I learnt the best lessons about how human beings respond to their surroundings when I lived in Kenilworth Upper in Cape Town.

Specifically, I lived in an apartment complex near Wetton Road, a major artery that divides the more affluent Kenilworth Upper and the less affluent Lower Wynberg. If I stepped out of the Main Road gate and walked 600 metres to my right I’d end up at the Pam Golding complex that had a Pick n Pay, a Bootlegger coffee shop, and an assortment of independent restaurants and retailers. If I walked 250 metres to my left, crossing Wetton Road, I’d end up at Maynard Mall in Wynberg.

It was like visiting two completely different cities.

The walk to my right was peaceful, serene, and pleasant. The curb appeal was better, there were fewer homeless people and there was not a single fast-food outlet in sight (more on that later). Of course, some of this is just a function of affluence – lower-income neighbourhoods tend to be denser (as Lower Wynberg is compared to Kenilworth Upper), and have more renters (who are less invested in their neighbourhoods than homeowners tend to be).

The walk to my left was similar to the one on my right until I crossed Wetton Road. Immediately you cross the road you are confronted by how much busier, more unkempt, and dirtier it is. There are more homeless people too. My theory is a rather simple one. In Wynberg, there are simply more people, who create more waste that needs to be disposed of and at more regular intervals, and I believe this applies too if you consider the poorer areas on the outskirts of the city which are less dense than Wynberg.

Lower-income households tend to produce more children, have more adults living in them (perhaps different generations, or aunts and uncles) and hence produce more waste.

The issue is that even if the City of Cape Town were to schedule more waste collection days or simply carved out a waste collection ‘depot’ that allowed for a decentralised approach to waste collection where they could still keep the same scheduling, this would all cost more money, and in a lockdown-ravaged country with increasing unemployment and small business closures, and increasing rates and taxes to fund, this is unpalatable.

Both innovation and community engagement are needed to figure out solutions to manage waste and litter better. This is part of the so-called blight in lower-income neighbourhoods all over the world.

Global problem

I also shopped at the supermarket in Maynard Mall a couple of times to compare prices to the ones at the Pick n Pay in Kenilworth, and to my surprise the produce was more expensive and less fresh. This is seemingly a global problem. A study by University of California’s Nutrition Policy Institute and published in March 2018 in the journal, Public Health Nutrition, found that produce in lower-income neighbourhoods in the state was more expensive and of a lesser quality than produce in more affluent neighbourhoods.

Part of this can be explained by the fact that lower-income neighbourhoods had more convenience stores, which were typically 10-30% more expensive and had less quality control than large chain stores. But, bafflingly, the study found that there was some disparity even between large chain stores in lower-income and affluent neighbourhoods. This is tougher to answer. A cynical person might surmise that chain stores deliberately send lower-quality foods and charge higher prices because lower-income people are less likely to complain or less likely to have a reference point which would lead them to complain. It isn’t clear, but needs more investigation, particularly in our local context.

In a city as economically colour-coded as Cape Town is, it was also impossible to ignore the fact that my ‘left-hand’ experience was exclusively black and coloured and my ‘right-hand’ one almost exclusively white.

To me it was an indictment of South Africa’s post-apartheid government. A quarter of a century after the end of apartheid, all the metrics that lead to upward mobility: education, better-paying jobs, a job-intensive economy, economic growth, and homeownership have barely changed outside of the growth of a mostly Gauteng-based black middle class.

People often criticise Cape Town as racist and compare it to Johannesburg, but I think this is inaccurate.

Johannesburg is certainly more at ease with itself racially but that is more a function of upward mobility; it is a function of affluent neighbourhoods being more diverse, good schools being more diverse, corporate workplaces being more diverse and therefore the places where people congregate being more diverse.

Fourways Farmers Market is more diverse than the Oranjezicht Farmers Market (although I’d argue the Oranjezicht one is better … but I digress). It is not an insult to Cape Town to say that being black or coloured in the city is more readily associated with poverty, bad neighbourhoods and low-income occupations. It is a broad systemic failure rather than merely a ‘racist’ problem.

Granular approach

It is worth asking whether cities in this country would benefit from a more granular approach to policy.

Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty has done incredible work showing, based on neighbourhood-specific data he and other researchers have compiled, how a high rate of poverty immediately surrounding a child’s home can be stifling even if a ‘higher opportunity’ neighbourhood with good schools is only a short distance away.

It seems to me that Cape Town and indeed any other city may be better served with policy going micro and zeroing in on granular details and neighbourhood characteristics, and decentralizing how standards can be raised and indeed how communities can play a larger role in this.

The key may very well be a more decentralised, community-oriented (shared responsibility) approach that complements city services. Granted, this will likely be much harder in informal settlements and areas where there is high unemployment, and the ancillary issues around that. But innovation, community engagement and indeed civil society may offer a more comprehensive approach than simply laying it all at the city’s feet.

 [Image: John Hogg / World Bank]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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