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Sweeping the city clean: ‘Anti-poor’ plans for urban renewal

- Nozipho Marere

"Clean! Clean of what?”

This is a question that was raised by renowned South African poet Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali in his 1971 collection of poems Sounds of a Cowhide Drum

In this poem about Eloff Street in Johannesburg, Mtshali reflected on the difficult living conditions for a black person in the city at that time. 

The city was not planned and developed with black people in mind. Development was based on systems that sought to discriminate, to segregate and marginalise people, mainly along racial and class lines, with black people bearing the brunt of it. 

With the transition from the apartheid government, black people who had previously been denied free access to the city migrated there, largely from the rural areas, in search of better opportunities. 

It is such circumstances that resulted in the massive exodus of white people from inner-city suburbs of Johannesburg. Hillbrow is an exceptional example of that massive exodus. In 1994, the suburb had a white population of 95%. By 1998, it now had a black population of 85%.

The political transition from apartheid was responsible for a lot of dramatic changes. An influx of people into the city, whose presence had not been planned for, created challenges of urban and population growth under limited resources, infrastructure and opportunities. 

Frustrations over unrealised dreams and factors such as poverty, unemployment and the HIV/Aids pandemic were responsible for the degeneration of the city. 

One of the strategies for city regeneration which emerged in response to increased crime, homelessness, substance abuse, prostitution and building hijackings, was Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). 

BIDs were a popular urban-regeneration model in countries such as Canada and the US, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. This model was adapted to the South African context as City Improvement Districts (CIDs) in the 1990s.

CIDs are developed out of self-funded public-private partnerships aimed at providing supplementary services to those provided by regulatory authorities. The partnerships include property developers and owners as well as local businesses. 

The partnerships work to fund services such as street cleaning; infrastructure development and maintenance; safety and security and refuse removal, to mention but a few. 

Fourteen inner-city CIDs have been developed in Johannesburg, including Braamfontein, Bank City, Fashion District, Yeoville, Maboneng and Constitutional Hill. CIDs in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg include areas such as Sandton, Randburg and Illovo. 

The socio-economic implications of the expansion of CIDs are twofold. On one hand, it results in improvements in the conditions in the city, with refurbished infrastructure and safe, clean neighbourhoods. It also results in positive economic growth and development through tourism and foreign and local business investment. 

On the other hand, CIDs can drive change similar to gentrification, where property developers’ interests are served resulting in increased rates and rents, which ultimately forces poor people out. 

In a country such as South Africa, with high rates of structural and urban inequality, CIDs can be a case of “history repeating itself”. 

One is inclined to think and expect that in the inclusive and democratic South Africa, development strategies would seek to include, uplift and empower disadvantaged and marginalised people. However, in the quest to develop the ideal city, largely a Euro-American in concept, poor black communities, who do not fit the criteria of this vision, are left out in the cold. 

What CIDs have done in the name of cleaning up is sweeping away and closing out poor black communities which have been implicated in a similar history, albeit under violent circumstances. 

Following a similar pattern of spatial segregation and exclusion to that of the apartheid era, the development of CIDs in Johannesburg has resulted in secluded islands and urban enclaves. 

The little pockets of affluence in Johannesburg are surrounded by seas of decay. While those living in the CIDs might enjoy the privileges of living in a well-maintained, clean and safe place, the surrounding areas are often informal settlements or homeless people occupying abandoned buildings and rundown, poorly maintained properties. 

These conditions pose enormous threats, to not only safety and security, but to the aesthetic of the kind of city being developed. Responding to the Johannesburg building fire incident in August 2023, the city’s spokesperson made the point that Johannesburg did have world-class African citizens. This claim highlights the long-standing tension between the vision of “world-class cities” and the complex realities of the South African urban poor. 

As I reiterate Mtshali’s question, “Clean! clean of what?” I am reminded of the cruel and harsh realities of the poor black population, where people find themselves in an endless cycle of discrimination, exclusion and segregation. 

The thought-provoking question is not just about the general and literal sense of keeping cities clean and safe but alludes to deep, underlying and unaddressed structural issues. These underlying issues are embedded in the history of our nation and, unless looked at from a critical perspective, their solutions will always be superficial and lead to the creation of more challenges. 

Nozipho Marere is a research intern at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies and a masters student for urban studies at Wits.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian