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Opinion: Urban Safety In Our Cities Is Critical To Return To Normal After The Spate Of Recent Riots

  • 8 min read

The harrowing images of a baby being thrown from a burning building by her mother to onlookers below is a haunting reminder of the violence and chaos that erupted in mid-July in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal. Our cities erupted into hotspots of looting and shooting, so uncontrolled and chaotic that even the South African Police Service seemed overwhelmed and unable to get their grip on it. While the arrival of the SANDF quelled the destruction somewhat, its efforts came days after the anarchy erupted and much of the damage was done.

On one hand, it says a lot about the safety of our cities and the capacity of the powers that be to ensure all our safety. On the other hand, it reinforced an argument long made that safety and violence and crime prevention require the effort and contribution of all of society. Because the challenges are driven in part by economic, spatial and social exclusion, law enforcement cannot act alone to stem the tide.

In many communities it was the concerted acts, led by concerned community members, organisers and taxi associations, forming human shields around important community assets that showed our true mettle and what we can achieve together as a nation. By many accounts the unrest in other provinces was stopped thanks in large part to community members stepping up and loudly saying “enough is enough.” It took political leadership that is deeply rooted in their communities to connect the dots and make their constituents understand the long-term effects on development, of violence and destruction.

Issues of urban safety are not new. Annually, objective data reinforces the fact that cities and towns account for the lion’s share of crime, the violent forms especially. The recent riots have only laid bare how unsafe we actually are, especially in those areas that need protection the most, such as townships and informal settlements which still have not emerged from the ravages of historical exclusion and inequality. The recent events will only compound those structural challenges, making it even more difficult to access improved livelihoods. While around 2000 people have been arrested for their role in causing chaos and mayhem, not to mention the loss of lives, coming back from this will take time, most of all in terms of an economy that was already ailing and a social fabric that was already fragile, if not in dire straits. The destruction caused on the lives of the innocent, whose literal lifelines were cut off for days on end, will have a lasting legacy. Tensions remain high in many communities such as Phoenix and surrounds, where it will take much effort and deep reflection to restore trust, dignity and shared humanity.

Those subject to abject poverty, the unheard and overlooked, remain seated on a tinderbox of social unrest. They are the unemployed youth, the millions who live below the poverty line, some of whom are dependent on the State and even more who fall between the cracks, with no social protections whatsoever. South Africa will have sorely missed the lesson and failed the test dismally, should we miss the opportunity to leverage this tipping point. Tragic as it may be, in many ways it’s a lifeline if we are earnest about turning the tide on exclusion and inequality, emerging from the ashes with a new social contract. 

In our efforts to #RebuildSA it is important to have a clear understanding that it shouldn’t mean simply reverting to our comfortable (ab)normal. As technocrats and policy makers especially, we must take the opportunity to bring expression and a practical sense to our government speak which on its own and when translated to our usual ways of doing things, tends to be elitist and exclusionary. Our actions must clearly demonstrate what we mean by buzzwords like “active citizenship” and “co-creation”. We must do this by taking good advantage and supporting the groundswell of active and engaged communities that rose up at the worst of times. We must come together as government, civil society, faith based organisations, business, academia and other sectors to stop the violence and chart sustainable pathways to peace and shared prosperity. Inherent to the success of these efforts is an understanding that unless we can arrest our rampant issues of poverty, unemployment and destitution, not to mention rapid urbanisation that continues to see our cities swell with these challenges more aggressively than before, we will see this violent pattern play out again, albeit on different stages; with more dire consequences each time.

Safety is a constitutional right and one that has been compromised for millions of South Africans in the past few weeks. Those living in the epicentre of the unrest will surely concur that their rights have not been upheld and that the NDP’s Chapter 12 of “Building Safer Communities” has never been their reality, certainly not on their doorsteps anyway. It stands to be seen for example, how the violence of July 2021 will contribute to existing challenges of family disruption, spatial inequality, substance abuse and gender-based violence. We can be sure that the most vulnerable in our society will bear the brunt of compounded lack, scarcity and arrested development.

If we are truly to overcome violence and disorder as our template we need to be bold about inclusion across our communities, particularly informal economies. Urban safety is central to achieving this, as something that is recognised globally as an essential ingredient of sustainable development and inclusive growth. While we can go some way to understand the short-term intentions of opportunistic looters, it is the long-term effects that are going to hinder our already fragile recovery from existing inequality and the worst health crisis the world has seen in nearly a century. Covid-19 is still a reality but even that ended upon the backburner as our country burned. 

While the government has developed 14 Outcomes that reflect the desired developmental impacts to be achieved in order to meet various national objectives, a barrier to making cities safer in South Africa is the lack of a clear and coherent framework that recognises poverty and inequality as  drivers and pulls together all of the different policy interventions and directs, aligns and integrates urban safety interventions, planning instruments and investments by all government spheres and sectors. Furthermore many of the urban safety policy building blocks are in place at a national, provincial and municipal level, but they are fragmented and uncoordinated. While working in partnership and cooperation with all of society is widely accepted as an ideal, our systems continue to be structured for and reward silo approaches. As a result, there is no common understanding of what should be done, and the practical steps, to enable and implement integrated responses to making communities safer.

Which brings me back to present day: without putting into action what all of us in the government system know and accept, and which is acknowledged in our illustrious suite of policies which rival those of the most advanced societies in the world we will continue to see eruptions of violence on the streets. It is a must that we get our violence and crime prevention agenda under control and therein recognise unsafety as one of the biggest checks to cities and towns driving inclusive growth.

The NDP’s goal that “by 2030, people living in South Africa feel safe at home, at school and at work, and they enjoy a community life free of fear, where women walk freely in the streets and children play safely outside” is a pipedream unless we take a collective, all-of-society approach to addressing issues of crime and violence in our cities. What happened in July 2021, which will go down in the history books alongside the events of Sharpville in 1960, and Marikana in more recent times, is a manifestation of a society comprising too many with little to live for and even less to lose; who are hungry, unemployed, poor and desperate. If ordinary citizens can turn into quasi-criminals so quickly, becoming swept up in mob behaviour intent on causing mayhem across provinces, we have a long road to walk, but walk it we must if we are to rebuild our cities and inculcate a sense of safety and hope among the most marginalised.

Let us not let these events become another case study. Let the terrible but necessary shocks to the system be the impetus we need to make our country and its cities and towns inclusive, free from crime and violence and where all share in the benefits. By all means necessary, let us resist every urge to simply dial back to our (ab)normal.

By Siphelele Ngobese, South African Cities Network Researcher in the Inclusive Cities Programme