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Bridge Beat

Aug 15, 2019

DURBAN DIARIES #2: Using housing to heal racial divides

“The Most Livable City in Africa by 2030”—that’s eThekwini (Durban)’s tag line. If that is not audacious enough, municipal officials are using social housing as a catalyst for redevelopment in the Inner City as a big part of the plan to get there.

But eThekwini’s challenges are not like any other place. 

The Inner City is beach-bound with some high rises and sports facilities, while the bulk of the population lives in townships outside the City. We visited there today and I was taken aback by the vastness of the townships – rolling hills of homes that seem to go on forever.

The physical legacy of Apartheid, the express separation of peoples based on race, is very present across South Africa, and that is the context within which municipal officials have to tackle housing. It’s not just about housing, it’s about trying to heal divides that remain from racist urban planning.  


Rolling Hills of Housing as far as the eye can see – The Townships outside Durban


I am in Durban with three other Canadians lending our expertise to municipal officials in Durban. The exchange was organized by Rooftops Canada to provide external feedback to Durban and let us share our Canadian experiences for their plans. Last night, the South Africans provided a reception in our honour and I was tasked with thanking the South Africans for hosting. This is what I said:

Developing housing is hard in almost any circumstance. Ask any developer in any part of the world. But developing housing is even harder because the housing developer has to live at the uncomfortable intersection of two worlds.

The first is the housing world. In this world, the governing principle is the right to adequate housing, enshrined in the constitution of South Africa. The housing world is passionately committed to providing housing to everyone. [Note to Canadians: The right to adequate housing is now also part of Canadian law, though it’s not enshrined in our Constitution.]

The second is the development world. In this world, the governing document is the pro-forma. That is, does the development make financial sense? The numbers in the pro-forma are dispassionate and apolitical. The numbers are what they are and they have to work to make a development go ahead. In other words, the housing development has to make money for the developer.

A housing developer has to reconcile those worlds. But that is as true for anyone building housing anywhere in the world. Since coming here, I’ve learned it’s even harder in South Africa because the context is unique.

Where else is housing development also a key component to redressing the spatial and personal inequalities created by Apartheid – 50 years of deliberate racial segregation? For that matter, where else are government officials former insurgents? Although Apartheid officially ended in 1994, it is still within the living memories of active members of government. One of our presenters had once tried to blow up the refinery he was now showing on a PowerPoint presentation. Seriously, that’s inconceivable to the Canadian ear.

But here’s something else I have learned – eThikwini has the people to pull this off. They are as committed, passionate, and audacious enough to meet the challenge and we Canadians are honoured by the chance to help them do so.


Here I am thanking my amazing hosts.

Finally, here’s something cool from South Africa:  Women’s Day is a statutory holiday. We all think that is pretty neat, and an important reminder that even that struggle is not over. Some of my colleagues think it would be even better if only women would have the day off. The disagreement breaks on gender lines.

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