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Neighbourhood transformation the antidote to ‘junk status'

/ 20 April 2017 at 1pm

Geoffrey Bickford

South Africans are still reeling from the recent downgrade of our global investment rating to "junk status" at a time of significant international and national uncertainty.

General trust levels are low and it’s easy to feel debilitated. But there is perhaps no better time to focus on the areas that have the most intimate impact on our lives -- our neighbourhoods. It is here, where we live, that surely we can feel empowered enough to rely less on sets of business or political elites to ensure our prosperity. 

People rallying together and asking how to make a neighbourhood a better place is a great starting point. As all the rhetorical fodder emerges around "this is not the South Africa Madiba envisioned’ we should ask ourselves if that reality is evident in our own neighbourhoods, in areas in which we have actual influence.

Are our neighbourhoods representative of the non-racial, democratic, mixed-income South Africa Madiba envisioned? Are they places where all South Africans find expression, connection and have a sense of belonging?

Transformation begins with "ordinary" South Africans who are willing to explore and reflect on their own compliance in the perpetuation of a segregated, unequal and corrupt South Africa, but, more importantly, their own commitment to changing it. Each person needs to be a leader in their own community. The mantra WWMD (What Would Madiba Do) might be a useful way to go. It is a thought because one thing is for certain, the days of relying on a single leader to steer us home are gone, long gone.

South Africa is constantly at odds with itself, it often seems. As we struggle to live up to the promises of 1994, our current position is part of our own journey -- our reality, our creation, our everyday lives.

Of course the current political landscape doesn’t aid efforts to realise a transformed South Africa. However, what is likely to change and how assured are we that future leaders will be there to set us on the right path? The reality is that we don’t because after the euphoria of post-1994 liberation we have entered an era in which politicians are no longer fighting for transformation, they are mere politicians, clinging to power.

So how do diverse and differently positioned ordinary South Africans drive transformation?

Well, perhaps it is about interrogating our own everyday activities and investing more time in getting to understand our sets of neighbours and community members -- the shopkeeper, the shopkeeper’s assistants, the waiters, the domestic workers, the informal traders, the trolley pushers collecting waste. Where do they live, what is their experience of the neighbourhood?

Also think about how you travel, whether you can walk safely. How much water you use, how much electricity you consume? Do we know what constitutes a good consumption level or what a transformed neighbourhood looks like in South Africa?

Think about the impact of your individual or household-level actions on those around you and how they shape your neighbourhood environment. Then ask, "So what does this mean and what can I do about it?"

If we truly want a transformed South Africa then these are some of the questions that need to be asked. In this time of uncertainty and disappointment, it becomes easy to point fingers and blame others. My commitment is to focus on the local, to look for things I can change about myself, and to invest my energy and emotion into making my neighbourhood a better place for both residents and visitors.

The scale at which we live is what matters the most and what we feel most intimately. This is where a groundswell change can be achieved and where a more resilient civil society can be formed to cope better with what it will mean to be living in a "junk status" economy.

Let’s get out and talk about what transformation means for our neighbourhoods and lead the charge towards a better South Africa ourselves.

Geoffrey Bickford is a programmes manager at the South African Cities Network.