Citizenship on the urban edge: separated by space

Molweni,” said an old man as he entered the Quantum taxi after flagging it down on a street crawling with activity somewhere between the Site C taxi rank and the exit road from Khayelitsha. The greeting prompted appropriate responses from the seated passengers.

It was late on a Friday afternoon and the sidewalk he’d been standing on was crisscrossed with chaos in every direction. Kids playing handstand competitions and ball games uncomfortably close to hairdressers attending hurriedly to customers outside the heat of their corrugated salons; day-shift workers getting home; night-shift workers leaving home; women selling smoky shisa nyama (barbequed meat) in the company of men sharing the first beverage of another festive weekend.

I was on my way home from Khayelitsha in a battered public taxi that groaned along the roads before breaking free onto the open highway back to Cape Town, with Table Mountain in full majestic view.

The Town II district of Khayelitsha from where I was coming, classified as an “informal” stratum of urban society, makes up a small part of a city township that, according to the latest census (2011), is home to just under 400, 000 people, 55 percent of whom live in shacks or informal dwellings.

The lived experiences of those resident is hardly comparable to the daily ins and outs of citizens living in Cape Town’s wealthy centre. And for the expanse of urban inhabitants held fast to the spaces of informality that sprawl forever further from that hub, the commercial resources of the city seem increasingly inaccessible.

This constrained access to the city could not have been more explicit in the reaction of children to my passing that afternoon. Five-year-old kids, distracted from their games outside the entrance of their homes, called out “Umlungu!” (“White person!”). They seemed innocently fascinated by the unusual sight of someone of my colour walking through the township.

Is “Cape Town” so exclusive as an entity of space in relation to this peripheral suburb that years of an individual’s childhood can pass without the slightest exposure to a central society in which a cosmopolitan diversity of people exists and remains the norm for so many?

The western egalitarian notion of citizenship that was sewn into the quilt of South Africa’s democratic constitution has served well in giving political and social policy-making an instrumental value on which to be founded. However, it has resulted in state institutions interacting with citizens simply as voters and/or the beneficiaries of development projects. The sterility of this arrangement has done very little in serving the sense of belonging and inclusion that state policies should be nurturing.

This reduction of purpose, value, and definition of what it means to be a “citizen” in a country that is rapidly urbanising has served to entrench the pre-1994 inequalities that are a function of the apartheid spatial planning that forced black people to the periphery of cities. Khayelitsha, an urban township reputed to be the biggest and fastest growing settlement in South Africa, exemplifies the vast exclusion of a people once pegged to a space through the apartheid Group Areas policy and for whom today not much has changed.

The separation of distance enforces an exclusion from city centre-based employment. The one-way fare back to the southern suburbs by taxi is R14: the daily cost of claiming your right to the city if you can afford it. But for the resident who is one of the 74 percent majority whose household earns a collective R3,200 a month or less, the 30-kilometre stretch of highway separating her home from the skyscraper city hardly constitutes a gateway to economic opportunity.

While the inequalities among “citizens” persist, so do the old patterns of the segregated apartheid city. Inadequate access to the bright lights of the big city and the economic resources it provides will continue to ensure that the status of citizenship means little to city citizens who cannot participate in the production of the city’s space, nor necessarily receive the privileges that such participation and investment should ensure.


image credit: WikiCommons

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