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Reimagining the township economy

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Reimagining the township economy

2nd June 2017

By: Sydney Majoko

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Whether one considers it as being positive or negative, the theme of radical economic transformation has been thrust into our political discourse. That the term has not been clearly defined by its proponents does not mean it cannot be used in the exchange of ideas about our socioeconomic issues.

One person who has taken the theme and run with it is TVET College Debate Championships founder and convener Lukhanyo Vangqa. In an article published on the Huffington Post (South Africa) website, he suggests that, in the township setting, radical economic transformation should mean “imagining townships into what they should be”.

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I have noted before in this column that apartheid spatial planning left all townships burdened with the challenge to use whatever little space is available with maximum efficiency to allow the township economy to thrive. Vangqa suggests that spatial planning is something we must continue to live with and that the township economy can be reignited through radical thinking. What if the proposed move of Parliament from Cape Town to Pretoria happened but, instead of using the Tshwane city centre to house it, a surrounding township was selected and Parliament moved there? Parliament in Mamelodi, Atteridgeville, Tembisa or Alexandra Township – now that is radical thinking.

It is time innovation associated with the township economy moved from the consistent ‘first township in the country to do this’ to a point where we do what we would have done in town without wanting to make a particular township unique. To take Vangqa’s imaginative example even further: What if a leading South African company chose to locate its head office in Eldorado Park or Orange Farm? Of course, it would be inconvenient for the company and its employees to drive on badly maintained roads to get to work. It would also mean that crime levels would have to be reduced to ensure that all those people coming to do business at the ‘big’ company in the township are safe. Who benefits? Everyone. And the terrible spatial planning becomes secondary.

It is amazing how one small decision can change everything. Just over ten years ago, I approached a well-known multinational security company with a request to install an alarm system in my business in a township and the curt response I got was: “Our company does not install security systems in the townships.” I had to settle for far inferior security products with very little or no after-sales service.

Fast-forward ten years later and a salesperson from the very same multinational hunts me down to install a “free alarm system which you’ll only start paying premiums on two months from now”. It took one small decision by someone higher up to realise that security works the same in town and as in the townships. I am certain the company’s balance sheet had a couple of zeros added because someone chose to ‘reimagine’ how they could service businesses in the township economy.

No, things have not suddenly changed because there is a certain leak-detection company that “does not service townships”. Businesses with exorbitant water bills in the township economy have to continue to make do with labour-intensive leak detection methods until someone sees the light. Radical economic transformation must be imagined in such a way that it can be used to easily duplicate essential business services that are available in the mainstream economy so that they are equally available in the townships.

These ‘reimagined’ townships will not magically happen on their own; it will take brave and bold decisions on the part of government to have the political foresight to see that townships cannot be wished away. One of the best ways to turn them into economic nerve centres is to move away from what is there to what could be.

The social cohesion that we need so much, that we have always based the South African Rainbow Dream on, can only be achieved meaningfully if real estate in the townships appreciates enough in value to allow the owners the freedom to access services in the mainstream economy. That value appreciation will only happen if enough mainstream economy businesses and institutions relocate to the townships. Bold decisions are required.

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