MIGRATION, WORK, HOUSING, TRANSPORT Simple words, complex problems

In two presentations, ‛Access to the urban core for the rural poor: migration, housing, transport and types of poverty settlement’ and ‛Differentiated household demand for housing and the targeting of access to basic services’, the HSRC’s CATHERINE CROSS discussed key aspects of urban life in post-apartheid cities. Her detailed evidence from Johannesburg and Tshwane underscored the inadequacy of ‛the poor’ as a category: age, gender, skill and many other factors make overarching solutions to the many problems impracticable. Urban and peri-urban dwellers are often far ahead of government in their flexible responses to the challenges and opportunities of their environment.

Though there is still a strong feeling that migration can be controlled or even prevented, this is probably unrealistic, Cross said. Cities everywhere struggle with what they consider a never-ending influx of poor people. Even when, worldwide, attempts are made to control the flow of immigrants, the poor flood back.

The countryside is unlikely to provide an acceptable standard of living to the rural unemployed, and movement to towns and cities continues. Cities can attempt to equip the poor with marketable skills, but this is expensive, takes a long time and tends to be overwhelmed by continuing rural to urban migration.

Upgrading of all shacks may be unrealistic: they are part of the search for a job

Analysing the data

This has important implications for transport. Who is moving and who is not? What are the likely results of different forms of migration? The project on which Cross and others are working involves breaking down the components of migration and profiling the types of service delivery demanded by various types of urban settlement. The results have important implications for government at local and other levels.

Above all, people come to cities in search of jobs, which are mostly to be found in city centres and nearby. It is therefore important to improve access to CBDs. The concentration of jobs in and around the Pretoria CBD in Tshwane is illustrated in figure 1. But there is a danger of saturating the centres with job-seekers, most of whom will be rural immigrants with low skill levels. The number of available jobs will not expand indefinitely. Most formal housing in CBDs is for rent. The main occupants of such accommodation are not the unemployed and mostly young inner-city poor, but rather employed women with children and above-average education. Such women are poor, but working poor. Young male work-seekers, on the other hand – without families and willing to tolerate tough conditions in the hope of getting jobs – may not easily commit to upgrading. This constituency is a difficult one for cities to come to terms with.

Shifting perspectives

Shack-dwellers have a different profile. Shacks can be functional for some people at some times, and not every shack-dweller is necessarily unwilling to spend at least some time in these surroundings.

Upgrading all shacks may be unrealistic: they are part of the search for a job. Even when formal housing is ‘free’ it has costs: residents are subject to social expectations and, if they are not economically firmly established, are likely to find themselves moving out again, or hanging on with difficulty.

Shacks are cheap and reduce such pressures. House ownership and rental in the formal market tends to be for those who are relatively financially secure. The closer to CBDs they are, the more functional shacks are for job-seekers, who are mostly young and male, with some young women. They are making a sacrifice in order to get a job and most do not think they will be there for long.

Shacks on the periphery are sometimes of better quality, and conditions tend to be easier. Women without jobs or with badly-paying jobs are likely to cluster on the periphery, often in the safety of backyard communities as, at this level of existence, city centres tend to be turbulent and dangerous. For similar reasons, women are underrepresented in shack areas, which are predominantly male.

Cross focused on the shack settlement of Swedenville bordering the established Tshwane township of Mamelodi, east of Pretoria. It is cheap to live there but there are no services. Nonetheless, though stringent, it is not an intolerable environment. In a series of maps, she illustrated how dwellings, work, earnings and transport interact. These vivid maps speak for themselves. Two are reproduced here.

Policy needs to be worked out with constant attention to realities on the ground. For this, detailed case-by-case research is required. When new housing is planned, transport should be much more closely considered than has often been the case.

Transport subsidies, enabling more affordable access to jobs, may help – though it is mainly the working poor who would benefit. There is certainly no way that all the poor who might wish to do so could inhabit the centres of cities.

These are difficult questions, going to the heart of contemporary South Africa’s political economy, that require intensive and continuing consideration.

A respondent to one of Cross’s papers, Mr Ahmed Vawda from the Presidency, focused on the markets, networks and hierarchies that mediate the demand for and supply of housing. The government is often caught flat-footed by markets – for instance, informal rental and ownership – which may develop without its knowledge or intervention.

Housing officials need to be retrained and reskilled to operate in this fluid environment for which their training, experience and administrative mind-set does not prepare them.

People are making varied choices about what they require in different places, and builders of informal settlements race far ahead of any official action or approval.

Cross’s work, he said, begins to indicate how to understand this new and protean world and how it might be possible to learn from and about it and act in relation to it. To move from administering subsidies to finding flexible ways of responding to complex and changing environments is a huge task to ask of public servants.