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The desire to promote Cape Town as a "world-class city" is frequently expressed, often as a justification for promoting iconic events and projects, such as the Olympic Games, rugby and soccer World Cups, and "showcase" housing (such as the N2 Gateway Project). But what does the term mean and how close are we to achieving it?

To answer this it is necessary to review how well we have been doing in managing inevitable processes of urbanisation in Cape Town.

The short answer to this question is, not very well at all.

  • The magnificent natural and heritage legacy of the Western Cape - its greatest assets - are being desecrated daily on the altar of short-term greed and a desire on the part of the (increasing national and international) rich to privatise nature and history's most desirable assets.

  • Despite the fact that Cape Town lies in a water scarce region, approximately 95% of water entering the city drains into the sea after having been used only once.

  • The capacity to deal with sewage has been exceeded in a number of parts of the city to the extent that new development projects, however desirable, can no longer be considered and that untreated sewage is polluting water courses and bodies.

  • Wide-ranging power cuts, which periodically affect and paralyse large parts of the city, are not uncommon. More seriously, many citizens still have no access to electricity and the alternatives they are forced to use - particularly paraffin - are a primary cause of fire, the scourge of informal settlements.

  • Despite lip service being paid to it, the public transportation system is a mess and almost nothing is being done about it. Statements claiming that the city will have an integrated public transportation system by 2010 are ludicrous.

    The situation has a number of serious implications.

    It makes the city dependent on fossil fuels which, internationally, are in a depletion stage: this is the very opposite of sustainability.

    It contributes directly to high levels of poverty, since many people who cannot afford to own a car are forced to do so. The alternative, which describes the reality of many people, is that they are trapped and effectively unable to access the opportunities of the city.

    Excessive car movement is a primary contributor to serious, and increasing, air pollution.

    Existing road networks are deteriorating as backlogs in maintenance build.

  • The housing backlog, estimated to be between 250 000 and 400 000 units (although no one really knows), is escalating steadily. I do not believe it is the responsibility of central or local government to supply people with housing, but it certainly is their function to facilitate delivery, and this is not occurring at anything like an adequate rate.

    As a consequence, the phenomena of informal settlements, which many politicians view as a symptom of under-development, are increasing rapidly.

  • The quality of the public spatial environment which exists in large parts of the city is appalling. One only has to take a drive across the Cape Flats to see how desperate the situation is. This is an issue of considerable significance.

    A defining characteristic of poverty is that people cannot carry out all, or even most, of their daily activities in private space. The public space are places where children play, people meet, lovers court and the elderly chat. When these spaces are positively made, they impact profoundly on the enjoyment of these activities. Conversely, when they are sterile, as they are in the majority of the city's poorer parts, they degrade human dignity. This is certainly the case in Cape Town. The environments in which children are growing up are anti-socialising.

  • The catchment area of the city (defined in terms of the distance over which it imports essential inputs, such as water and food) is increasing steadily, making the city progressively more vulnerable.

  • At a human level, structural unemployment, poverty and inequality are increasing. Large and increasing numbers of people will have no option but to secure their livelihood through their own energies and ingenuities, but the form of the city does not facilitate this.

    At the same time, the city is being confronted with new sets of issues which require innovation but which are receiving almost no attention. These include: soaring rates of tuberculosis; periodic worm infestations, which have a severe impact on children, largely caused by the unhygienic ways in which meat reaches the poor; rising deaths through Aids and the growing spectre of Aids orphans and child-headed households; unparalleled pressures on land for cemeteries and clashes between cultural practices and the realities of land shortages; increasing livestock in the city; the need to accommodate cultural practices, such as initiation, with dignity; pressures on the natural environment through increasing use of traditional medicines; and finding creative ways of working with increasing informality.

    Clearly Cape Town is nowhere near being a world-class city. In fact, conditions in the city are worsening steadily.

    The causes underpinning this worrying situation are complex. One of the primary ones, however, is the political instability which has faced the city since 1994. The lack of a clear political majority, the waxing and waning of political alliances, and the adoption of the US system of making top officials party political appointments has had a number of negative impacts.

  • It has created a climate of ongoing asset stripping: a lack of necessary maintenance of existing assets in favour of "sexy" or vote-catching projects.

  • It has led to an unstable bureaucracy: every time political leadership changes, bureaucratic leadership changes as well. Restructuring has become the norm, not the exception. This has contributed to a climate of uncertainty and to an unwillingness to take control of the problem. The civil service is massively demotivated.

  • It has contributed to huge problems of human capacity, both quantitative and qualitative.

    Qualitatively, there are simply too few professionals and other suitably qualified people, and the public sector finds it increasingly difficult to attract skilled and motivated people in the face of competition from the private sector. This is particularly, although not exclusively, true of black professionals.

    Qualitatively, in terms of BEE policies, many people are being promoted to jobs which are beyond their expertise and experience. Paralleling this, people (particularly white people) with skills and experience do not see a future for themselves in the public sector and are either taking early retirement or seeking employment in the private sector.

  • It leads to fluctuations of decision-makers. This prevents the emergence of a strong institutional culture and a reservoir of experiential knowledge.

  • It mitigates against the education and training of decision-makers.

    There is a tendency to view the problem of capacity as a short- term issue which will be self-correcting. It is not. It has profound implications for the functions which local and provincial government can and must play.

    At present, many of the functions which the government is expected to undertake are unfunded mandates: they simply cannot be efficiently carried out.

    It is against this background that the issue of iconic events and projects must be viewed.

    Recent research (2006) on the intended and actual impacts of mega-events, with particular reference to the 2010 World Cup, which examines the experiences of all previous hosting cities, reveals that the impacts of hosting can be positive or profoundly negative, depending on how the events are conducted.

    From a positive perspective, they do offer a powerful branding opportunity, although the longer term benefits of this have never been proven.

    Potential negative impacts are three-fold: the first is long-term financial loses in cases where infrastructural investment has been over-capitalised and issues of after-use have not been resolved from the outset; the second is a distortion of budgets over a long period, away from local priorities; the third, related, impact is the diversion of human capital away from city priorities.

    The overarching conclusion of the study is that a key success factor is the alignment of the event with local long-term city plans.

    In the case of 2010, there are few indications that this has occurred in Cape Town.

    It is apparent, therefore, that neither the term "world class" nor the pursuit of the iconic project are particularly useful with respect to Cape Town. Both tend to distract attention, resources and energies away from the real issues facing the city.

    If Cape Town wishes to become more competitive internationally (as indeed it must), the path to pursue rests on four pillars:

  • Bringing stability to the public sector and appointing and retaining skilled and committed people to the right positions. Cities are complex institutions: they cannot be run by amateurs;

  • Fiercely protecting the natural environmental assets of the city, for these are truly internationally competitive;

  • Doing the basics of urban management really well: concentrating on making the city more equitable, integrated, sustainable and efficient; and

  • Finding innovative, creative ways of meeting the unique challenges of Cape Town.

    If the city can achieve this - and it is quite possible to do so - it will become truly internationally competitive and locally relevant. This is a goal worth pursuing.

    Professor David Dewar is Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at UCT, and holds the BP chair in City and Regional Planning. For the last two years he has been core consultant to the City of Cape Town in drawing up a Spatial Development Framework for the city.
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