So what if the UN rates Cape Town as the least unequal city in South Africa?

amandlaOn Tuesday, I came across a Cape Times article whose headline read “UN Report: Cape Town least unequal city in country.” Interesting, I thought, turning the reported findings over and over in my mind, failing to find coherence with what I read, saw with my eyes and experienced personally on my fairly regular visits to Cape Town.

Intrigued, I read on. The article opened by woefully decrying the bad rap the city had been getting as being racist and, generally, unfriendly only to make the huge overstatement that contrary to what social commentators had to say about the matter, Cape Town is, in fact, the most equal city in South Africa. #CapeTownIsAwesome!

It was only well into the article that the writer sought to explain the measures used and, rather weakly, actually took a stab at explaining what this finding really meant.

Now, while there exists a healthy rivalry between South African (big) cities as to which offers the best of the country which I’d ordinarily not be surprised to see coming out even in our media, I couldn’t but notice the materially misleading PR game being played in the report which sought to obscure a lot that is wrong about the material socio-economic realities in the city of Cape Town.

I could hear the #CapeTownIsAwesome fanatics, many of whom are denialists of the white racism and distinctly racially articulated social and economic inequalities in the city, smacking their lips at the prospects of waving in our faces yet more proof (none of which they had engaged with or critically interrogated, I would add) of just how perfect the capital of their New Republic is.

The facts

In its 2012/12 State of the World’s Cities report the UN Habitat did go out to measure prosperity in the world’s cities using a model which looked beyond the narrow focus of mere economic prosperity. The measure, the City Prosperity Index (CPI) also took into account other factors including productivity, infrastructure development, quality of life, equity and social inclusion as well as environmental sustainability.

In the specific category of equity, from which the news report in question drew its information, the report rates Cape Town as the least inequitable city in South Africa by the measure used. Not least unequal. Not more equal. The least inequitable. This distinction is material in the reading of the figures and what implications we can reasonably extrapolate from it, so you’ll forgive me for splitting hairs.

Equality, which the Cape Times article refers to, is an inherent state of being. Whether in status, wealth, rights or opportunities, things are either equal or they are not. The degree to which this is or isn’t the case which is the sole issue the article hammers upon is, in and of itself, altogether meaningless. The comparison only comes to be of any value when used to understand and determine the causes of that inequality – which we (I hope) all agree is undesirable – and to seek solutions for it.

Equity, on the other hand, refers to fairness of distribution. In the case of the UN report as it speaks to the South African context, it speaks to whether the factors agreed upon as enabling prosperity are fairly distributed or not, and to what degree. The discrete distinction, here, is that equity is recognised as a means of realising equality. Nevertheless, as in the case of equality, the material value of engaging in any discussion on which city is more or less equitable is entirely predicated on its utility in seeking solutions to promote it.

So what does this mean?

Although Cape Town has the least damning score to any other South African city not only on income inequality (scoring at below 0.7 with 1 indicating absolute inequality) but inequity (scoring at below 0.5 with 1 indicating absolute equity) this only means that the city doesn’t really have much to brag about. And, showing slightly higher degrees of poverty (measured using the Multidimensional Poverty Index or MPI) than any South African city (all of which average at 0.06) which the UN report also notes to conceal inequity, it becomes increasingly clear that there is good reason to believe that Cape Town does, perhaps, have a greater degree of inequity than what is or can be reported with any reliable degree of authority.

The race card

The UN report also lists a set of factors restricting the scope of greater urban equity, none of which Cape Town can claim a significantly greater degree of immunity to than any other South African city. In fact, some of these are more starkly apparent in the city than most. These factors include:

• Historic patterns of inequality;
• Corruption;
• Discriminatory practices;
• Inefficient and ineffective government;
• Lack of interest from ruling elites;
• Public institutions controlled by ruling elites;
• Lack of democracy;
• Lack of funds; and
• Weak civil society to claim or defend rights.

As is wont to be the case, our privileged, post-racial, rainbownationalist friends will argue its irrelevance until they are blue in the face, but a hard and unfortunate truth is that it is necessary to look at Cape Town’s racial historicity to understand and account for its rating.

In the architecture of South African society as we know it today, it was and continues to be a matter of basic logic: in any locus with more desirables than not, there is more reason to create and invest more in the conditions for its occupants to prosper. It is for this same reason that we still see the poorest performing schools, the lack of basic infrastructure and access to services, unemployment, poverty, poor health outcomes – the list goes on – in areas with a higher concentration of Blacks. And, as the UN report underscores, access to these very things that collude with one another to create the conditions for prosperity.

As such, with the most whites per capita and a significantly greater cohort of “coloured” identified people of any city in the country, all of whom and in varying degrees, as a result of the colonial and apartheid projects enjoyed far greater privileges and opportunities which could catalyse a more prosperous (by the UN reports measure) life than Blacks did, it comes as no surprise to me that Cape Town, in particular, could boast its rating as the city with the (not significantly) lowest income inequality and inequity in the country.

So before making grand boasts of the fact, Capetonians and, indeed, all South Aficans, must look at this and other such reports more sober mindedly and with a greater degree of circumspection and ask themselves:
1) Whether, given the prevailing high degrees of inequality and inequity, there’s anything worth boasting about in Cape Town being rated the least inequitable city in South Africa; and
2) Whether, given the inequitable and privileging historical conditions which have primed it for that rating, Cape Town should not rather be working doubly hard in demonstrating its commitment to entrenching equitability across the board and improving the prosperity of all its occupants’ lives to prove itself worthy of that boast.

Read the UN report for yourselves.

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