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on resilience

In another reflection piece from Cape Town, I wrote about resilience in cities- the inspiration was a day when electricity was out in Langa, a black township where we lived for a few weeks. But now that load shedding– scheduled periods when electricity is out in different parts of the country- is a common thing in South Africa, this piece rings even more true.

You never miss the water till the well runs dry – A few days ago the electricity was out in Langa for an afternoon and evening. When I first realised earlier in the day that power was out, I thought, “We’ll make a plan”- much as I would have thought had the same happened in my hometown, Ongata Rongai, Kenya. But this proved to have been a bit presumptuous. It turned out that we could actually not cook supper because the stove ran on electricity, and there was no other cooking option. Had I been home, we would have used the gas stove, or the kerosene stove, or the charcoal stove, or failing all three, lit a firewood fire outside to cook with. For light we would have had 2 kerosene lamps, torches and candles. In Langa, we were lucky that my host’s daughter brought her some chicken she’d bought at the supermarket and we fashioned a meal out of this and other things that were in the kitchen. We lit three candles to use around the house and I was reminded of staying at a hostel in New Orleans during Hurricane Isaac a few weeks prior and having nothing but small tea lights for light. At least they had a gas stove there.

The lights were back before the night was over but this experience made me think again about resilience, something we discussed in class as a characteristic of urban centres in some parts of the world: the ability to bounce back, to adapt to whatever situation you happen to be in, good or bad. I did not expect non-resilience in South Africa because I compared it to my experience of Kenya, but I realise now that this is one more facet of globalisation: the spread of one notion of what a city is and how to construct it.

The courtyard created after reblocking houses in Sheffield Road, Cape Town provides an open space for the cluster of homes to play in, do chores and interact with neighbours. Image credit: SDI Alliance South Africa.

Out of sight out of mind – In the edited volume ‘Disrupted Cities‘ by S. Graham different scholars consider how much of the critical infrastructure in cities, especially in more industrialised nations is increasingly invisible. Where food and water come from for instance, and internet, telecommunications, electricity infrastructure that is buried underground. And more and more, the responsibility for the things that control and enable our lives in cities are being displaced or transferred to other actors. Primarily to city, provincial and national governments, but now more and more through them to private entities as the privatisation of the public becomes more common.

But is such a displacement something to aspire to?

Ngoja ngoja huumiza matumbo (Wait a minute! Wait a minute! harms the stomach) – In South Africa, housing and electricity for all are constitutional rights. But the waiting list for these houses and for electrical connections is very long– up to 20 years in some cases! A number of initiatives are working in this waiting space to assert residents’ options. On a site visit to Sheffield Road, a settlement in Cape Town, I learnt about reblocking– a process by which a settlement or neighbourhood reorganises itself according to resident drawn plans in order to allow for better security, to rebuild using better materials, provide public spaces in the form of courtyards, and allow for sanitation services to be put in place. All in all, enhancing the quality of life for residents of an informal settlement through reordering space.

Solar panel on a roof in Enkanini. Image credit: Sustainability Institute.

And in Enkanini, a settlement in Stellenbosch, the iShack project has lit up homes through solar in its anti-waiting belief. Residents pay a monthly fee as they would if they were connected to mains electricity and receive a battery, 2 light bulbs, a TV and mobile phone charging portals in addition to the solar panel. The fee goes to paying for maintenance of the equipment and for salaries for staff members who are from the settlement.

Sheffield Road was where I had the realisation that through displacing responsibility for housing to city and national governments, city residents were being disempowered, or disempowering themselves. Once the expectation that someone else ‘will provide’ has been created, the need to think about how to provide for oneself is taken away. In re-blocking and iShacking, the residents of Sheffield Road and Enkanini are asserting and acknowledging that they have (some) control over how they choose to live, in what kinds of houses and what kinds of neighbourhoods.

Simbiko halisimbuki ila kwa msukosuko (a bond only breaks when something strains it) – For ease of urban life, city and national infrastructure is aimed at being as coherent as possible- at smoothing out all the creases. Infrastructure that is ‘invisible’ so city residents never have to think about it is one of those ways. This quote by Bruce Mau in ‘Massive Change’ sums it up: “the secret ambition of design is to become invisible, to be taken up into a culture, absorbed into the background.”

More elaborate and developed systems make life easier for residents, but they often also mean a reduction in resilience to, especially, unexpected shocks. Shocks which have become more numerous in the face of economic and environmental changes. Such systems are more resistant than resilient. While resistance up to a point is good, without resilience a shock or disturbance greater than you can resist will floor you, and with less ability to get back up. Similar to ancient civilisations that ‘collapsed’ these large scale elaborate institutions and infrastructures can do the same.

Vegetables crated and ready for delivery- Abalimi bezekhaya’s social enterprise Harvest of Hope sells the produce from the Cape Town township farms where mostly women farmers grow it.

Usiache mbachao kwa msala upitao (don’t leave your old prayer mat for the new flashy passing one) – I see resilience as a multi-level thing: resilience on the individual scale and resilience on the institutional scale. In recent times discussions about making urban systems more resilient due to climate change have become more common. But while we focus attention on making these large scale institutions more resilient, let’s also ensure that people are resilient, that city residents can withstand shocks, or recover quickly after them, and maintain their step regardless of institutional (non-)resilience.

For example, a lot of Cape Town’s food comes from elsewhere (Brazil, European countries) yet there is a capacity to grow it in the Western Cape Province. What IS grown in South Africa is oftentimes exported, and a good majority of staple foods is genetically modified. Resilience would look like planting food in available spaces (which some residents are already doing and teaching others how to), buying food from local (organic) farmers so that they can stay in business, and avoiding exported foods that are locally available. Diversifying one’s options is a key element of resilience, as is creativity and using what you have.

Do not put all your eggs in one basket – Perhaps the spread of non-resilience is not so much the issue as is the degree of comfort with this spread; that people are happily giving up control of their lives. And while a need for resiliency and adaptability might be seen as an indication of the tenuousness and uncertainty of living in urban areas, in reality all life is tenuous (as we are so often reminded as the climate changes, exhibit: the El Niño caused floods that disrupted life in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and Accra recently). We need to reclaim humanity’s resilience for our own survival.

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