7 biggest threats to Cape Town (and the region)

If I’m a City with a big C (i.e. City of Cape Town, the institution) manager, I’m going to have a dashboard looking at things like infrastructure and asset performance, revenue management, spend against capital programme, supply chain risks, customer satisfaction and internal HR metrics, for example.

But the city with a small c, i.e. the place, Cape Town, faces a wider range of risks. Maybe the proverbial “we” should keep a watching brief (and even roll up our sleeves) on these?

In no specific order:

  • Racism and other forms of prejudice
  • Climate change
  • Affordability and range of choice
  • Economic exclusion and dual economy
  • Gangsterism and crime
  • State failure in other spheres of government and other parts of the country
  • Known “wild cards”

(Edit: these threats are someone different to our fundamental features – like a huge portion of our population living in informal settlements, or high levels of gender based violence. These threats make it even harder for us to address these significant issues.)

1. Racism and other forms of prejudice

Surely there are ‘bigger’ things to worry about? We’ll get to the bones and the blood circulation, but if the cells of the body are at war with themselves, the body is slowly dying…

Apart from racism being morally wrong, here are some reasons it is a threat:

  • its preventing us from redressing the wrongs of the past, which like the incorrectly laid pipes in my roof are a “ticking time bomb”. From officials with racial bias telling people they don’t deserve services because they don’t need them or will damage them (I’ve worked with many wonderful officials, but have also directly witnessed this violent bullshit), to NIMBYs fighting social housing in Sea Point, to developers who lack the imagination to build multi-tenure models, to creative agencies who refuse to open the door to black creatives seeking apprenticeships… each act embeds the structure of apartheid, and makes us harder and angrier. At some point Cape Town changed from slaapstad to something a lot edgier… have you felt it?
  • it leads to less diverse workplaces, stifling innovation and productivity. This is well documented in local and global literature, and something I’ve personally had the joy of experiencing — diversity is a propeller, especially when the only thing you have in common is a passion for the cause.
  • it can lead to press that accurately represents the lived experiences of citizens, instead of the world-class image some want to sell to the world (although conversely, I think there is something to be said from owning our reality, and being a leader in the world in terms of how we can be both “open to investment” and “open to tourism”, while centering our issues, instead of brushing them away)
  • it enables more and more fracturing — we’re not only talking about misguided liberalism of the burbs, or the whites of Brackenfell, but also anti-black coloured-nationalists, and xenophobic school students. The longer we take to address the fundamental damage that Apartheid did to psyche and place, the louder the threat of violence and fascism knocks on the door.

I don’t think we’ve seen much leadership on this issue. Maybe quietly, within a few schools or churches or workplaces. Within a few small clusters of social media. We’ve had some real missed opportunities for political leaders (the MEC for Education taking the wrong side on Brackenfell, and Plato telling a racist to “shut up” instead of using it as learning moment).

Here’s something I’ve written previously on the topic of political leadership and racism:

Of course this is a challenge not only for political leaders, but all of us.

If we each take this risk seriously, we must work on ourselves, in our schools, in our workplaces, and in our community associations to ensure that histories of oppression and exclusion are understood, that biases and prejudices are named and not tolerated, and that opportunities to be radically inclusive are the goal.

I have focused on racism and touched on xenophobia.

Other forms of prejudice such as sexism, ableism and homophobia also have significant impacts on the lived experiences of individuals, access to opportunity, and design of our city. There are great efforts by universal access advocates to ensure that the city is built in ways that consider different users, for example, and efforts to ensure that blind spots about how women or other groups traditionally not counted, seen, measured or included in processes are are addressed. Next time you comment on a policy or plan, ask — how were these groups considered or included?

2. Climate change

I mean, you know, remember the drought, and those heavy buckets, and no showers and yellow pee in public toilets, and everything.

But the climate change risks are more nuanced than just the risk of running out of water. They include heat waves, extreme storms, and coastal erosion, for example.

This is an area where the City has done a lot of research and planning. They have done pretty extensive climate vulnerability mapping, to understand how both infrastructure and people might be differentially impacted in different communities. And they have developed detailed water plans, low carbon plans, green infrastructure plans, climate and energy plans etc.

Gaps I would emphasis here are a focus on food security, and ability to implement in time. Especially in the context of changing municipal finance models, and the need for local governments’ to innovate in what they regulate, what they enable, and what they do directly.

How many people at the level of business and household are aware of their vulnerability to drought, heat waves, extreme storms, and coastal erosion? What are you doing to reduce your exposure, or increase your resilience?

3. Affordability and range of choice

This of course goes hand in hand with economic inclusion.

Cost of living is a challenge in many cities. I’m talking about the cost of housing, the cost of food, the cost of rates and services, the cost of transport.

The cost of choice — how does affordability widen or narrow the range of choices available to an individual for where they live, how they move, and what they do for a living?

Wouldn’t it be a great goal as a city, that the next generation has a wider range of choices than the current? Right now it feels as if its likely to go in the opposite direction.

In order to widen the choices, we need progressive land and housing policies that enable innovation and partnerships within the market and social providers; we need to be less afraid of regulation and urban economic tools that enable us to know when to use them; and we need (I’m back there) to get to grips with new models of enable/regulate/do that facilitate a more viable financial model for the City and its citizens.

4. Economic exclusion and dual economy

Youth unemployment.

That’s it.

