Words by | 25 Sep 2021

EP: Edgar Pieterse (African Centre for Cities)
MS: Mark swilling (sustainability institute)
AB: Andrew Boraine (Cape Town Partnership)
GG: Gita Goven (ARG Architects)
MS: David Schmidt (Consultant)
CS: Catherine Stone (City of Cape Town)
MM: Mokena Makeka (Makeka Design Lab)
TT : Tau Tavengwa (African Centre for Cities)


EP: The purpose of this discussion is to try and see if we can come to some kind of a conclusion about what it will take in the political system in terms of institutional trans- formation, in terms of the public debate, to get sufficient traction in Cape Town to begin to scale up some of the ideas that are represented in Counter-Currents. We thought it would it be good to give people around this table, who have all fought against the odds to imagine alternatives, get change going and who understand all the blockages re- ally well, to share ideas about what some of the blockages are and how we could overcome them. My hope is that this will open up more realist strategies to achieve radical goals like the many initiatives explored in this volume.

AB: In his chapter, Mark asks of the question, “if we’re going to get beyond business as usual thinking and practice, where’s that going to come from?” He rightly disaggregates how conventional property development and market relations and financing of that work, although I don’t know why he expected that would ever be a solution anyway, other than business as usual. So it’s a bit like setting up a straw dog and then shooting it down. But we’ll forgive him that one because he obviously trying to open up a debate by looking at both the private sector and the public sector to determine where transformative change may emanate from because it is obviously not coming from the public sector. Recently there have been some spectacular public sector failures, for example, the N2 Gateway housing project. Mark also refers to some relatively small community examples but the biggest community led project in the last 15 years that has also been a colossal failure, is District Six. It is the premier community led project and it has not worked. And the people in the project take great pride that it’s led by the community but it has not delivered anything that different people wanted it to deliver. So again, given that this one community-led initiative has also not worked, where is the drive for change going to come from?

I’m just responding to Mark’s chapter here because he raises the question of partnerships and I want to pick up on that. I read an article by Ralph Hamman and col- leagues analysing what the critical success factors in partnerships are and why they sometimes produce something more than that sum of its parts. Two points that he I found quite helpful. They talk about managing cooperation and conflict within the same relationship. In other words partnerships are not always a win-win situation. There are different power relations and different interests and sometimes they compete against each other. They have a term called critical cooperation, which means you’re committed to the same way of working but not necessarily thinking along the same path. But through that way of working things are generated, often through tension, rather than just always looking for the win-win. One of the critical success factors that they identify is the importance of informal relationships. No matter what the formal rules are, if you don’t have informal relationships between the partners, it doesn’t seem to work.

Secondly, the ones that seem to work best have the right social capital, in other words, the right people. So the personalities to work across silos, to work across boundaries, to work across institutions, to be open rather than closed and things like that. Strong social capital often fosters flexibility, which is important because a lot of the formal institutions are characterised by inflexibility, both private and public, and something has got to be the agency for flexibility and then build in institutional learning.

GG: I find it interesting that you refer to District Six and the N2 Gateway as primary examples of failure because if one looks at the processes for both of them, which I’m not overly familiar with, the question I would be asking is if those extraordinary opportunities were underpinned by the conditions to support extraordinary outcomes? I don’t know whether it was. So in a sense, I think, there was this idea that something amazing could have happened but we didn’t know how to underwrite it. In the South African context, having come through the history that we’ve come through, we should have been creating the foundation for these opportunities quite carefully.

Some of what David talks about in his chapter is re- ally interesting because you can’t wish away the kind of mindset that people have when they engage around the table. What is the kind of vision and values-driven process that actually can be flexible and can be responsive, as opposed to one that’s procedurally determined? So I haven’t heard much about whether that has come through. I know there has been conflict management and various other things but I’ve understood it as being much more re- active than proactive. I think District Six is a little bit different but the N2 Gateway, which has been mired with trying to work out intergovernmental conflict and contradictions.

So if one looks at these sorts of aspects, I think we do need to identify the kinds of projects that are going to make a difference, but then you’ve got to really create the foundational systems that will make it a success.

DS: One story I’ll pick up on relates to the leadership question. Before the metropolitan government was introduced in 2000, there was a Unicity Commission with representation across political parties from the sev- en local government authorities in Cape Town at the time. In early 2000 the Unicity Commission has a work- shop on the future direction of the city. Edgar and Andrew were there. Typically, at the workshop, when politicians and officials were asked, what are the strategic priorities for Cape Town? They would come up with: spatial segregation, good pub- lic transport, crime, poverty, and so on. However this one workshop was rather interesting because all the chief executives of the seven local councils and quite a number of the politicians from the different parties were there. At this meeting, things shifted a little bit. What transpired was that, the vision, social disfunctionality and leadership were the three reasons why we found it quite difficult as Cape Town to realise our potential. The greatest of these three was leadership. That’s really what I try to explore in my chapter. I also look at our ambivalence as a city to each other. In a way we’re this city that’s always caught between, one the one hand the desire for unity. We’re really big on unity. For exam- ple look at our literature, the notion of “for all” is often very prominent. On the other hand, there’s this very strong culture of undermining each other and scapegoating. These two impulses are constantly in tension.


