As African cities grow, they should think less about cars and more about pedestrians

Traffic in Nairobi, 2014. Image: Getty.

Some African cities are forecast to double in size by 2030. The continent is experiencing an unprecedented demographic youth ‘bulge’, and motorisation is rapid. In some cities the vehicle fleet is doubling every seven or eight years.

Sub-Saharan Africa already has the most dangerous roads in the world, despite still relatively low levels of motorisation, and young people aged 15-29 are most at risk of death or injury in a traffic crash. Urbanisation, motorisation and the youth explosion could, in the coming years, potentially combine into a public health emergency.

The situation is already severe. Every year around the world more than 1.2m people die in road traffic crashes, and 50m are injured. The vast majority of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. In Africa, pedestrians are most at risk. An African child is already twice as likely to die on the road as her peer anywhere else in the world, including on the crowded streets of India or South East Asia.

Why is this? While road safety is often seen as a matter of bad luck, and while the victims are usually blamed for driving too fast or stepping out at the wrong moment, the truth lies elsewhere. We get the roads our politicians give us – or which we are willing to tolerate.

In the case of urban Africa, this means a futile focus on curing growing traffic congestion with new high speed urban motorways; roads without sidewalks, pedestrian crossings or street lamps; and a lack of either physical segregation or police enforcement to protect pedestrians and cyclists. It is system dysfunction that kills.

So, as a new report from the Overseas Development Institute, World Resources Institute and the FIA Foundation highlights, road deaths have to be recognised as more than just a personal tragedy or bad luck story. They are a barometer of the wider inefficiency or dysfunction of national and city governance. And they are a symptom of a scandalous social inequity in which the poor majority are constantly and wilfully overlooked. The walkers and cyclists who typically make up more than 50 per cent of the road users and almost 70 per cent of the casualties, yet receive less than 5 per cent of the transport investment.

Road safety tends to be viewed purely as a narrow technical issue. Yet for those working to reduce traffic injuries winning the political case for road safety is vital. This requires looking beyond the traditional and convenient ‘victim-blaming’ focus on behavioural mistakes by drivers or pedestrians, and instead grappling with the broader system failures that allow these very human errors to become life-ending or life-changing.

Urban planning which encourages sprawl, economic development which prioritises vehicle speed over human safety, and political agendas which favour the rich and powerful over the poor and weak: these are the factors which create the conditions enabling road traffic death on an industrial scale.

In cities like Nairobi, which have seen rapid urbanisation and sprawl, people are forced to travel some distance on the roads to reach their place of work every day. The public and political narrative is on traffic congestion and speed. Politicians have focused on large-scale, car-oriented projects that generate short-term political rewards.

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Investments have been skewed towards expanding roads rather than improving the safety of existing roads for pedestrians and cyclists. The government and city authorities have also shied away from regulatory changes for road safety, in part because of the strong resistance by powerful interest groups, including from the powerful ‘matatu’ bus lobby.

A fragmented, multi-agency, governance system in the city has resulted in a somewhat duplicative and disjointed approach to policy. The links between urban land use, road development, mobility and traffic-related injuries are not being recognised, so policy is developed in parallel silos.

And despite the increasingly desperate entreaties of health professionals in over-burdened hospitals, new roads, like the Thika Super Highway, continue to be built through existing communities without sufficient safety facilities for pedestrians. In its first two years of operation, 2015 and 2016, this one road killed more than 100 people.

This week Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta announced the construction of a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line for Nairobi. This is a potentially positive step, providing fast and efficient public transport – but only if the needs of pedestrians are included in the design.

A BRT in Dar es Salaam, in neighbouring Tanzania had to be redesigned after several pedestrian deaths. Nobody, including the international donors funding the scheme, had thought about the impact of rapid buses on people needing to walk across the route.

The good news is that where there is both a political will for change, and a governance structure able to deliver co-ordinated and consistent road safety progress, that change can happen swiftly. Politicians and planners in Africa might do well to cast their eyes across the Atlantic, to Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, which reduced its traffic fatality rate by more than 60 per cent between 1996 and 2006. Since then, although further progress has proved elusive, that initial achievement has been sustained. 

Bogotá’s transformation has been closely linked to mayoral leadership and vision, following the adoption of a National Constitution that decentralised many policy responsibilities to local governments. Key was a significant shift in political understanding to viewing traffic fatalities as a system failure to be addressed as a major public health issue.

This political narrative change resulted in reforms in local government structure, urban planning and design for sustainable mobility, and significant changes in enforcement procedures including national and local regulations. The creation of a BRT took many people out of cars, and out of the way of cars.

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Slivers of light are being seen at the end of Nairobi’s tunnel too. Institutional reform is being discussed, with consideration of the creation of a single road safety authority and a metropolitan planning authority. Policy approved in 2016 means that the inclusion of pedestrian walkways and cycle lanes is now mandatory for new road developments, with at least 20 per cent of city transportation budget now earmarked for ‘non-motorised transport.

While the political class remains wedded to a car-centric approach, an increasingly vocal civil society and a growing international movement (helped by the inclusion of road safety and green urban mobility in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals) is beginning to change the narrative towards the ‘safe system’ and a pedestrian-first approach.

With Africa’s cities growing, time is running out to save hundreds of thousands of lives. Successful change will be all about the politics.

Saul Billingsley is the executive director of the FIA Foundation. You can read the full report here.  


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.