By: Lindokuhle Mnisi, Executive Chairman
The skyline of South Africa’s townships is rapidly changing; giving a number of previously disadvantaged communities a whole new look and feel.
Communities that came to being as part of the previous government’s spatial planning are going through swift gentrification processes, especially the townships within South Africa’s big metros. Depending on a number of factors and point of views, this phenomenon may be seen as a positive and/or a negative thing.
Many aspects of the gentrification process are desirable and may be positive in a sense that nobody in their right state of mind would be opposed to seeing reduced crime, new investment in buildings and infrastructure, and increased economic activity in their neighborhoods.
The negative side is that, unfortunately, the benefits of these changes are often enjoyed disproportionately by the new arrivals of wealthier people (white flight), while the established residents find themselves economically and socially marginalized.
But first and foremost, what is gentrification?
Gentrification is a process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste. It is the process of changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses. These are the growing trends that are evident within South African townships.
Areas that used to be regarded as informal settlements, shack dwellings, squalors and what South Africans call Skwatta Camps are now gradually upgrading into mini suburbs with formal building structures and proper infrastructure. In recent years, there has been lots of new housing developments in the townships (i.e Clayville in Midrand); giving the working class opportunities to own properties within more developed, safe and clean parts of the townships.
These new developments bring to the townships a more middle-class taste and a suburban look and feel; a move that becomes a great attraction for the working class that can afford to take up bonds with financial institutions.
The alarming aspect of this great improvement of living conditions in the townships is that the owners or developers of these wonderful developments are usually NOT the indigenous residents. They are predominantly wealthy white people who use their financial muscle, know-how and skills to capitalise on an opportunity in these poor communities.
To this day, this phenomenon (gentrification at large) has had a negative impact on indigenous township businesses. In the past, Spaza shops, barber shops, hair salons and tailor shops etc used to be owned by township entrepreneurs. The influx of our brothers and sisters from other countries increased competition with their establishments and subsequently took over those Billion Rand industries; leaving indigenous township entrepreneurs as mere customers, clients or employees.
To further elevate the high-jacking of the township economy came the rapid increase of shopping complexes, malls, centres and business outlets that are built within the predominantly black communities. Big businesses like Shoprite, Boxer, BuildIt, Builders, KFC and Kitchen Licken, who used to operate more in towns and cities have now infiltrated the townships and contributed massively to the demise of existing businesses owned and controlled by indigenous residents. The franchisees are usually not from the township in which the franchise is erected.
South African townships need to be decolonised and freed from the systematic traps they find themselves in. The fight against systematic oppression and marginalisation is too far from over; that is why big businesses have swallowed all establishments by indigenous township entrepreneurs.
That is why to this day there is still less than 10% black participation in South Africa’s R5.8 trillion Real Estate sector and too much red tape, systems and processes make it difficult for black entrepreneurs to flourish in industries they could own as a majority in a country. It is embarrassing that an industry as critical for wealth creation, Real Estate, is dominated by 10% of the population. The wheels of transformation are moving extremely slow in this regard.
Even worse, in the townships, the wealthy are about to take over the R10 Billion backroom rental industry by targeting poor people who have enough spaces to build cottages/rooms in their yards. This is done on a 90/10% split shared between the developers and the property owners; thus dominating the poor and taking over the only real estate industry that gives consistent earnings to township home owners.