Skills development deals with the supply side. Of course, lets get that right — everything from aligning (free) tertiary education to demand in the economy, expanding the accessibility of colleges (what happened to that promised “biggest” Swartklip campus?), and the corporate-led digital skills programmes, apprenticeships and leveraging the ever-growing call centre industry as a pathway to a diversity of careers.

The City released its Inclusive Economic Growth Strategy for comment late last year. It is ambitious and progressive and I hope they will be able to resource its implementation with capable people and partnerships.

It has to focus on the duality of Cape Town’s reality — and recognise that for the informal and low-skilled parts of the economy, we need to regulate for where we are (high inequality, high unemployment), not where we want to be (world class) or else we will regulate people out of work (or in simple terms: stop sending law enforcement to arrest mama’s selling fruit, or young entrepreneurs with no access to legitimate business zoning).

Doing this will not put off or preclude the more sophisticated investor in technology industries. They’re here, their threat is not the informal sector, its risks 5 and 6.

As individuals and as people in businesses, we can contribute to the skills development and the muddling our way through new forms of education. We can open our doors when the black kid knocks looking for an apprenticeship.

As consumers, we can support local. Travel local.

As citizens we can ensure that we supporting mixed-use and affordable buildings so that there are appropriately zoned spaces for businesses to formalise and grow into. And we can object when we see law enforcement used against business who have no choice but to operate on the fringes because this has not yet been made possible for them.

5. Gangsterism and crime

This one hurts to write about. It hurts too many people, every single day. It has hurt me.

Despite it being a long-standing feature of life in Cape Town, there are only a hand full of people who can speak to the complexity of the issues here — the international mafia and crime syndicates, the role of the corrupt state, the fertile ground that was created by forced removals and that is created still by mechanisms of exclusion and non-belonging. The bloodiness of it all, the drugs and the poaching and the rape and the prisons and the adrenalin and the power and the community, belonging and identity. The children, the teachers and the bad-apples. The broken bottles and knives and guns and bodies buried, tossed and lying in streets. The politician who insists your son is “unreformable” and the Doctor who must stitch him up for the tenth time.

The suburbs oblivious until someone is robbed, or that coffee shop owner you know gets stabbed — something about protection money — or your domestic worker’s son gets arrested, the story doesn’t quite make sense.

The more we fail to address the other risks I list here, the more this one will grow. Gangs and syndicates will expand their foothold and grip.

What exit point is on offer for a young man in a gang? Few.

What alternatives are there for young people? Few.

What opportunities are there for gangs to grow? Many.

You do the math.

How do you address this? And what is little old you’s role?

  1. Work to prevent new gangs. This can seem counter-intuitive, but it can involve working with existing gangs. Respond pro-actively to early smoke-signals — we should have acted when people from townships said they were being harassed by new protection rackets. Now those rackets have such large income streams, they’re hard to stop. If you see a smoke signal, make sure its being responded to.
  2. Social development. More social workers, more after-school programmes, more community based food gardens, more pathways to belonging and identity and value (that also recognise that, at least for now, we aren’t able to offer every single person “a job” as an alternative). This is also an area where ordinary citizens can more easily get involved through NGOs and community networks.
  3. Deal with corruption in police and law enforcement agencies. Arrest that cop who thinks a human trafficking case is a case for the CCMA — he’s clearly in on it. I know this is a hell of a lot easier said than done. A lot of South Africans have given up on reporting issues, but would be surprised to know that there are efforts and “good guys” on the inside. See something, say something.

The WCG safety plan has a lot of other content worth engaging with for ideas on how your business or household could contribute.

6. State failure in the rest of the country

Cape exit is not the answer to this problem.

We are because the rest are. Our economy is inextricably linked to the economies of Johannesburg, Durban, Gqeberha, and the mining and agricultural economies of the whole country and region. We need those regions to perform well, and for those regions to perform well, they need basic services and good governance.

We rely on SOEs and national departments to deliver services within our city-region.

I’m tooting for the rebuild of rail. Following with interest the movements to fix Eskom, and have more localised energy independence.

“We” should definitely being doing our bit to support the rebuild of these services where we can, and ensuring that there is accountability for plans and promises made. I’m super interested in the recent announcement of a programme to support 6 municipalities to arrive at energy independence, and will cheerleading, and tracking, that like a person with something to benefit (because I do, because I live in one of those municipalities).

7. Known “wild cards”

For years, epidemiologists, futurists and strategists pointed to the inevitability of a global pandemic, but we didn’t plan for it on a scale that adequately prepared us for what we have experienced in 2020 and beyond.

There are other globally known risks, that if you raise them people regard you as distracting from the core issue, throwing in a wild card, diverting resources from more tangible needs and attempting to be a maverick.

These include large scale cyber security attacks to private or public systems we all use, global food shortages, technology wars, global debt crisis, climate shocks, and more.

“Once in a lifetime” crises now seem to happen every few years… so why aren’t we preparing for them, and structuring our global, national and local governance and risk responses accordingly?

Cape Town, having narrowly avoided Day Zero, developed a Resilience Strategy, and responded relatively well to Covid, is, despite our fundamentals of inequality and economic vulnerability, fairly well positioned to govern well through crisis. Let’s not lose that muscle memory we’ve so painfully developed — we need to take these lessons and flex them in not-so-wild-card ready systems and teams; and apply those teams to the resilience work we’ve already identified.



Archive of thoughts. Imperfect, incomplete and not assumed to be my final position. My actions speak louder than my words. Learn more: https://jodi.city

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store

Archive of thoughts. Imperfect, incomplete and not assumed to be my final position. My actions speak louder than my words. Learn more: https://jodi.city