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Social Infrastructures

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Social infrastructure is a different form of infrastructure that is created with an intention to deliver public services through processes which enhance the social capacity in communities. These public services may include healthcare, education, housing, roads and so forth; and they are usually provided by the government or an official entity to the community. Thus, social infrastructure refers to both structures and the services rendered within those structures. In the recent years it has been a challenge for South Africa to acquire best social infrastructure practices and this has led to rapid growth in inequality and poverty. Hence majority of South African universities are encouraging their students to take “social infrastructures” courses to equip them with a deepened understanding of the complexities of social infrastructures in this country. As an engineering student who recently took the SI course one intends to discuss the building blocks of social infrastructures, its challenges and its benefits in South Africa. This essay aims to consider the understanding and awareness about community engagement that one learnt from the concept of “social infrastructures”. Moreover, this essay aims to elaborate how one learned this understanding as well as how this new knowledge might help one to be a more active and engaged citizen going forward.

Urbanization is the process whereby people migrate from the rural areas to urban areas. This migration is usually caused by either pull or push factors. Push factors include natural disasters, poverty, unemployment and so forth. On the other hand, pull factors include business opportunities, recreational facilities, proximity to basic services and many more. However, in South Africa the primary driver of urbanization has been its political history. Prior 1994 cities were well taken care of more than the rural areas or the homelands. Moreover, people of the white race had more opportunities than non-white people.

Consequently, the non-white people were subjected to poverty and had to move to the cities to look for jobs. Due to the competitive market economy these migrators could not afford the rent in the cities and thus this gave rise to the formation of informal settlements. And in some instances, informal settlements were formed because of people being forcefully removed from their homes to other areas by the apartheid regime. An example for this would be District Six where according to the former District Six resident I met in my District Six off-campus class, “more than 60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were flattened by bulldozers”. He then went on to say that some people decided to leave the Cape Flats and went to places like Langa and Nyanga. The apartheid came to an end in 1994 and non-white people attained political power. “The democratic transition in South Africa was marked by a heady mix of expectation, contestation and confusion as different actors and social forces vied to shape new policies, legislation and institutions.”, said de Stage and Watson (2018). Different kinds of promises were made to the people, the masses were given hope and trusted that the new government will end poverty. However, the economic power remained in the hands of the white people since they own means of production and the land. These economic imbalances also contributed to the formation of more informal settlements since non-white people do not have land to stay at. At times the people invade the land to form informal settlements. In most cases, people living in the informal settlements are subjected to “social injustice, poverty and unemployment”. For instance, in my site visit to Nonqubela/PJS informal settlement in Khayelitsha, I learnt that the community’s main contested issues are housing, sanitation, roads and transport. The houses in this area are shacks and thus residents feel like they are vulnerable to floods. There are open drains and water channels which create an unhealthy environment for the community. Lastly, there is only one route that passes through the area and it is difficult for cars to drive into the area. The above mentioned economic imbalances can also be witnessed within the cities. For instance, in places like Cape Town station and Bree Street in the City of Cape Town, white people are more privileged than non-white people since they are invisible in the station and the station deck. Non-white people are street vendors whereas most of the whites are seen in luxurious restaurants in the cities.

