My New York Times column about Cape Town

The author wrote a column about racial and class inequalities in the city where he lived. The usual backlash by those in power followed.

Anouk Pilon via Flickr.

Let me be clear, because some responses suggest I was not in my recent column for the International New York Times: from just about every assessment, the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape are consistently rated among the top performing South African metros and provinces respectively in terms of governance and levels of service delivery. That said, if the Democratic Alliance [which governs the city] had its way, this should be the only basis by which the metro and province it governs are to be assessed: relative to other metros and provinces. If the African National Congress had its way, Cape Town and the Western Cape are to be assessed independently, with no reference to the other metros and provinces the ANC itself governs.

This is a political gambit I, as a thinking, observant, politically unaffiliated resident of Cape Town and a citizen of South Africa, am under no obligation and have no desire to play. None of us, really, are under an obligation to play this game, yet we do because many of us support political parties like we do soccer clubs: blindly.

I should be able to look at Cape Town or the Western Cape — the city and province where I live — independently and relative to the rest of the country and say: if they are exemplars of how socioeconomic rights are to be realized and social justice achieved in South Africa, then we are in trouble as they fall woefully short of what should be considered good enough in a society founded on human dignity. This was one of the central arguments in my column; an argument some responses have taken issue with.

Over on his blog, Stellenbosch University economist Johan Fourie coined the comically prejudiced word “sangomanomics” (yup, a portmanteau of ‘sangoma’ and ‘economics’) to say:

It is perhaps slightly ironic that Mr Molefe uses Cape Town as the setting for his attack against capitalism. The Western Cape is one of the fastest growing regions in South Africa, where poverty levels have fallen most significantly (but also where migrants are moving to, which suggest that conditions and opportunities must be better there than elsewhere, right?)

In her acerbic, paean-to-the-DA-laden response, Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille says:

But the main point Molefe explicitly ignores is that both the City of Cape Town and the Province of the Western Cape are governed by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) which is setting a new South African benchmark when it comes to social justice.

Not so, Ms de Lille. Best-performing Cape Town and the Western Cape — like the rest of South Africa — have not made enough progress and remain unjust. Take sanitation, for example, where “in Cape Town there is 100% access to adequate sanitation in informal settlements,” according to Ms de Lille.

This statistic presumably comes from the Report on the Status of Sanitation Services in South Africa, which the departments of human settlements, and performance monitoring and evaluation released last year. According to this report (page 37), all of the 185,000 households in Cape Town in informal settlements have access to adequate sanitation.

This sounds fantastic until you begin to interrogate what is meant by “access” and “adequate”. The report notes (page 11):

There is…confusion at municipal level regarding the interpretation of “access” to basic sanitation services, and current sanitation policy does not provide sufficient guidance on the interpretation of “access” to basic sanitation.

Despite this confusion, the report in its assessments used a ventilated improved pit (VIP) toilet — basically a “long drop” toilet where the pit is aerated — as the minimum requirement for a sanitation facility to meet the definition of adequate. And while not completely clear, the report appears to have used 1 “adequate” toilet to every 5 households (or some other communal toilet ratio) as the minimum before a household is considered to have access.

Considering that average household size in Cape Town is 3.5, this means that potentially, 17 people sharing a ventilated pit toilet would be considered adequate access to sanitation. Looking at it clinically, from the perspective of sanitation as a means to prevent the outbreak and spread of disease, this definition might seem like enough.

However, firstly, access to adequate sanitation isn’t only about health and hygiene; it is germane to human dignity, as the courts have consistently held. So far, the courts have avoided saying explicitly that communal toilets for households violate human dignity, though judge Nathan Erasmus came close in the Makhaza open-toilet case (he rejected the City of Cape Town’s use of the 1:5 ratio for settlements that are not temporary).

And the government has tied itself in knots between policy and practice in this regard, with the national sanitation policy saying that communal facilities and chemical toilets should not be used for longer than one month. This while the City of Cape Town (and other municipalities) and the report above on the status of sanitation services in SA consider facilities shared between households and chemical toilets (portable flush toilets) as medium to long-term solutions that meet the definition of adequate access.

Secondly, the definitions of “access” and “adequate” become more complicated (and more realistic) when you factor in issues such as whether the facilities are clean and properly maintained, safe to use at all hours of the day, accessible to the disabled and acceptable to the people affected. These issues that give a more realistic assessment of what constitutes adequate access formed the basis for the Social Justice Coalition’s clean and safe sanitation campaign, which the mayor has in the past characterised as “misinformation”. I highly recommend David Harrison’s photo essay ‘Cape Town’s dirty little secret’ for a glimpse of how glib and unconsidered such responses from Ms de Lille really are.

I have spoken to people who use portable flush toilets in their homes. In addition to issues of poor maintenance and cleanliness, they consistently say that they do not consider them a dignified way to relieve themselves and are appalled that they are expected to live with the contraptions in their homes, seemingly with no other permanent solution on the way.

The above considerations render Ms de Lille’s “100% access to adequate sanitation in informal settlements” utterly meaningless. The 100% is measured against too murky a standard that is not consistent with what you or I, or anybody, should consider adequate. It’s no wonder then that Ms de Lille is puzzled and cries political conspiracy when people show up at her door to say they do not have access to adequate sanitation (or other basic services). In her closed-off mind, the City of Cape Town has met its obligations.

