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SOUTH AFRICA: "You Cannot Keep People Away From Settling in Cities"

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Jul 1 2007 (IPS) - Population issues are in the spotlight at present with the recent release of the United Nations Population Fund&#39s annual report – and World Population Day, to be commemorated Jul. 11.

&#39The State of World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth&#39, issued Jun. 27, notes that innovative approaches are needed to address an expected doubling of populations in urban areas of Africa and Asia by 2030. "Poor people will make up a large part of urban growth…" it states.

One of the recommendations for dealing with this growth successfully is for governments to "accept the right of poor people to the city".

Is any progress being made in this regard in Johannesburg, South Africa&#39s commercial hub, which grapples with poverty and migration on large scale?

Stuart Wilson, a researcher at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies – based at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg – says the picture is mixed.

"One, we have an influx from outside the city; there is no plan to provide shelter for the newcomers in this category. Two, we have informal settlements, which the city authorities are trying to formalise now. Three, there&#39s the inner city. Here, the city (local government) is moving very slowly to provide accommodation…But they are not evicting people now," he told IPS.

These words are echoed by Neil Fraser, who runs a consultancy dedicated to the revitalisation and regeneration of the inner city.

"As the mayor said recently, we don’t evict people. We have to provide them with alternative accommodation before eviction," he told IPS, noting that the places where some lived were nonetheless cause for concern. "There are a lot of bad buildings unfit for human habitation. Some of the people in the inner city live in dangerous places."

The inner city has about 67,000 people living in 230 buildings, according to Wilson – while there are 190 informal settlements around Johannesburg, with a population of about 800,000.

Fraser believes that there is currently a small number of people who are homeless in Johannesburg: "Between 1992 and 1993 there were about 6,000. I think the figure has gone down considerably. I guess there are about 1,200 people now."

South Africa&#39s last census, in 2002, put the population of the city at 3.2 million; but Fraser estimates it may have grown to about four million.

Jean de Plessis, co-ordinator for the South African branch of the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction, an international non-governmental organisation, notes that there is little to be achieved in fighting urban migration – a view also put forward by the UNFPA report.

"Our philosophy is that it does not work to try to reverse migration. You cannot keep people away from settling in cities. It has never worked anywhere," he told IPS.

The demand for low-cost housing extends beyond Johannesburg, across South Africa, presenting additional challenges.

"Although we appreciate the increase in the housing budget…our projections indicate if we are for instance to eradicate our backlog by 2014, a funding shortfall of 102.5 billion rand (about 15 billion dollars) would exist, while if we attempt to eradicate the backlog by 2016 the funding shortfall would increase to 253 billion rand (about 34 billion dollars)," Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu told parliament last month.

According to the UNFPA report, over half the global population (of 6.7 billion) will be city-dwellers from next year.

"This wave of urbanization is without precedent. The changes are too large and too fast to allow planners and policymakers simply to react…" a Jun. 27 press release quoted UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid as saying.

"What happens in the cities of Africa and Asia and other regions will shape our common future," she noted. "We must abandon a mindset that resists urbanization and act now to begin a concerted global effort to help cities unleash their potential to spur economic growth and solve social problems."

World Population Day will this year be commemorated under the theme &#39Men at Work&#39.

The UNFPA website notes that men are central to effective family planning, and decisions that affect the health and education of women and girls – all significant matters for population and development.

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