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Transforming Society

Securing Rights

Restoring Dignity

World Cities Day to address challenges of urbanisation

THE United Nations designated October 31 as the World Cities Day. This day was adopted by the General Assembly on 27 December 2013.

10 November 2017

The World Cities Day is meant to galvanise efforts among different role players to address the challenges posed by urbanisation and contribute towards sustainable development. The general theme of World Cities Day is Bet- ter City, Better Life, while each year a differ- ent sub-theme is selected, to either promote successes of urbanisation, or address specific challenges resulting from urbanisation. The 2017 theme for World Cities Day was Innova- tive Governance, Open Cities. World Cities Day is particularly important in the South African context whe more than two thirds of the country’s population will dwell in cities by the year 2030. However, as the country and the world at large commemorates World Cities Day, the South African Human Rights Commission (the SAHRC or commission) as a national human rights institution, mandated with the responsi- bility of promoting, protecting and monitoring human rights in the country, will continue to engage with the government in an attempt to deal with challenges increased urbanisation poses. Some of these challenges are inherited from our divided past such as apartheid spa- tial geography and urban inequality whereas evictions and homelessness still continue to confront urban dwellers in most cities today.

The commission is already part of a new global movement called The Shift, initiated by the UN special rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, in partnership with United Cities and Local Governments and the office of the high commissioner for human rights. The Shift is a new worldwide movement to reclaim and realise the fundamental human right to housing and move away from housing as a place to park excess capital, to housing as a place to live in dignity, to raise families and participate in community. The Shift intends to be a movement used to urge states to curb financialisation and ensure cities are inclusive places with access to adequate, affordable and secure housing for all in line with the pre- scripts of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Goal 11 and the New Urban Agenda.

The commemoration of the World Cities Day comes amidst the second anniversary since the adoption by the UN of the, particularly SDG goal 11 which seeks to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. It also comes a year after the New Urban Agenda was adopted in Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador.

The new urban agenda calls for urbanisation to be embraced and harnessed as a tool for development. Although the new urban agenda considers cities to be remarkable engines of growth, centres of diversity and hubs of creativity it does not shy away from acknowl- edging the sad reality that most cities have also unfortunately become places for exclusion and inequality.

This is particularly true in the context where a proportion of the population resid- ing in cities continue to live in conditions of squalor lacking access to basic services and amenities where they are isolated from oppor- tunities for decent work and are vulnerable to crime, forced evictions and homelessness.

South Africa has already adopted the National Development Plan 2030 (NDP) which is a vision that falls squarely within the archi- tecture of the SDGs, in particular Goal 11 and the new urban agenda which is to promote inclusive, resilient, safe, sustainable, participa- tory and compact cities.

The NDP recognises that the constitution- ally entrenched right of access to adequate housing forms a key component to the coun- try’s economic development. The NDP notes that as a result of the apartheid past, the majority of poor South Africans reside in far- flung areas away from work, with little access to basic services and efficient transport, thus limiting their ability to adequately access the economy.
As such, many South Africans find them- selves in poverty traps with high unemploy- ment reinforcing existing poverty. The South African Cities Network in its State of the Cities Report for 2016 found that a proportion- ate percentage of city dwellers are spatially marginalised as they continue to live in state subsidised housing and informal settlements which are in peripheral, poorly located areas with insufficient access to resources and opportunities. This leads to most of these poor households spending most of their income on transport related costs as they have to travel in search of either better opportunities or to access basic services, such as schools, clinics and libraries.

To that end, the NDP calls for planning which “will be guided by a set of normative principles to create spaces that are liveable, equitable, sustainable, resilient and efficient, and support economic opportunities and social cohesion”. It is commendable that the South African government in a bid to operationalise the ideals espoused in the SDGs, in par- ticular Goal 11 and the NDP has adopted the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) to leverage on urbanisation and turn it from being a challenge to be a prospect for accelerating growth and development.

We have a collective responsibility to ensure that no one is left behind, particularly the often marginalised and vulnerable groups, as we try to develop cities which are inclusive, resilient, safe, sustainable, participatory and compact. . The World Cities Day is thus a call to galvanise efforts towards carving out that vision espoused in the NDP of having elimi- nated poverty traps, spatial fragmentation and urban inequality in cities by the year 2050.

Advocate Mohamed Ameermia is a commis- sioner at the South African Human Rights Commission and is responsible for the right to housing and access to justice and is a recipient of the 2017 Robert G Storey Leadership Award from the Centre for American and International Law in Dallas, Texas, US.




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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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