How apartheid city planners continue to shape our cities

Spatial planning has left a legacy of racially segregating Cape Town

In Summary

• Disproportionate access to residential opportunities plagues modern S Africa

The view of Cape Town from Signal Hill
The view of Cape Town from Signal Hill
Image: FILE

The other night, I was driving through Sea Point, one of Cape Town's most affluent and densely populated suburbs, with a young Kenyan friend (actually a newly discovered cousin, but that’s another story).

We saw a group of female domestic workers rushing to get the last taxi (matatu) into the CBD before boarding another taxi home to the townships, at least 30 km away. This is a nightly phenomenon across well-off suburbs all over cape Town, which, a quarter-century after democracy, still struggles under the burden of what is known here as apartheid spatial planning, which continues to racially segregate the city.

Spatial planning describes how space is created and arranged and provides blueprints to organise development. It’s a method of ensuring an orderly distribution of people and activities in a settlements spatial system. 

In Cape Town’s case, it means that workers such as the women we saw have to travel long distances to get home to their families and friends after working day-long shifts as nannies, cooks and housekeepers. The city authorities who own buildings and tracts of land nearby steadfastly refuse to provide solutions whereby such workers and others who have to come into town from the outskirts of the city can live nearby with their families. 

Colonial town planners were notorious for this sort of thing. Kenyan expert Peter Ngau, who has served on the technical committee for the preparation of the Nairobi City Master Plan, wrote a paper for the London-based African Research Institute explaining this phenomenon.

“During the colonial era,” he wrote, “planning legislation was used to control — and segregate — the population. Residential and commercial areas were divided into European, Asian and African categories. Laws were put in place that dictated who could live and work where.

“When Kenya gained independence in 1963, much of this legislation was repealed. People could move more freely, and many who had previously been barred from living in urban areas went to the cities in search of work.”

In colonial times, the part of Nairobi we call Eastlands was basically made up of small, tribal townships, where black Africans were forced to live as they were not allowed to access the city and the so-called leafy suburbs unless they were working there. Even then, they had to be back in the townships by dark. 

Here in Cape Town, a social justice organisation, Ndifuna Ukwazi, has launched litigation in the High Court that challenges the way the City of Cape Town approves exclusive, unaffordable private developments, and how the city could require developers to include affordable housing for people historically excluded from the city and other whites-only areas as a means to redress the legacy of spatial apartheid. 

It also asks that the court direct the city to adopt an inclusionary housing policy. If adopted, this policy would not only radically change the land market in Cape Town but also provide meaningful housing opportunities for poor, working class black and coloured families in well-located areas. 

This case is one of its kind in South Africa and tests the constitutional obligations of local governments to intervene in land markets, especially where it is shown that there is disproportionate access to residential opportunities in good areas of the city.