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Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA) – The ever-increasing, unmetered congestion of shack communities is fast turning South Africa’s cities into powder kegs of social and economic unrest, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

Inspired by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s intention to build a new city near China’s capital, Beijing, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa began to envision a new South African city. During his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on June 20, 2019, Ramaphosa shared his vision of a new city powered up by fourth industrial revolution generation technologies.

The president said: “I dream of a South Africa where the first entirely new city built in the democratic era rises, with skyscrapers, schools, universities, hospitals, and factories.” The president told Parliament that by 2030, it was estimated that seventy-five percent of South Africans would be living in urban areas and that already the cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane, Cape Town, and eThekwini were “running out of space to accommodate all those who throng to the cities”.

He asked: “Has the time not arrived to build a new smart city founded on the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” He asked: “Has the time not arrived for us to be bold and reach beyond ourselves and do what may seem impossible?” It is a dream, the president said, in which we can all share and participate. Ramaphosa continued: “We have not built a new city in 25 years of democracy.”

Ramaphosa also said South Africans should imagine bullet trains passing through Johannesburg as they travelled from Cape Town to Musina and stopping in East London on their way back from Durban.

Just a few months before Ramaphosa delivered this address to the nation and shared his vision about the high-paced, technologically advanced new South African city, he got stuck on a train, in Tshwane, while travelling on an early morning commute. What many saw as a pre-election stunt did not go according to plan as the journey, which should have taken less than an hour turned into a four-hour misadventure. In many ways, this experience is symbolic of the extent to which service delivery and the economy itself are derailing.

The South African Constitution’s promise of socio-economic rights for citizens is being broken by the poor performance of government at local, provincial, and national levels. Service delivery is off track and, in many instances, and places, it has come to a grinding halt.

The flush of daily indignity for the estimated 14 million citizens who have no access to basic sanitation is a constitutional violation. For over 20 million South Africans, access to safe water is still a pipe dream.

Inadequate and poorly maintained infrastructure, the creep and sweep of corruption and a high degree of mismanagement across all spheres of government have placed the delivery of basic services and service rollout well behind schedule and are jeopardising lives and livelihoods. The ever-increasing, unmetered congestion of shack communities is fast turning South Africa’s cities into powder kegs of social and economic unrest.

Amnesty International South Africa’s Executive Director Shenilla Mohamed has written how “after 27 years of freedom, the ability to access quality service delivery – or any service delivery – in South Africa to a large extent still hinges on the colour of your skin and your gender”. In this respect, black South Africans, black communities, and black women, in particular, fare worst.

The re-imagining of a new post-apartheid, South African city, is both appealing and necessary. But far-fetched fantasies of smart cities, as delightful as they appear, especially in the stark and ugly reality of today, are no fix for a nation struggling with basic service delivery. Mmusi Maimane was hardly charmed by Ramaphosa’s vision of a new smart city. In response to Ramaphosa’s fanciful talk, during the SONA of June 2019, the leader of the DA at the time, pointedly suggested that instead of building new smart cities or bullet trains, the focus be on upgrading or fixing what we have.

Professor Loren Landau, of the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Centre for Migration and Society, said of the smart city: “What we need is a dream for how existing cities can be made more equitable, connected, and productive.” Professor Landau was of the view that “a highly designed, fantasy city will further the country’s spatial division. Much like the elite enclaves constructed by private developers, it will reinforce the divisions between highly productive, well-serviced sites and places of poverty and marginalisation”. A master plan of the Lanseria smart city has since been released for public comment.

EFF leader, Julius Malema dismissed Ramaphosa’s vision of a new smart city as a figment of his imagination. Malema said Ramaphosa’s vision of a brand “new city” with bullet trains, high-tech, and robotics would not be realised until apartheid-era spatial inequalities are dealt with first.

Malema asked: “Why are we talking about a new city now? We never even built a new railway line. We still using apartheid railway lines. We are still in cities of apartheid.”

Malema was correct. The very apartheid spatial planning which relegated black South Africans to the margins of economic participation, and provided them with inferior access to social, health, land, housing, and educational opportunities, remains in place today.

Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA) – While South Africa’s local government sphere is currently run through coalition politics, there have been calls for political parties to put the interests of citizens first and prioritise basic service delivery.

The grand notion of a government for the people by the people cannot ever be built of the very structure that held them as second-rate citizens under apartheid and colonialism.

A new ecology, a new democratic landscape, a new economic geography, a radical redistribution of service infrastructure and resources are all required if the equitable distribution of rights and services is to be realised in democratic South Africa, as envisaged in the Constitution. For now, almost three decades into democracy, the geography and spatial relations of apartheid remain intact and it is a road to nowhere if democracy and equity are indeed the intended destination.

In a recent thought piece, Mamphela Ramphele, the co-founder of ReimagineSA writes: “The legacy of apartheid spatial planning combined with neglect, unaccountability, incompetence, and corruption has stolen the hopes of many people who have been condemned to continue to live on the margins of our society. The fire of rage and brutal violence that is running out of control in many poor settlements across the country is the bitter fruit of multi-generational humiliation of the majority of those subjected to grinding poverty in the midst of ostentatious consumption and opulence.”

For now, we seem to be on the wrong track, with policies and constitutional pledges that have not weathered the economic storms well, or sufficiently addressed the mountain of historical inequalities.

For now, we are being steered by politicians who, on the whole, are more driven by self-service than public service. We are on a dangerous journey where the wheels of the economy, state-owned entities, are being devalued and primed for privatisation. This will abate, not aid, service delivery to the neediest and most marginalised.

Unlike the apartheid government precisely engineered the SOEs to lift up the economic fortunes of white South Africans, particularly the Afrikaans community, the democratic government has failed to purpose these critical institutions for social and economic development, black economic transformation and service delivery to historically underserved communities. And there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

Back in 2019 when Ramaphosa got stuck on the train he commented: ”The train was late and overcrowded.” The President continued: “I was with frustrated people, angered and dejected and they told me this is the daily experience I promised them that the trains will run on time and we are going to improve the rail transportation.”

But the service delivery train has slowed, if not worsened. Trains have come to a standstill and energy and water restrictions are part of the new normal. This alongside poor health services and an almost impossible bridge of housing shortages.

In the lyrics of Train to Nowhere, by Eric Clapton, “There is a train that goes nowhere, need no ticket for you to ride, put you in a car they call the sleeper, it’s nice and warm inside. The days are never numbered, the nights don’t matter now, your time is no longer counted, this train has got you now.”

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was exclusively written for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.