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The erosion of apartheid takes time

09 April 2013 - 03:30 By Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver

Trevor Manuel's injunction to stop blaming our country's woes on apartheid certainly is a refreshing voice from a government that seems blind to the capacity issues emanating from its own incompetence.

 I have watched too many wellrun government departments hollowed out by inappropriate appointees lobbying for position and status rather than getting on with the job.

It takes years to build a wellrun and efficient department, but it takes only weeks to break it through poor management.

But the effects of apartheid definitely still linger. The field in which I work - the environment - typically changes over decades and centuries. The fingerprints of apartheid on the environment will last a very long time, and certainly will be discernible to people living three or four generations from now.

Racial exclusion and oppression were not just painfully etched on people and society, but were also physically inscribed on our landscape and land use patterns. And this took place over centuries, leaving a lasting imprint of a repressive era.

Take our cities, for example. The way that townships were pushed to the urban periphery has created a very dispersed and inefficient urban form, in which the poorest sections of our society, who can least afford it, have to travel the longest distances to jobs in the urban core. This means that our cities burn more fossil fuels and contribute more to climate change than they should. This is exacerbated by the poor state of public transport. Unfortunately, our housing policies have failed to correct the spatial form of our cities. But even if we were actively promoting densification, the reconfiguration of our cities would take many decades to accomplish.

Apartheid's legacy also lives on in our rural areas. Despite the disappearance of those bizarre border posts marking the boundaries of the former homelands, the overcrowded settlements living on degraded and overgrazed communal land endure.

At issue is how we respond to this legacy of our painful past. Do we constantly refer back to and remain trapped by our history, or do we start positively creating a different future? I suppose this is our "more to life" moment - we can only be truly free when we consciously move on.