Cape Town: T.O. Molefe's inaccurate caricature - Patricia de Lille

Mayor responds to the New York Times' online columnist's article on the city

Cape Town's Silent Revolution by Patricia de Lille

It was pleasing to see the New York Times carry an opinion piece on South Africa's development challenges with specific reference to Cape Town. South Africa is a developing country which faces issues of poverty, violence and disease, all of which have complex roots in the country's baleful history of racial discrimination and distorted development.

All useful insights into the issues of poverty, race and development are welcomed as no one has a monopoly on the truth. Unfortunately T.O. Molefe's opinion piece, ‘South Africans Didn't Die for This' (November 12), is founded on such inaccuracies as to make no contribution to this debate whatsoever.

Molefe presents an extreme caricature of the problems. He argues that there is a ‘real Cape Town', characterised by extreme deprivation, in which the majority of the city's inhabitants endure a bleak life. He implies that that this majority ‘don't have toilets', live in shacks (which burn down) and are besieged by rats which ‘bite the babies'.

Molefe contrasts the sometimes ostentatious wealth of Cape Town's picturesque Atlantic seaboard with this horrifying picture.  His suggestion is that the democratically-elected provincial and city governments have somehow conned the urban poor into passivity while maintaining a global lifestyle for a small elite.

There are indeed individuals living under unacceptable conditions, not only in Cape Town but every South African city. The problem with Molefe's ‘analysis' is that those people living in such conditions do not constitute a ‘vast majority'; nor are the City authorities blind to their plight. Cape Town's developmental policies are not ‘a side show' representative of a ‘false global doctrine' or, to express Molefe's agenda bluntly, capitalism.  They lie at the heart of our agenda.

The fact is that some 80 percent of Cape Town's citizens live in houses, not informal settlements (‘shacks') and the vast majority of those who live in informality receive basic services such as water, electricity and sanitation, provided free of charge.

Cape Town is recognised by the national government as the best run local government in South Africa. For example, in Cape Town there is 100% access to adequate sanitation in informal settlements. This as opposed to other areas in South Africa where as little as 1% have such access.

With regard to water provision, Cape Town also exceeds national standards by, for example, ensuring that all residents have access to water within 100m from their dwellings as opposed to the 200 metre national standard.

Cape Town is also recognised as having the most comprehensive electrification programme in informal settlements in the country, with the vast majority of informal settlements having access to subsidised electricity.

Cape Town is also one of the few major South African cities where informal settlements residents receive a weekly door-to-door refuse collections service bags. There are of course rats in Cape Town, like any major city, but hardly in the plague numbers implied by Molefe.

Cape Town is a developing world metropolis, much like Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Cairo, Calcutta or Lagos. It is currently experiencing levels of urbanisation that have made these other cities some of the largest urban conglomerations in the world.

The city's population grew by 28 percent between 2001 and 2011. Post-apartheid South Africa is generally experiencing high levels of urban in-migration, both a consequence and a driver of the economic growth that Molefe finds so scandalous.

In fact the South African economy has tripled in size since the removal of the barriers of apartheid while the country's population has grown by only one-fifth. Life for the majority of South Africans is undoubtedly better than it was in the dark days of racial discrimination.

Molefe may be simply unaware of economic and development data but his blindness to political nuance is astounding. He presents his caricature of Cape Town as representative of South Africa generally. ‘South African leaders across the political spectrum keep parroting the false doctrine of growth, deregulation and jobs', he writes.

Readers will have to make up their own minds about whether jobs and growth are, contra-Molefe, a good thing. Molefe's appeal to a policy of redistribution, in the absence of growth (which he explicitly condemns) is founded on an appeal to some sort of South African exceptionalism. India and Indonesia ‘do not have the same progressive founding ethos of social justice and human dignity', he writes.

But the main point Molefe explicitly ignores is that both the City of Cape Town and the Province of the Western Cape are governed by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) which is setting a new South African benchmark when it comes to social justice.

The national ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) has practiced a policy of ‘redistribution' through crony-capitalism and government employment. In the Western Cape, the DA has a policy of clean and efficient government.

This has been explicitly implemented with the twin objectives of facilitating private sector growth and using the public fiscus to improve the life chances of the poor. In 2011/12, 76 percent of the DA-run Western Cape's regional budget was spent in poor communities, with the majority of this funding spent on education and health services to poorer communities.

The City of Cape Town spends over 65% of its budget on direct service provision to poorer communities, as a real and tangible expression of both governments' commitment to redress. On top of this spending, Cape Town is also investing billions in rands in a safe and reliable public transport system that, once completed, will serve to break down the divisions of apartheid spatial planning.

Molefe is wrong about South Africa and even more wrong about Cape Town. Under the DA, Cape Town is increasingly differentiating itself from the rest of the country through judicious management which has freed up public resources for the poor. 

In Cape Town itself, the DA has built two new regional hospitals in the past four years, both located in notoriously poor areas; it has built 50 new schools and spent literally billions of rands extending municipal infrastructure to poor neighbourhoods.

Census 2011 shows that access to the major urban services - water, flush toilets and electricity for lighting has improved in advance of the curve despite in-migration, and is indeed the best in the country. Mother-to-child transmission rates for HIV have dropped to 1.8 percent in 2013 (from 3.2 percent in 2010) thanks to a massive anti-retroviral roll out.

The most significant indicator in rebuttal of Molefe's crude view is the lower and falling levels of inequality in the Western Cape. Under the DA government, the gini coefficient - the standard international index of inequality - has come down from 0.61 in 2008 to 0.55 in 2013, according to international economic consultancy HIS Global Insight. With the gini coefficient, the higher the number the greater the disparity between rich and poor.

The Western Cape has not only become more equal in recent years, it is by some distance the most equal province in South Africa.

When hard facts are brought into the picture, T.O. Molefe's article is revealed to be not only misleading but founded on outright misrepresentation. It will no doubt resonate with some of the more extreme views found in the anti-globalisation movement. But it represents a position that is hardly likely to improve the lot of the urban poor with whom he implicitly claims to side.

In any developing economy, there will be protests about services, often whipped up, as in the Cape Town case, by unscrupulous political entrepreneurs. But these are a side-show, not a prelude to violent revolution.

In fact there is a revolution happening in Cape Town and the Western Cape. But it is a silent and incremental one, supported by and benefitting the vast majority of people in the city. Under DA government it is rolling forward irrespective of the marginal and ill-informed opinions of intellectual radicals like Molefe. 

Patricia de Lille is the Executive Mayor of Cape Town

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