Bogotá: The 476 year-old teenager

Clouds over Bogotá. Image: courtesy of the author.

In a country boasting outstanding economic growth after the 2008 crisis, the Colombian capital Bogotá seems to be making headlines for the wrong reasons: high-profile corruption scandals, discontent among citizens, pollution and transport issues. Founded 476 years ago and with a population of almost 8m, this city located in the middle of Colombia seems to be more like an adolescent: complex, bold, ruthless, chaotic and prone to new experiences.

Back in the 1990s, Bogotá was an inspiration for other cities. Thanks to the TransMilenio – at the time, the world’s first large scale Bus Rapid Transit system– the Bogotános were able to move quickly across the city, and citizens’ engagement grew with initiatives such as using mimes to teach respect for traffic rules. But by 2011, when the mayor and his brother were jailed for bribery charges related to public works contracts, Bogotá’s future seemed much less positive.

Today the TransMilenio, once symbol of the city’s progress, is over-crowded and plagued by poor service, as demonstrated by the increasingly frequent protests of its 2m daily users. Combo 2600, a collective that promotes urban development policies in the city, argues that the issues with transport and public spaces in Bogotá are not due to policy planning alone. They’re also down to poor management in public projects: by November 2014, for example, the Institute for Urban Development (IDU) had invested only 33 percent of its total budget for the year. Worse, it had spent just 2 per cent of the budget destined for parks.

If that wasn’t enough, Bogotá’s eternal economic rival Medellín has been able to overcome its bleak past as “murder capital of the world”. It’s now globally considered a “beacon for cities across the world”, and held up as a shining example of urban regeneration.

At first glance, one could be forgiven to think that Bogotá has its back to the wall. But there are areas where the capital has experienced considerable progress, demonstrating not only its efforts to be inclusive for all, but also that its citizens are active and engaged.

Firstly, Bogotá’s current administration knows the importance of inclusivity and quality when it comes to education policy. Historically, Colombia’s state-funded schools have operated for six hours a day, compared to eight hour days in privately-funded schools. To make up the difference, the city has rolled out a programme that aims at adding two hours of study each day in public schools to all the city’s schools. It’s already having positive impacts in student’s test results.

Secondly, public health services have improved thanks to the prioritisation of health in the city’s budget, the effort dedicated to preventive medicine and the schemes that increase access via domestic visits. According to the mayor’s office, the city’s infant mortality rate has dropped to a single digit number for the first time in history: less than ten out of 100,000 infants under one year die every year.

Thirdly, according to National Police statistics, the city achieved the lowest murder rate in the last 30 years: 16.4 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants. According to La Silla Vacía, a Colombian news and politics website, the close work between the mayor’s office and the police, and the ban on carrying weapons in public spaces, have both helped reducing homicides. The national government is also sending out positive messages: on the 1 December, President Juan Manuel Santos travelled in Transmilenio to attend the police’s security plan for Christmas. There, he urged improvements in security and citizen’s perception of security.

Fourthly, engaged and active citizens can hugely contribute to improve the city from the bottom up. For example, many people have turned to bicycles to save time when travelling across the city, thanks to the work of think tanks and young activist organisations such as Mejor en Bici (literally, “Better by Bike”), Combo 2600 and La Ciudad Verde (“The Green City”). Coupled with traditional government initiatives such as closing 120km of the city’s streets to cars every Sunday – the Ciclovía – cycling has seen a substantial increase in popularity.

Bogotá’s trajectory in the last three decades generates many questions on how to steer major city’s development towards liveable and sustainable living conditions. As the city adds around 100,000 new inhabitants a year, managing it has become more complex. Moreover, the processes that steer its development depend not only on sensible policies and governance, but also on the citizens’ capacity to engage and act collectively. Next year, the campaign for city mayor will incentive Bogotános to debate once again how to build on past successes, in realms such as mobility and citizen culture, and how to strengthen more recent achievements on health, security, and social inclusion.  

Next week, academics, policymakers and future leaders will gather in Oxford to discuss the future of cities. Bogotá’s lesson is one of cooperation between government and citizens: the only way a city can develop to be prosperous and inclusive.

Juan D. Gutiérrez-Rodríguez was born and raised in Bogotá. He is a DPhil student at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, which exists to inspire and support better public policy and government around the world.

The Challenges of Government Conference – “Flourishing Cities” will take place in Oxford on 11-12 December. It’s open for registration now.

Photographs of Bogotá courtesy of the author.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.