Washing on highway fences flags the battle for urban land - Businesslive

6 September 2020 - With the first spell of sunshine in days last Thursday, it was time to do the laundry in Constantia, the jerseys and trousers slung like hides over a stretch of fencing alongside the freeway, and a traffic sign brought into service to air a blanket too large to drape elsewhere.

Michael Morris

With the first spell of sunshine in days last Thursday, it was time to do the laundry in Constantia, the jerseys and trousers slung like hides over a stretch of fencing alongside the freeway, and a traffic sign brought into service to air a blanket too large to drape elsewhere.

Perhaps the residents of homes in the suburb had done their washing too, but you couldn’t tell for the high walls and obscuring greenery.

In the less demure residential setting of families who have set up homes in the bushes fringing the islands carved out by freeway, off-ramp and arterial connection, it’s all out in the open. Increasingly, open space is living space.

Increasingly too, as Carol Paton wrote last week, the contest over urban space is SA’s real battleground, “which will shape the future ... more profoundly than the palace politics of the ANC”.

“Since the lockdown began,” she wrote, “thousands of people have thrown themselves into the fight for land, illegally occupying public spaces, parking lots and pavements.”

Land is central to “solving the apartheid legacy”. Illegal occupations and the state’s responses “embody the central dilemma contained in the constitution: how to protect property rights while give meaning to the right of the poor to access housing”

It is a testing question, as my colleague Anthea Jeffery indicated last week, writing of the recent Cape Town high court ruling on evictions that “land and housing could increasingly pass to those most willing to use force against existing occupiers — while the poor would be least able to resist this assault on the rule of law”.

Three things the land battle demonstrates are that land reform is a pressing urban concern more than a rural one; it falls woefully short of the demands of urbanisation; and it squanders, by exclusion, the resourcefulness of people in establishing their own stake — in city, economy and society.

There are useful lessons on the fundamentals. On Sunday, Barry D Wood described in the Daily Friend the remarkable phenomenon of China’s fishing village-turned-metropolis, Shenzhen. It is hard to imagine a settlement of 30,000 people growing to 13-million in just 40 years without collapsing under the weight of colossal insufficiency.

This crude snapshot risks glossing over the problems: pollution, traffic congestion, rising costs and water insecurity, not to mention the dangers to liberty and wellbeing of centralised planning.

But the basics of Shenzen’s successes are salutary. When it was declared a special economic zone in 1980 to test the principles of a market economy, Wood wrote, it was “first to be allowed to overturn the strictures of communist economic orthodoxy”.

“Citizens were allowed to buy land. Administered prices set in Beijing were gradually abolished as market forces were allowed to determine prices. Similarly, wages were freed from state control. Foreign banks were allowed in and tax policy was used to attract investors.”

One lesson to be learnt from the public washlines of Constantia is that people will find solutions on their own, whether they are allowed to or not. The second is that economic freedom is central to harnessing the choices of people who make homes, and are resourceful enough to get their laundry done under conditions that might defeat the civilised impulses of the best of us.

Without more and better opportunities to own a stake in society, the poor will be condemned to having only a tenuous hold on impermanent, peripheral spaces, and the rest of us to the consequences of colossal insufficiency.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2020-09-06-michael-morris-washing-on-highway-fences-flags-the-battle-for-urban-land/

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