In addressing all these aforementioned issues raised by urbanization, the concept of co-production is vital. Co-production refers to the process in which professionals, government officials, NGOs and community members are equally involved in delivering the public services to the civilians. The best form of co-production comprises of equality and reciprocity. Co-production or community engagement should have the following steps namely; inform, involve, listen, collaborate and empower. The entity that is providing services to the community should inform the community about the service it is planning to render, and then this entity should ask the community to be involved in rendering this service. Once the community is involved, the service provider should listen to the community’s inputs and work jointly towards achieving their collective goal. Most importantly, there should be transfer of knowledge and skills in the entire process either from the professionals to community members or vice versa. But this kind of relationships cannot be build overnight since they require both trust and time due to the complexities found within communities. The understanding of community is the basis of the best practice of social infrastructures. Community can be loosely defined as a group of people sharing life within a particular space. Thus, these people can be in smaller or larger groups and may have different interests, goals, resources and so forth. Link et al (2011, pp 6) argues that communities are heterogeneous entities and are characterized by “competing interests, large cultural variability, different attitudes towards outsiders, and unequal standards of living”. Community members often have different perspectives on various issues due to these community characteristics. Thus, both social and cultural capital shape people’s perspectives. Stalker (1996) attests to this when she says she cannot relate closely to the experiences, and thus perspectives of her students since they are from a different background to hers. It is important to realize that the heterogeneity of a community plays a key role in the process of community engagement and it can hinder this process. But if this is well understood the process can be a success. For instance, in PJS the community worked jointly with different NGOs to find solutions to their contested issues. The PJS community, together with Development Action Group (DAG) and the Architecture Sans Frontiers – UK (ASF-UK) with support from 1to1-Agency for Engagement sat down and outlined the problems existing in the area. They then drew the map of the area highlighting these problems, and they drew another map that presents how they want their area to look like in future. From this engagement the community was able to make a route that passes through the informal settlement, as there was none before. Moreover, they were able to create space where the kids can play since there was no recreational space before. But most importantly, there was an exchange of knowledge, skills, expertise, resources and wisdom between all the four parties involved in this process.

However, there is a lot of challenges of community engagement and this still puzzles me. One of the challenges of community engagement is fortifying that the community representatives are truly representing the community’s aspirations or collective goals. Link et al (2011) elaborates this with what they encountered in La Gracia, Belize with regards to a water-filtration project they had to conduct in this area. In Link et al (2011), it is said that four undergraduate students who had to conduct a water-filtration project worked jointly with a village called Water Board assuming that this board represented the community’s interests. The four undergraduates found out that the four out of five recipients were Water Board families. Thus, this was a conflict of interest. Link et al (2011) further this argument by saying “Many families were not represented by the Water Board, nor were connected to the board in any way. Communication between the Water Board and other families was limited and confused, as we saw in our meetings.”. This is a huge challenge to the process of community engagement because it happens that a lot of people are chosen to be community leaders because of their class, positions or credibility based on their personal successes. In some instances, people self-elect themselves or even when elected by the masses some leaders do not serve the mandate given to them by the people.

The second challenge is “avoiding disillusionment” while engaging the social. It is hard to avoid this because it can be a challenge to control or limit people’s expectations when embarking on the process of community engagement. But what contributes immensely on this is the failure (from professionals) to be clear and concise on what the outcome of the projects or services will be. For example, when South Africa won the 2010 World Cup Bid in 2004 the people were promised job opportunities, better services, better life and so forth; but majority of the people did not benefit that much from the World Cup in 2010. Another challenge of community engagement is the inability to create continuous governed arrangements. There are a lot of dynamic shifts in people’s lives and careers; and this can contribute negatively to the process of community engagement. For instance, if a professional decides to follow a different career path while he/she was in the middle of a certain community project it can be challenging for the person replacing that individual to gain trust from that community. Ndzendze (2012) speaks about problematizing the single story and she advises that it is toxic to report or publish only the negative stories about the informal settlements such as Khayelitsha. As mentioned in my Reflection Paper 2, Ndzendze (2012) draws from Adichie’s TEDTalk about the dangers of a single story and says that the storyteller possesses more power over the recipient of the story. And as argued by Stalker (2012) that our experiences shape our perspectives, the negative stories reported about informal settlements give people on the outside (may be professionals, private bodies) of these informal settlements a certain view of them. Consequently, these people tend to marginalize the people living in these informal settlements whenever they must engage them. While it may be true that these negative stories are for public awareness and are a cry for help, they damage the reputation of these areas. Thus, it is advisable to have a balance of both positive and negative stories about these areas.

