Urban decay

by Peter Knox SJ


In Yeoville last weekend, I was amazed at how the infrastructure has crumbled. Every street is pot-holed. Water and sewage flow everywhere. The traffic lights don’t work. Rubbish is piled or smouldering at the roadside. Parks and pavements are overgrown. Spaza shops poke out of garages. The disorder reminds me of Abidjan, Nairobi and Kinshasa. Our Jozi has become a world-class African failure. My colleagues told me that the city council doesn’t service the area because most of the people living there are immigrants …. as if xenophobia is an excuse.


Hillbrow, Berea, Bellevue and Yeoville have always been the go-to destinations for waves of immigrants to Johannesburg who have little money in their pockets but are on their way up. They come from all corners of the world, planning to line their pockets with gold. They hope in time to move somewhere more upmarket. These flats are where my family stayed as German Jewish refugees around the time of World War II. They ultimately occupied five flats, and as children from the “Northern suburbs”, we were delighted to visit our great-grandparents and aunts in their flats in the tree-lined city streets. Driving past those flats today, I can only feel sadness. 


It would be naïve to think that Jo’burg is like the city of our childhood. Nothing in life is static. Cities ebb and flow. Migration is a fact of life. The urban pull keeps cities alive. It is evidence that the city is living. Every city needs affordable housing to accommodate new arrivals with skills, entrepreneurship and ambitions. We commend the government for building so many homes in the past thirty years. But this should not be at the expense of the inner cities becoming slums. 


The great crime of apartheid was to halt the natural flow of people to the city to live in decent available housing. Instead, disastrous urban planning banished black people to out-of-sight-out-of-mind townships. These offered the most basic accommodation, acting as labour reserves for the white fantasy economy. Once people were allowed to own their houses in the townships, they had tenure security and would begin improving their homes. 


Cities need agility and imagination to constantly reinvent themselves and avoid urban decay. Flight of capital from the inner city does not license the council to abandon the city. Otherwise, slumlords, stripping and hijacking of buildings become the order of the day. The buildings become death traps, as we saw so tragically in Marshalltown. This cycle is graphically portrayed in the 2008 film Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema with Rapulana Seiphemo. 


While working “on the mines,” I visited colleagues at their overcrowded hostels – undignified dormitories where men slept in shifts on bunks. However, the “single quarters” where I stayed as a “learner official” had single rooms but shared all the other facilities. Fortunately, the notorious single-sex hostels on the edges of the towns and townships are a thing of the past. But in some, whole families now occupy rooms initially built for single men. This is still a cause of great social concern.


Pope Francis’s encyclical on care for our common home is not just about the birds and the bees. Our pope is very concerned that people live in places that enhance their human dignity and respect the culture and history of the place. People need to feel that they share and belong to each other’s larger urban space. We need a relationship of trust between our fellow citizens and elected officials. I wonder what Pope Francis would say if he visited our city and its informal settlements.

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