Taking on the “spheres” mindset, we are willing to partner, be open to others, be collegial and adopt a non- partisan stance versus a dogged insistence that this and that is my role; essentially the tiers or hierarchical mindset that promote boundaries and silos.

At the core of my chapter is the idea of adaptive leadership – leadership as therapy. Where the role of leader- ship seeks to address the question, how do we create that containing space where we can be honest with each other? Where we can pose the questions rather than answers so that we all, in a way, collectively con- tribute to mindset change. I really think our challenges in Cape Town aren’t, fundamentally, how to de- liver housing or how do we develop District Six or how is the transport system going to run? These are important but there’s a more fundamental set of questions related to the fact that we are fundamentally a divided city and a society where different people understand what’s go- ing on very, very differently, making purposive action very difficult.

MM: Innovation relates to this is- sue of leadership raised by David. In David’s chapter he speaks about the difference between “tiers” and “spheres” of government, with the latter recognised as a constitutional innovation because it shifts the way we think about institutions, and their interactions. However, one of the problems we have, in terms of the Western Cape, is we are not be- ing innovative enough in our interpretations of leadership in a rigid institutional context. So the assumption is that the leader will solve everything and the community stands back. In the case of Oude Molen to be very blunt, in many respects I think incredible innovation and leadership was provided both at a strategic level, and at a technical level. Where it collapsed was, in some respects, at provincial level. The requisite leadership was not forthcoming. Very often when people think of projects it’s expected that innovation is a purely design orientated exercise, whereas innovation is also about institutional form, structures, and logic. And when you have a situation where you have consultants and the client both performing effectively in their own particular spheres, I think you get progress. But you find that you are running up against a culture of rules, hierarchy and negativity. So many government officials will give you ten reasons why something can’t happen, but they will struggle to give you one reason why some- thing can happen.

It’s about a can-do attitude that looks for solutions to find a way. An interesting metaphor is if you think of Canadian loggers who take the wood down the river in a haphazard and random fashion. They have all these chunks of logs and often encounter logjams. And they have these guys, only two or three, whose job it is to jump on top of the logs and just kick the right log to free up the whole system. In some respects that is one way of thinking of what leadership can be; it’s not about say- ing that I own the river, but it’s about having the strategic wisdom to say, this and that log will unlock the other 40. This is the attitudinal shift we urgently need.

EP: We are clearly failing to create enabling conditions for projects or programmes with a lot of potential. We have to accept that we can’t do everything but rather demonstrate we can do certain things very well and over time build a portfolio of success. In this regard I think that the draft Cape Town Spatial Development Frame- work points us in the direction of some of those exceptional opportunities, e.g. turning the Athlone Power Station into a mixed-use cultural hub; creating a fantastic leisure experience at Monwabisi that will attract people from across the city, including adjacent Khayelitsha; new urban parks in the city. What would constitute enabling institutional conditions to bring these ideas to re- ality given our realities as problematised by David and Mokena?

AB: Before we even get to what those enabling conditions are, we need to agree on what the primary issue is. Is the leadership crisis the question? Is it about achieving a mindset change? Who is the “we”? Is it the Premier or the Mayor or the people?

GG: Surely, it’s a network. I like the idea of the network. It is a network and I was thinking when David was talking about adaptive leadership, about the idea of a collegiate collective. Ideally, projects are held within collegiate col- lectives where we can really brainstorm, thrash out de- tails and come back to what will work or not and actually implement projects.

MS: I’m trying to figure out a way into all these big words like “leadership”, “network” and “the enabling environment”. Let’s get more concrete. I had an interesting engagement with two MECs in the provisional govern- ment. I think they were just talking to a bunch of people about the idea of putting provisional assets into some kind of strategic initiative to leverage and drive what many people have wanted to see happen in the inner city in terms of mixed-income and mixed-use developments. The details of what they’re proposing are not what’s important for now. What is important was the question at the end that was, “so how do we make this work?” And I found myself responding by saying, “it will work if you make yourselves available to make decisions of- ten enough and quickly enough.” They were quite taken aback by this response because they assumed I would refer to some technical obstacle.