Social infrastructure plays a pivotal role in helping a country like South Africa attain social justice for its population and it also has a positive effect to its economic development. According to Person (2016) social infrastructure lowers both social control and transaction costs since it promotes trust and inclusivity of communities. For the mere fact that communities are involved from the first stages of any services rendered to them, there will be a minimized or zero protests and hence the costs of rebuilding and renovating (retrofitting for the disabled) buildings as well as the costs of hiring and firing manpower will be lessened. Person (2016) further argues that engaging the social facilitates innovation. This occurs due to the exchange of ideas, resources, knowledge and skills that happens between different parties when participating in the process of community engagement. Moreover, social infrastructure helps with regards to the environmental concerns the world faces today. Through peer-to-peer learning one found out that engaging the social can help in reducing the greenhouse gases emissions and thus lessen the global warming impacts. In these discussions it was argued that if best social infrastructure practices are implemented and the civilians are encouraged to use public transport then the emissions will be lowered. Furthermore, an inclusive community engagement also gives all members of the community a true sense of belonging as it eradicates social isolations. McKinney (2016) argues that “it is the built environment that has the most impact on the daily activities of the people with disabilities, more especially their ability to participate in society.”. Thus, it is only through the process of community engagement that built environment professionals can know what kind of people they are catering for; and it is also through this process that they can know the impairment that these people have. Lastly, the good social infrastructure attracts both foreign and local investment and it thus boost the economy of the country.

Kabo, Day & Baillie (2009) talk about the course called “Engineering and Social Justice: Critical Theories of technological practices” and that is taught at Queen’s University, in Canada. The course is quite similar to END1019L which I recently took at the University of Cape Town. Kabo, Day & Baillie (2009) draws from Bell and say, “The goal of social justice education is to enable people to develop the critical analytical tools necessary to understand oppression and their own socialization within oppressive systems, and to develop a sense of agency and capacity to interrupt and change oppressive patterns and behaviors in themselves and in the institutions and communities of which they are part.”. As an engineering student, my understanding of community shifted from seeing community as a place “full of prejudice and discrimination” to a space comprising of people with different perspectives, cultural differences, unequal standards of living and so forth. And from this understanding of community I am now able to engage in discussions about the past, present and the future of my country. My “engineering thoughts” have now been disrupted since I took this course and as said in the above quote, I am now in a better position to understand the oppression and social injustices occurring in my country. Through weekly course readings and “in class learning” one has been able to find his positionality and identity in a variety of issues affecting our society today. Although at times I felt uncomfortable when my peers challenged my cultures and norms, I can say I have grown as a person and I understand everything come at a price. My engagement with the course was not only limited to the course material offered in class as I went to find other materials to grapple with. For instance, one could relate what has been happening in Mjondolo, Durban where the Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack dwellers) Movement are allegedly at loggerheads with the eThekwini Municipality because of land evasions and service delivery. Although thus far one has only been getting a “single story” from the media about what has been happening in Mjondolo, one can tell that there is a failure in the process of community engagement between that social movement and the government. It is issues like this that makes one think of his positionality as both the citizen of the country and future professional. Boyte (2008) advises that citizen professionals need to shift from acting as outside experts who fix problems to working collaboratively with their fellow citizens. As a future professional and a citizen, I share the same sentiments and I believe it is our responsibility as the citizens of this country to ensure that both political and economic freedom are realized.

Moreover, as a future professional I believe I have a responsibility to design projects that promotes humane ways of living. Furthermore, it is vital that we come together as future professionals in various fields of work and work together in developing our communities. And going forward one aims to learn more about various issues that affect the day to day life of South African citizens. This learning will be done through book readings and discussions with peers.

In this essay one has discussed the concept of urbanization and its causes. It has been found that South Africa’s political history is at the heart of the problems it is facing today. The consequences of urbanization in South Africa were also discussed with links to off campus classes that one took. Co-production was found to be the best solution to the contested issues around informal settlements and urbanization. As a result, some benefits and challenges to co-production or community engagement were discussed. This essay has also discussed the role citizen professionals have to be play in ensuring that South Africa realizes social justice. As Christine Gregoire said in one of her speeches “Education is the foundation which we build our future.”, one advises that we continue teaching one another about the issues that affect us and our development.

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