I recently visited a distant relative’s house in rural South Africa in search of a live-in helper who was urgently needed by someone I know who lives in Johannesburg. The most surprising part of it for me was the eagerness of people to find someone once they heard the job paid R2600 per month.

Every auntie and granny suddenly knew someone who could do a job in the big city especially when they heard this was a live-in job with perks that included their own room with an en suite shower, the same meals the family ate and access to the Wi-Fi and DSTV. There are of course very good reasons why such an income and perks would elicit such a positive response. Even before the pandemic, jobs were hard to come by. Other jobs in the city which may pay better, like being a cashier, involve paying rent to live in what may be unattractive and bleak housing, and may involve additional costs like travel and food. Those jobs also don’t come with access to DSTV or Wi-Fi. A live-in job in the city will benefit grannies and aunties who will get money sent home to buy better food with meat and vegetables rather than just pap or rice. 

This is an important story to tell and unpack because of the many layers within it. The first is that rural life in South Africa is unforgiving and brutal, and without remittances from urban areas would be a life of back-breaking labour and intense poverty. This makes slum living in the city look attractive.

It is part of the reason why many young people leave and migrate to the big cities of Gauteng, Cape Town or Durban in search of better opportunities. This is also why many can quite easily adjust to living in shacks. There is no running water or proper sanitation in the rural areas either and on the balance of things, especially for young men who do find jobs in the city, the freedom and the ability to send home money (a sign of being a man which garners respect at family gatherings) make for a better life than being stuck in the rural areas. 

These elements are never truly discussed in how public policy is shaped and how land is used in our various large cities. If the projections of the National Development Plan are to be believed, then this internal migration will mirror global trends and continue at rapid speed to the point where South Africa will be 70% urbanised by 2030. For context, the often internationally lauded and some would say Potemkin Village that is Rwanda is aiming to be 40% urbanised by 2035.

While there are legitimate concerns about low wages, mobility and living conditions on the peripheries of our major cities, these concerns are born of the country’s structural deficiencies. Innovative solutions are already being found in our major cities, as a step in the right direction.

On the subject of mobility, building back South Africa’s once excellent rail system will allow job seekers on the periphery of our cities to have a wider net in which to search out employment opportunities and reduce the cost of travel to work. Every rand counts in working-class households. There are of course excellent proposals about locating working-class people near corridors of employment, but the obvious drawback is that this will only benefit relatively few people because real estate near those corridors is rather expensive.

Specifically, on the subject of domestic workers (which includes gardeners), I have always argued that they should be treated as a tax-deductible expense which would incentivise employers to pay them more and formalise their work so they could benefit from something like the Unemployment Insurance Fund. Household worker healthcare plans such as those offered by Momentum and Discovery Health could be added to this which would mean that as many as 1.2 million extra South Africans could access quality private primary healthcare. This would be a double win as it would alleviate pressure on the public health system. These health plans start from as little as R250 per month.

As regards housing and sanitation, I believe that building on the already existing Upgrading of Informal Settlements Policy (UISP) and then actively working with private actors like charities, religious organisations and civil society groups to work with communities and innovate can yield results. While getting funding for the UISP can be tricky, as all three layers of government are involved (which means three layers of bureaucracy), the basic funding comes from two conditional grants from the Department of Human Settlements. The basic service infrastructure provided in the upgrading process is funded by the Municipal Equitable Share. The key objective of the UISP is to facilitate the structured in-situ upgrading of informal settlements, which means upgrading that takes place on the site where the community currently resides. This means that the UISP provides serviced stands suitable for the eventual construction of housing.

So, despite the posturing of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in particular and those who would seek to turn the land question into a charade about white farmers, there are at least viable plans to accommodate migration into cities and help people begin to build generational wealth through home-ownership. Serviced stands are a start. A company called UBU, started in Cape Town by a British architect, Barry Lewis, has already pioneered a plan for building low-cost housing using “sandbags and zinc”. These houses can later be converted to plastered “normal” housing as zinc walls are replaced with plastered ones. 

In conclusion, it has to be said that South Africa’s cities can be engines of profound improvement for migrants and the working class if only we build on existing structures (like the UISP), commit ourselves to innovating (like UBU) and insist on an improvement in structural issues. This would include building the rail network back up again and embracing free market policies that will encourage job-intensive economic growth. People can then earn the wages to be able to begin building their lives up, however slowly that may be. Incremental gains are still gains, even if they stretch over a long period of time. It is a lesson we are yet to learn in this country. 

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

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