Bulelani Qolani and the problem of urban land reform

Many South Africans watched in horror as a naked man, Bulelani Qolani, was manhandled out of his shack by officers of the Anti-Land Invasion Unit in Cape Town on July 1.

The City of Cape Town had sent law enforcement officers to demolish shacks at a site called eThembeni, near Empolweni, in Khayelitsha.

There are conflicting reports of what exactly happened.

But even if we believe the City of Cape Town's account of the event, we have to ask ourselves why someone would go to such great lengths to stay in substandard housing without any municipal services.

His lodgings did not qualify as decent or dignified.

It is prudent to dig deeper and investigate the larger context of why such a thing might happen.

The desperation is the salient point, and so we have to look at the larger issues at play in the interaction, no matter which version of the event is true.

I believe there are a number of interconnected issues that need looking at, which created the conditions for what happened at the eThembeni informal settlement.

The first is the rapid migration from rural areas and small towns to major cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town where young people search for better job opportunities.

Many of the intrastate migrants who eventually settle in our cities will often be products of a poor education system, where only half of all pupils who enter Grade 1 matriculate and where only 78% of Grade 4s can read for comprehension.

When combined with our restrictive labour laws, this means many of those young people have to settle for piecemeal jobs with very little opportunity to gain real workplace skills, experience, or the potential to earn higher wages.

And that's assuming those young people can even get piecemeal jobs.

Ultimately, this means those young people are caught in a poverty trap where they cannot access adequate and dignified housing.

There is a lot of research, including a 2017 systematic review of 15 studies published by Jessica Rea and Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington of the London School of Economics, that shows how poverty traps reduce the "mental bandwidth" of people and leaves them vulnerable and susceptible to bad ideas.

Thus, even if Bulelani Qolani's humiliation was indeed staged, it came out of a specific context and general history and as more and more young people intra-migrate into our major cities, this sort of conflict will escalate and perhaps even grow violent.

Desperation and opportunistic politicians who debase real issues around land reform and justice for their own political ends drive this conflict.

This is not to say that land invasions are in any way acceptable.

But these invasions and the conflict surrounding them has a context which will immiserate everyone involved, including legitimate homeowners and renters who are victimised by them.

So, then the question becomes how these issues could be dealt with holistically and humanely?

This mess is a hangover from apartheid but also a 26-year broad government failure in the making.

It will take time to untangle this disarray, but we can break it into its constituent parts and suggest remedies.

The first would be to deregulate the labour market. Countries like Taiwan and New Zealand have demonstrated the benefits of labour deregulation, the incremental gains that came with it and the eventual and steady rise of wages.

Young people need to be able to access jobs where they can gain skills and experience and perhaps even parlay that into their own future township business ventures.

This is especially important in light of the many young people who have not matriculated from high school.

It also requires well-thought-out pathways for those who've been out of the labour force for some time.

The second would be to look at the education system itself.

In 2019, the government spent an average of R15 963 a pupil a year in the public education system.

It could look at carefully introducing a school voucher system, weighted for factors like parental income, per capita income of the neighbourhood the school is in and other salient factors.

This should be bolstered by Anthea Jeffrey's proposal that companies earn Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged points for funding the private schooling of poor children.

The third would be to centre the land question in urban areas.

This is a question of how urban land use policy can be used to strengthen land and property rights among the most disadvantaged South Africans.

Strengthening property rights is essential, because the main way working class and middle-class people around the world build generational wealth is through their homes.

When young people are educated and have access to jobs, the next piece of the jigsaw (especially considering our unjust history) is fair and equitable access to land.

This enables people to build good, quality and affordable housing and begin to build generational wealth.

The issue of affordable housing can also be left to the market. There are promising signs in Cape Town itself through a company called UBU.

Their slogan, "build it slowly", encompasses a community-involved process of people being able to build their own houses using materials like sandbags and even the zinc used for informal settlement structures, which can be upgraded as households earn more money.

UBU’s process has been rubberstamped by Habitat for Humanity.

Another promising company is the Port Elizabeth-based Moladi, which has a global footprint, but oddly with very slow uptake in its native South Africa.

Despite the often unfair bad press that free market capitalism gets in South Africa, a combination of humanity, compassion, smart policy and unleashing the market can certainly and incrementally chip away at the conditions that produced the horror show we saw in Cape Town and often see in our big cities.

It can be done.

This article was first published on City Press on 13 July 2020
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