Top-down planning the real villain

7 02 2009

Source: Centre for Public Participation

In spite of the Joe Slovo and Khutsong disasters, it seems the new elite is still intent on pushing its own agenda, writes Imraan Buccus

National attention remains fixed on the unlovely aftermath of Polokwane and the electricity debacle. At times like this we often forget the ordinary people who keep the country going, and in whose name most of the major battles continue to be fought.

The old Swahili proverb about the grass suffering when the elephants fight has become something of a cliché, but certain things do bear repeating.

Last week it was reported that a baby had been killed by a rat in the Kennedy Road settlement in suburban Durban. This vision of hell is difficult to reconcile with the constant focus of that city’s leaders on casinos, theme parks and stadiums. The old story that these elite projects will drive economic growth that will uplift the poor cuts no ice.

There is nowhere in the world where elite projects have done much more than enrich the people who get the contracts to build and manage them. Every time I hear someone talk about how a stadium or theme park will save us, I can’t help thinking about Ngugi wa Thiongo’s brilliant Wizard of the Crow.

In this novel, a paranoid dictator throws all his country’s meagre resources into constructing the tallest building in the world, which he calls “Marching Heaven”.

Of course as resources flow into the concrete instantiation of his manic ego, they are sucked out of the hands of ordinary people, leading only to a phallic excess of bad taste amid profound misery. I’m not the only one to have a nagging suspicion that many among the new elite that is pushing out Mbeki’s allies after Polokwane are after little more than their own piece of the Marching Heaven action.

Given the profound nature of our social crisis, our politics should be about putting the people, real ordinary people, at the centre of public life. But there are scant signs of our own Evo Morales (the popular leader of Bolivia) emerging from the new order. There are, for that matter,scant signs that a number of credible civil society leaders are getting the respect they richly deserve. It seems the government is set to continue to plough ahead with its tendency to plan and implement its own projects, rather than to engage in a real partnership with its people.

We have two major disasters to caution us against top-down policy making. The first, of course, is Khutsong. The second is the housing crisis in Cape Town. The government decided that people in the Joe Slovo settlement should be moved from the N2 freeway before 2010. They decided to move them to Delft, 30km away. But the 6000 residents of Joe Slovo have refused to accept forced removal on the grounds that they were promised houses where they lived and that they need to be in the city to be close to work and schools.

At the same time the residents of Delft, living in overcrowded conditions, have simply seized the houses to which the government intended to move the Joe Slovo residents. Houses had been promised to them initially and they desperately need housing in their community.

Meanwhile the government has promised the land on which the Joe Slovo settlement sits to a developer who, in turn, has raised capital for it from banks.

This is a disaster that could have been avoided if solutions were negotiated directly with communities rather than imposed on them from above. Without exception every instance of genuinely successful public housing provision is based on democratic planning partnerships between governments and community organisations.

Two of the most famous examples are Naga City in the Philippines and Curitiba in Brazil. In Durban there is the risk of another disaster. The stand-off between shack dwellers and the city that was rumoured to be heading towards resolution last December seems to have reverted to open conflict.

Shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo took the city to court to stop illegal evictions once again, and once again it won a court interdict. It seems clear that shackdwellers in Durban are just as unlikely to accept forced removals to places like Park Gate that are as far out of that city as Delft is in Cape Town.

But there are no signs that the city is willing to break from its top-down planning model. The partnership model seems to be reserved for its own Marching Heaven projects. But while up to a third of the city’s population lives in a hell where children are eaten by rats and burnt in fires, it’s unlikely that the poor will care which elite is marching to which heaven. Poverty is a crisis. It must be addressed as urgently as any other humanitarian emergency. But it also has to be addressed on the basis of respect and partnership.

Without that partnership, even the best-intentioned projects can do more harm than good. The simple fact of the matter is that governments need to work with people, not for people.

Top-down planning, whether undertaken by the World Bank or socialist governments, has never produced a decent society. If the commitment coming out of Polokwane was about genuine people’s participation in decision-making rather than a circulation of elites, I’d be resting a lot easier.

As it is, these are not easy times.

** Imraan Buccus is a political researcher and PhD fellow in the Netherlands. He is also co-author,with Janine Hicks, of a chapter on inclusive democratisation in a new book titled Consolidating Developmental Local Government –Lessons from the South African Experience, published by UCT Press(2008).

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