Ms de Lille’s claim that I created a caricature of Cape Town lies in her (intentionally?) conflating where I say the majority of the city’s residents do not live in the Cape Town of marketing bumf (Gardens, City Bowl, Atlantic Seaboard) with where I point out the service-delivery and socioeconomic problems in the areas where most of the city lives (Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Nyanga, Langa, Mitchell’s Plain) and where most of the protestors were from. It’s not all extremes of wealth and deprivation, but there are stark and rapidly graduating differences between, for example, Khayelitsha, where 55% (i.e the majority) of households live in informal dwellings, and the much smaller (by population) Camps Bay, where only 1% of households live in informal dwellings (though I have yet to see a single shack in Camps Bay). And these differences manifest in the same geographic pattern and locales (and correlate with race) whether you’re looking at crime statistics, household income, housing, substance abuse or access to basic services.

It’s based on data, not caricature, to say that despite the efforts of Ms de Lille and the post-1994 administrations that preceded it, Cape Town presently still stands as a spatial monument to apartheid and colonialism; a monument that’s taking far too long to dismantle because politicians are patting themselves on their back for the little progress there has been. A similar spatial pattern presents itself in other municipalities around the country. Play around with Adrian Firth’s dot-maps of South Africa for an indication of how profoundly universal this problem is.

Ms de Lille, like Mr Fourie, also hauls out rural to urban migration as justification for why, independent of what others have done, the metro she is in charge of has not yet attained universal access to basic sanitation and housing, two of the most prominent issues raised in the protest march I wrote about. She writes:

The city’s population grew by 28 percent between 2001 and 2011. Post-apartheid South Africa is generally experiencing high levels of urban in-migration, both a consequence and a driver of the economic growth that Molefe finds so scandalous.


Census 2011 shows that access to the major urban services – water, flush toilets and electricity for lighting has improved in advance of the curve despite in-migration, and is indeed the best in the country.

However, this justification is weak on two levels.

Firstly, let’s look at the data and trends, which are scant at an inter-municipal migration level and subject to interpolation. Between 2001 and 2011, an estimated 480,000 people moved to the Western Cape and an estimated 245,000 left, according to StatsSA’s 2011 mid-year population estimate. Cape Town’s population over the same period grew by 850,000. The two aren’t necessarily comparable but they indicate that even if all in-migration into the Western Cape flowed to Cape Town (and those who departed left from elsewhere), there’s still a fair chunk endemic population growth (as a result of having a young female population) not explained in Ms de Lille’s analysis. The city’s own population projections estimate that only towards the end of the 2001 to 2021 projection period will migration begin to exceed fertility as the primary contributor to population growth.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the national budgeting process takes migration and population growth into account when allocating the municipal share of expenditure for basic services. So unlike how Ms de Lille presented it, in-migration should not present an additional burden if the budgeting and planning processes – which are government’s responsibility as citizens of this country are free to move within it as and when they please – are done properly.

Again, like Mr Fourie, Ms de Lille reads me as being anti-growth and anti-jobs, which I am not, and assumes redistribution has no effect on growth. She writes:

Readers will have to make up their own minds about whether jobs and growth are, contra-Molefe, a good thing. Molefe’s appeal to a policy of redistribution, in the absence of growth (which he explicitly condemns) is founded on an appeal to some sort of South African exceptionalism. India and Indonesia ‘do not have the same progressive founding ethos of social justice and human dignity’, he writes.”

I’m usually the first to warn of exceptionalism, but in so far as an explicitly stated founding commitment to social justice, human dignity and recognising the wrongs of the past (as expressed in the Constitution), South Africa is exceptional. The Constitution explicitly recognises that Black people were oppressed, subjugated and denied their dignity, and opens a path towards creating an equal society. If any other country were to look into its history, it would find, with varying degrees, similar patterns of historical injustices that created the unequal global society we see today. Few countries (and South Africa is among these few) have explicitly recognised and made a commitment to fix this in the highest law of their lands.

The South African Constitution is broad and can be interpreted conservatively, as it has thus far. It can also be read as laying the groundwork for a massive redistribution of income and wealth in order to create an egalitarian society.

Contrary to Mr Fourie and Ms de Lille’s claims, redistribution can (and in South Africa will) spur growth. The demand for healthcare, land and housing, water and sanitation, education, food, land and such is massive and going unmet. Those with the greatest demand for these things lack the means (primarily as a result of historical injustices) to acquire them. The state has put itself as the primary means by which this demand will be met, however, it remains dogged by capacity constraints, which too have their origins in this country’s history of racial injustice. As a result, there are backlogs, bottlenecks, waste and people siphoning resources that should go to meeting this demand.

Something like a comprehensive basic income grant funded from making the tax system more progressive and dismantling non-cash transfers that are not effective will put money in the hands of the people demanding these goods and services and give them the freedom to choose how and when their demands will be met.

Relying on growth, even if equitable, only serves to maintain the status quo and does little to transform our society into that envisioned by the likes of Steve Biko, whose arguments, at the risk of hubris, were also dismissed as those of a “radical” intellectual.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.