Cape Town as a Common
By Andrea Couvert
The water crisis in Cape Town represents the highest point of crisis in the governance system of the city, as well as at provincial level, and at national level. A crisis that may become dramatic for millions of people has turned into a drama of political clashes, where political plays, various plots and much arrogance replace wisdom.
One would be led to think that it is only the failure of a political class or a party, and that it would be sufficient to replace the failed politicians with the right ones, the corrupt parties with the honest ones. But this is a much deeper and more radical crisis.
One of the central aspects of this crisis is how we look at water. Water is often considered a commodity, and its reliable supply, a service; the public bodies involved in its management assume that they have the authority and the responsibility to manage the service, and some of them also seem to believe that water can be privatized in name of a presumed efficiency, which in reality is often only private interest disguised as a public interest.
We need to shift to a new paradigm: we need to change the vision of water from that of a commodity to that of a common.
The commons are resources that belong to everybody in common. No one has an exclusive right to them, making them by definition resources to which everybody enjoys open access. The springs, rivers and lakes whose waters we drink, the oceans in which we fish, the air we breath, the seeds we plant, and the cultures and traditions we share are all examples of commons1.
So a common is more that a public property managed by a public institution; it is something on which no one has property rights, something that cannot be sold or privatized, something that can be only managed in the interest of its shareholders.
For a long time the State has portrait itself as the manager of commons resources, and the policy-makers have argued that common resources must be put under the direct control of government agencies, while others have argued for their privatization making individual owners responsible for their own property2.
In contrast to this vision of a natural asset that is either nationalized or privatized, a movement has grown worldwide that calls into question this model of management of natural goods, and which has brought the issue of commons back to the center of the political debate. Faced with the crisis of political systems based on representative democracy, groups of citizens, organizations, and communities are seeking new political systems based on participatory democracy and commons. This movement finds its most vocal expression in the cities, in particular those cities crossed by crises and challenges all over the world.
Cities are quintessentially human and collective products. Not only the public space is functional to human flourishing. The entire urban space is the product of social cooperation. Therefore it has to be conceived as a common3.
The idea that cities should be managed as commons implies that the common use of resources is essential and functional for the individual and collective wellbeing.
Particularly interesting is the experience of the city of Bologna, Italy, where a municipal regulation has established a legal framework to manage commons and to promote the idea of the city as a common. The aim of Bologna’s municipal regulation is to involve civic, social, economic, cultural and institutional bodies in the signature of an “urban constitutional pact”, that should be activated and used by these actors in a flexible way in order to adapt it to the needs of each community and each city, which are organisms in continuous change4.
The experience of Bologna inspired a group of civic organizations in Cape Town. On 17th August 2017, eight Civic Associations in the Mother City (Bo Kaap Civic Association, Observatory Civic Association – OCA, Philippi Horticultural Association, Pinelands Ratepayers Association, Sybrand Park Civic, Woodstock Residents Association, Princess Vlei Forum and Greater Cape Town Civic Alliance – GCTCA) gathered together to explore the possibility of a Civic-led bylaw on participation.
This interest has been reaffirmed during workshop held on 9th September 2017 at Observatory Civic Hall. The event was attended by 20 participants from ten civic bodies (Forum of Cape Flats Civics, De Waterkant Civic, Philippi Horticultural Association, Observatory Civic Association – OCA, Woodstock Residents Association, Greater Cape Town Civic Alliance – GCTCA, Princess Vlei Forum, Fish Hoek Valley – RRA, Electricity Tariffs Must Fall, District 6 Working Committee), who pinpointed the broad principles that had to be included in a manifesto to guide the process. More informations abut the People’s Bylaw can be found on the website: https://peoplesbylaw.wordpress.com/
There are also other encouraging signs in the reaffirmation that the public interest must prevail in the development policies of the city, and in the political agenda overall:
- the decision of the City of Cape Town to present a new plan on affordable housing that, albeit not without contradictions, represents a sharp change in comparison with previous housing policies;
- in a landmark ruling, the Municipal Planning Tribunal has imposed an inclusionary housing condition on Zero2One, a skyscraper which will be built on the corner of Strand and Adderley street, and that is set to be the tallest building in Cape Town. This result was achieved thanks to the perseverance of Ndifuna Ukwazi who presented numerous objections and considerations to the MPT.
The water crisis in Cape Town and the theme of inclusive housing policies provide opportunities to call into question the existing political model and offer us the chance to open a discussion on the two key elements of possible alternatives: the development of participatory democracy and the affirmation of a model based on commons.
- See: https://thegocblog.com/2012/10/29/defining-the-commons/
- See note 1
- Urban Space as a Commons, Maria Rosaria Marella – E-book from the conference: The City as a Commons: Reconceiving Urban Space, Common Goods And City Governance, Bologna, November 2015 (http://urbancommons.labgov.it/)
- Download the English version of Bologna “Regulation on civic collaboration and the urban commons”. https://peoplesbylaw.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/bolognaregulation.pdf
City As A Commons:
Bologna, a Laboratory for Urban Commoning