country.

The response failed to capture the failures of the sitting government to redress the impacts of apartheid spatial planning, and instead of taking responsibility, the President chose to shift blame to planners who couldn't answer for themselves. The response also failed to consider how the government was not intentional about employing suitably qualified town planners. As a result, they find themselves sitting at home or at the mercy of private firms that pay them just enough to get to work every single day and not in government where they could be making a difference.

Lack of awareness

The President showed a lack of awareness of the challenges faced by planners or how the government itself made it very difficult for planners to plan.

To understand the challenges of planning in South Africa, it is important to understand the history of spatial planning in the country and the vital role it has always played in society.

During apartheid, the government of the time was very intentional about using urban planning as a tool for segregation and promoting separate development. They did this using policies and laws that ensured black people were placed on the periphery of cities, in areas designed to be labour reserves and real-life prisons to lock them in forever.

To ensure the effectiveness of these policies and laws, the government of the time was intentional about employing officials who understood the power of town planning and how it could be used to give legs to policies enacted by the government of the day.

It is for such reasons that the possibility of an Alexandra resident moving to a home in Dainfern is as remote as a trip to the moon no matter how hard they work, unless under extremely exceptional circumstances. This design was intentional, proclaimed by policy, and ensured through practice. 

It is through the intentional nature of the apartheid city design that, to this day, we are reeling from its impacts as a country. It is also through our government's failures to be intentional about the redress that we are still reeling from the impacts of this type of planning.

Instead of being innovative and conjuring up new ways to pursue principles of urban design that accommodated the inherent socio-economic conditions in the country, our government chose to adopt and follow the principles of apartheid city planning recreating the very same cities it was meant to change. And instead of employing suitably qualified individuals to planning positions in government to ensure planning happened, our government chose the route of patronage, and government planning decisions were outsourced to politicians who often had no idea what urban planning was about.

These two practices ensured that not only would apartheid spatial planning continue to find expression in South Africa but also that no one would be able to question its continued relevance as they were not exposed to the tools needed to challenge it. This leaves us with a complex matter of cities that cannot be planned because of both a lack of will from the government and the limited capacity of those who are supposed to. 

Granted there has been attempts to plan and seek to redress the impacts of spatial apartheid planning in South Africa in recent years. The bus rapid transit system Rea Vaya which was meant to provide a cheap public transport system to move people into Johannesburg is one such attempt, where the aim was to increase mobility and build bridges between sparse neighbourhoods using transport. This system failed to be effective, however due to Johannesburg's continued spatial inequality and a seeming lack of political will to ensure it runs successfully.

Social Housing is also another method that has been used to create more affordable housing close to areas of opportunity and seek to redress the impacts of apartheid spatial planning through the creation of inclusive neighbourhoods. Social housing as well is not achieving its desired impacts at the level that it should as demand currently exceeds supply, and the lack of political will to release well-located land to social housing projects further delays the process. 

Shifting blame

The above are some of the challenges the President failed to acknowledge among many that, due to time and space, this article cannot articulate. The President missed an opportune moment to shed light on planning challenges in this country and chose the simple route of shifting blame. As opposed to blaming planners and their lack of suitable "skills”, as the President proclaimed, perhaps this was a moment for him to look into the mirror and address government failures as they relate to planning.

Perhaps it was time for him to accept that there has been no intention from the government to plan and to plan effectively for its citizens. This was a moment for the President to acknowledge that no effective planning can occur in a country that is not intentional about land redistribution or where thousands of planners are sitting at home with no jobs while it's clear that no planning is happening in this country. 

The South African Council for Planners has a database of thousands of registered planners, some of which have no jobs and instead of othering their existence in Parliament next time, it would be good to reach out to the council and have a conversation on the challenges faced by planners to understand their plight better. And if the council wants to prove its worth to the thousands of planners, it represents, it will not sit idly while its main constituency gets disrespected in public, more so by a sitting president.

  • Tshazi is a PhD candidate in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Stellenbosch. He is also a registered planner with the South African Council for Planners and writes in his personal capacity.
  • This piece was first published on the News24 website