By Nahungu Lionjanga

On November 8, 2018, I attended a dialogue hosted by The Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Hanns Seidel Foundation to unpack and broaden discussions around the policies and concept of inclusive housing. In addition to this, the Mandela Initiative (MI) report was launched, which was the outcome of a six year long Think Tank aimed to identify the extent and reasons for the persistence of the seemingly systematic triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment. Through engagements with various communities, the 32-member Think Tank identified possible reasons for the disparity between the post-1994 “policy ambitions” and the lived realities of the majority of South Africans on the ground, and provided recommendations on how to narrow this gap by “eliminating poverty and reducing inequality”. The outcome of this exercise is a beautifully compiled report, intermittently decorated with compelling photography from some of the best visual storytellers in the country. Their art depicts the difficult spaces and circumstances occupied and endured by the urban poor. The final MI report can be found here: http://www.mandelainitiative.org.za/research/final-report.html.

The inclusive housing dialogue kicked off with a panel discussion facilitated by Sumaya Hendricks. The knowledge-rich panellists were Meshack van Wyk (the MMC for housing in the City of Johannesburg), Nomzamo Zondo (Director of Litigation at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute SA), and Margot Rubin (Wits University & NRF Research Chair – Spatial analysis and Planning). Margot profoundly and poetically defined a Just City as one that “gives its citizens the ability to aspire”. This triggered in me the saddening thought that poverty and inequality rob its victims of the ability to aspire for anything beyond their basic rights: a roof over their heads, sufficient food, water, and mere human dignity.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world with an income Gini coefficient of roughly 0.7 and a far more heart-wrenching wealth Gini coefficient of 0.90 – 0.95. In 2015, 30.4 million South Africans (55% of the population) lived below the upper bound poverty line of R992 per person per month. According to Nomzamo, if a person earns less than R3200 per month in Johannesburg, he/she cannot live anywhere legally. She went on to say that when we speak of inclusive housing, there are two crucial considerations to be made: 1. Ensure that the urban poor who are already accommodated in the inner city remain there, and 2. Who else are we including and in what order? She maintains, and I strongly agree, that we cannot provide for the poor by taking away from the poor. Margot reinforced the importance of thinking beyond inclusive housing to inclusive development, ensuring that we provide an enabling environment for the poor in all respects – affordable and accessible public transport, access to basic services, employment opportunities and so forth. The growing need to deconstruct the silos in which we operate, particularly when addressing multi-dimensional issues such as poverty and inequality, is not a foreign notion and it is often reiterated in spaces such as these; I think it is about time we start seeing more collaborative approaches and reaping their rewards. The MMC, as a government official, ordinarily received some of the most challenging questions in the room, however, he acknowledged that policy implementation needs to be improved and our policies need to be more people-centred.

I appreciate the work being done, not only by organisations but also by communities and the people on the ground committed to bettering their communities. The principle of “sweat equity” was raised, which suggests that the direct involvement by community members in projects that uplift their communities provides them with an imperative sense of ownership and belonging. The Nelson Mandela Foundation continues to do an excellent job at creating safe spaces for necessary dialogue. Through thought-provoking discussions, such platforms provide us with unfiltered exposure to the harsh realities of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. These are the reminders we all need that we can, in fact we must all act, in any capacity, to contribute towards bettering the lives of the poor and reinstating to them what is rightfully theirs: the ability to aspire.