I had to explain to them that people like them initially have all this energy but would soon get bogged down in the routines and ceremony of their roles, the procedures and the layers of people who are then put in place to act as filters. This inherent dynamic in large bureaucracies is almost inescapable. The key ingredient for success is to lowering the transaction costs of getting the decision made. It’s about the decision that needs to get made under imperfect conditions, with imperfect information, all the time. That kind of consistency and follow through is often missing. Thus, even if informal networks exist, and even work well, but do not get connected into this basic requirement, they are also unlikely to achieve much.

GG: I come back again to my question, do extraordinary solutions require extraordinary processes? Through the work that we’ve been doing with various municipalities in supporting them with their Human Settlement Plans and Spatial Development Frameworks, what you constantly come back to is that people’s delivery is measured against their key performance indicators (KPIs). Because delivery processes have to be bureaucratised in terms of the management, these indicators of drive priorities and performance. However, these indicators focus on the generic functions and can be counter-productive to the realisation of special project that require unconventional actions. Unless these KPIs are adapted to reflect the relationship- and process-intensive work that goes with delivering complex, multi-dimensional projects, we are unlikely to see effective delivery.

CS: My dilemma is that I’m a bit reluctant to advocate an approach that prioritises special projects or initiatives because then you will always allow business-as-usual to carry on, but simply adorned with these special initia- tives. The dynamics that play out are quite interesting. For example, the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) programme is a very exciting pro- gramme, but there’s a lot of commitment to keeping it out of the system because they know the system will suffocate it, and that, for me, is the greatest tragedy. What we should be doing is mainstream the innovations found in the VPUU programme, especially how they work with poor communities to prioritise and drive interventions.

The proliferation of special purpose vehicles (SPVs) seems to me to be a problem. I think there are more than 20 SPVs at a provincial level and they are all focussed on fighting for their piece of the pie. What we really need is a complete change in governance that accepted that processes need to take time, require lot of engagement and you’re not going to see fast results, but you’re building a relationship and people. This implies a fundamental change in how we define and thing about leadership and effective institutions. The delivery obsesses approach has lost sight of this and is now backfiring on us gloriously.

I also want to make another comment on the N2 Gate- way because I’m not sure it is as spectacular a failure as some believe. Maybe the spectacular failure is in how we responded to it on its conclusion. Politically everyone has just run away from it. When you talk to people about their perceptions around the need for densification, the N2 Gateway has been incredible in shifting peoples’ mindsets. I’ve always held the view that, at some point, someone had to build something to get the mindset to change around what’s possible in terms of densification. Granted, the N2 Gateway might not have been the best manifestation of that opportunity, but still, I think that in the conversations that we had with communities last year they were saying to us: “if you mean densification like the N2 Gateway in Langa, then sure, no problem, that is fine.” And that, for me, is actually a success. What is a failure is how we’ve responded to it; running away instead of learning the lessons and figuring out the implications for replicability and affordability.

EP: For me, Mark’s useful unpacking of what this informal network really means in practice resonates. And I think this tension that you refer to around the special projects and mainstreaming of things, is really impor- tant. In some ways, I think, cities change when there are compelling ideas that get material form in some way or other. And cities have an incredible capacity to just re- produce themselves; for business-as-usual to persist. I think it is a bridge too far to expect to have as the agenda the full mainstreaming of interesting ideas and innovation. I think the kind of bureaucracy that is associated with the metropolitan style government makes it almost impossible, and especially with our institutional history in South Africa where we’ve had an Anglo Saxon municipal government system for 80 or 90 years. So I think, as a gut response, it is about picking a few catalytic things but then saying how do we really make these things work? So let’s shift register, let’s think about Johannes- burg Development Agency (JDA) example, and what they have been able to achieve to date.

None of the numerous small SPVs in the Western Cape have got any investment capital. They can’t make any- thing happen. They are all essentially reactive to a very defined set of interests that are within their remit. Part of our problem is we haven’t had a vehicle for delivery on the stuff that matters at a scale that can a difference to the urban system. But the problem with the JDA model and the mistake we should avoid is precisely this point about effective community enrolment. We’ve completely lost the plot on how to build citizenship and how to build the grassroots institutions that can both generate the demand for a better way of doing things, but also keep the accountability, checks and balances active. Since we don’t have well organised, focused, strategic grassroots formations that keep the municipal government and other people accountable, the politicians why transformative change is so illusive can come up with stuff that are weak. Nobody holds them accountable and there’s no political cost for fail- ing to provide leadership. Yes, we do need the delivery vehicle and it has to be around things that can animate Cape Town in a concrete way. One of the big innovations that remains lacking is a proper investment in building a thick layer of grassroots associations that are active, engaged, strategically focused, and so on.