By Andrea Couvert

Photo by SWISS IM&H on Unsplash

During lockdown, we are experiencing many mixed chaotic feelings, from anxiety to the joy of seeing that even in crisis situations, people try to give their best and collaborate. I have experienced this chaotically coherent activity as a member of the Woodstock Community Action Network (CAN), which, for me, is a continuous source of inspiration.

But there are also moments of anger and helplessness. An example is the City of Cape Town City’s decision to set up tents for the homeless at Strandfontein Sports Ground. I felt anger and pain seeing the huge tents where it is almost impossible to keep the recommended physical distancing and where law enforcement has fired rubber bullets to prevent people from leaving. I also suspect that the city has not even conducted an epidemiological impact assessment. And now the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has recommended that the site be closed down.

But despite the anger and sadness, I would like to talk about something that seems difficult to do in times of emergency wherein everyone focuses on the things they can do today. It is precisely from the story of the camp tents for the homeless at Strandfontein that I drew this reflection:

If we focus only on the present and things to do, we become accomplices of decisions that endanger the lives and the health of thousands of people in the future.

Thinking about the future, therefore, becomes a key element in thinking through emergency responses now. There is no separation between these two aspects. Unfortunately, we all feel overwhelmed by the extent and urgency of the emergencies during a pandemic so it is difficult to think about the longer-term consequences of short-term reactions. It is not enough to perform actions; it is necessary that these actions are placed with our future horizon in mind.

We need to open a dialogue on the future of Cape Town, on how we could imagine a post-virus time that is not a return to the social, political and economic conditions that have made this pandemic so disastrous. We have to ask ourselves some questions:

  • What challenges and opportunities does this crisis create?
  • What can be done to anticipate crises in the future and prepare for them?
  • How can we prepare to respond rapidly and effectively to future events, even if it isn’t possible to preempt a future crisis?

To answer these questions, we need a collective discussion for defining a common vision for Cape Town. We could start by engaging and involving the thousands of people who have organised themselves to offer help, assistance and solidarity for the COVID-19 emergency through Cape Town Together (CTT). CTT is the largest self-organised network in South Africa of individual residents, local organisations, churches, mosques, business and NPOs.

This discussion is particularly important because 2021 will be the year of local elections. I think it is necessary to reaffirm that political parties are not the only places of the development of policies. On the contrary, given the poverty of the content that comes from political parties and the high level of political controversy in a general context of paternalism, corruption and authoritarianism, it seems to me that the current political parties risk being part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I propose the following to open this collective discussion about our future.

We must consider the option of building a coalition of civic associations, community based organisations and social movements that aims to build a common vision for the City of Cape Town. The primary objective of this coalition should be to change the way decisions are made. This includes who represents us (who we elect as councilors), proposing different policies, for example a better policy on social housing to overcome the spatial / economic / social separations of apartheid.

If the primary objective is to change the way in which decisions are made in the City of Cape Town then we need to use a different paradigm:

  • it important to recognise the City as a commons. The principal function of the City is to be the common house of the people who live there, the place where social life is built;
  • the municipal administration and the political level are an important part of the common but not its entirety;
  • the City must see collaboration with civil society and residents as an essential part of its being. The City needs to invest in community-building programmes and support the acquisition of skills and abilities of residents and civic and social organisations;
  • the City needs to recognise, promote and support the processes of self-organising and autonomy of residents, by promoting collaboration and integration between different communities in overcoming the spatial / economic / social divisions inherited from apartheid;
  • the City and the civil society must move towards decentralisation and democratisation of the municipal structures and their powers and decisions through participatory and co-design processes. This includes questioning the Executive Mayoral System and the political party caucus system;
  • activate commons institutions to manage public goods, such as the Cape Town aquifer or the Philippi Horticultural Area. These public goods need policies that consider their long-term preservation and sustainability and not to follow political fluctuations every five years.
  • civil society needs to question organisational models that mirror the authoritarian models of public administrations and the political parties. This includes a conception of leadership that sees the presence of few leaders followed by a multitude of followers.

A starting point, in the discussion of Cape Town’s future, could be to imagine a City Health and Wellbeing Plan. For the elaboration of this plan, it is necessary to involve as many actors as possible in a co-evolutionary way. The City Health and Wellbeing Plan must have social cohesion and the development of social capital as its main objective. It must be a pact signed between the public administration and civil society to create institutions, tools and actions with a Shared public administration approach recognising that Health and Wellbeing are common goods.

This collective social movement has the potential to change power relations within our city and to change the way we conceive the city. It affirms the principle that those elected to political offices are not the “owners” of the city and that the public administration belongs to the residents from a Shared Public Administration perspective.

Perhaps some might call this too ambitious, too hopeful. But, after all, we no longer live in “normal” times; it cannot be business as usual.

Collective discussion needed for a future Cape Town