ECONOMIC SHOCK AND IMPLICATIONS
Africa’s growing cities need a different playbook
By Debra Roberts, Member of AXA Research Fund’s Scientific Board
In South Africa, the COVID crisis has exposed existing inequalities. We were already one of the most unequal societies in the world. COVID is making that worse. These inequalities are most evident in informal settlements. In Durban, where I’m based, we have just under 600 such settlements. In 1994, when we held our first democratic elections, there were about 300 informal settlements in the whole country. In health terms, COVID has shown that the usual response – social-distancing, hand washing, not going out so frequently to the shops – simply doesn’t work in these settlements. People don’t have the right resources – they may not always have access to running water, for example and social distancing is very difficult given the density of the settlements. Since the end of apartheid, the number of informal settlements in Durban has expanded rapidly. Moreover, those working in informal sectors aren’t protected under government schemes put in place to try and protect jobs during the COVID lock down because these schemes require workers to be formally registered. That puts them more at risk economically. The fact is we need a very different playbook in African cities. That’s what COVID has really brought home to us.
“We need to form local partnerships – this is the challenge for us: how do we bring these informal settlements into our governance systems so that, in future crises, we can be more responsive?”
Fundamentally, we don’t know enough about these settlements. Collectively, our attitudes about informality are changing in South Africa. We no longer have a “slum clearance” mentality. We realize these settlements are not just transitory, but are a part of our urbanisation process. But we don’t know enough about the demographics, or the age groups – or what services or leadership might be in place. As a result, we can’t respond properly in a crisis. That makes these populations very vulnerable. We need to form local partnerships – this is the challenge for us: how do we bring these informal settlements into our governance systems so that, in future crises, we can be more responsive? Overall, we are also seeing severe economic impacts from the pandemic. In Durban, we have managed to keep our basic services running, but local government has also lost a substantial amount of income. That puts the funding of local government at risk and could endanger the delivery of basic services. Manufacturing industries have also been badly impacted. People talk about COVID as an opportunity for radical change in South Africa – to move to a greener economy, with less reliance on natural resources. But, right now, most people have a much more immediate concern that a green economy. And that is: can we keep this struggling economy working? I wonder, with everything that South Africa has gone through in the past thirty or forty years, if there is sufficient appetite for even more change. Inevitably, in a country like ours, the focus must be on the short term. “Future” just doesn’t have the same meaning in Africa as it does in Europe.
"It’s forcing us to engage with hard realities, and enormous uncertainty, where there are huge and growing divides in our societies between the haves and the have-nots. That division is not going to just heal itself. It will require a lot of hard work."
Africa has so many countries that are deeply traumatized by conflict and underdevelopment. In South Africa, the lockdown has already brought so much change. We have seen increased unemployment, and a ratings downgrade – it’s brought many of our industries to their knees. COVID has taken away our rose-tinted glasses – this is true the world over. It’s forcing us to engage with hard realities, and enormous uncertainty, where there are huge and growing divides in our societies between the haves and the have-nots. That division is not going to just heal itself. It will require a lot of hard work.
Member of AXA Research Fund’s Scientific Board and Head: Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit, eThekwini Municipality (South Africa)
Dr. Debra Roberts heads the Sustainable and resilient City Initiatives Unit for eThekwini Municipality in Durban, South Africa; she is also the city’s Chief Resilience Officer. Debra has worked closely with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Future Earth . She has also written widely on urban planning, sustainability, resilience and environmental management.