An Engineering Perspective on Inclusive cities

The disparity in access to resources based on residential location is increasingly studied under the discipline called Spatial Justice. Though the concept of spatial justice is as old as human civilizations, the use of the phrase “spatial justice” is credited to John Laughlin’s unpublished 1973 thesis entitled Spatial Justice and the African American voter. The phrase is problematised for almost muting the fact that injustice is meted out on people and not spaces. Spatial Justice refers to the locational discrimination against certain populations to create spatial structures of privilege and advantage to one section of the population at the expense of another. This injustice is presided over by politicians representing a powerful constituency, planned by town planners and implemented by civil engineers with politicians acting as their principals.

Town Planners create a canvas on which Civil Engineering infrastructure is built. Though injustice presents firstly in town planning schemes, civil engineers compound it by opting for sub-standard infrastructure choices in the name of cost saving, a practice they do not do in areas earmarked for the “privileged” citizens. Civil Engineers also form part of town planning teams which means that the two disciplines have an inextricably linked relationship.  It is for this reason that civil engineers must share the same responsibilities that town planners have in ensuring that the urban spaces are inclusive. Both Civil Engineering and Town Planning are highly political disciplines that purport to be value free professional applications of science in the developmentof solutions to problems.

The disparity in access to infrastructure in South Africa is embedded in history. If access to water is probed, it becomes evident why South Africa, the most unequal society in the world today in terms of income, has an even greater inequality in terms of access to clean water. Since the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910,only four pieces of water legislation have been passed by the government with each piece clearly dovetailing ideological shifts in government. This confirms the political nature of unequal access to infrastructure. The Irrigation and Water Conservation Act No. 8 of 1912 followed 2 years after the Union of South Africa was formed. It captured the fact that the economy was agrarian and the agricultural sector was the most powerful lobby at the time. This remained until a new government came into power in 1948. After 8 years, the Water Act No. 54 of 1956 acknowledged the mining and industrial lobby. With advise from H.J. Van der Bijl and H.J. Van Eck, the apartheid state made major amendments to the Act by introducing the Dominus Flumnis clause to the Water Act which meant that the Minister of Water Affairs had absolute power over decisions pertaining to the apportioning of water resources. This was the nationalisation of water resources. The other intervention was to legislate the exclusion native Africans from participation in water boards, receiving loans for irrigation infrastructure and the express mention that land demarcated for natives may be expropriated for development of water projects without compensation.

The group areas act effectively pushed the urban blacks to the periphery where access to water was not guaranteed. The next enactment was the National Water Act No. 36 of 1999 which prioritised residential use of water. Today, only 40% of residential water is shared by 70 % of the population while 60% is used by 30% of the population. This disparity reflects mostly race and partially, class.

The tragedy with provision of infrastructure is that, South African engineers were almost exclusively white and generally actively and passively imbued in the ideology of the apartheid government. By 1981 when the government commissioned Professor Johan De Lange to solve the problem of lack of engineers in the country, the government refused to consider removing quotas for black students to study Civil Engineering. The fear, as expressed in the Da Lange report was that allowing blacks to study Civil Engineering in 1981 will result in the country having the same number of black engineers as white engineers by the year 2000. This reality is captured by Prof Patrick Bond when he observes that the Reconstruction and Development Program collapsed in the main due to the fact that the new government entrusted engineers who were part of the old establishment and didn’t agree with the ideological thrust of the new government. Saki Macozoma also conceded that it was a moment where the ANC was to doubt if they could bring redress with apartheid era bureaucrats still in place.

In 1923, the state determined that the bubonic plague that killed many people in Cape Town in 1902 and a lot more in Johannesburg in 1904 and later the Spanish flu of 1918 was caused by the lack of infrastructure in native settlements next to cities.It was decided that the state needed to invest in water and sanitation infrastructure to prevent future epidemics. Even under these circumstances, engineers overlooked standard codes of practice because there was a sense that the native settlements did not deserve normal, functional infrastructure akin to what the white neighbourhoods received.

To date, 100 years later, engineers are still designing infrastructure below the professionally accepted practice guideline’s in poor black neighbourhoods calling them informal settlements. Humans are spatial beings, the infrastructure they are provided with define the spaces hey live in and in turn, determines some of their qualities. Imizamoyethu, an “shanty” settlement in the beautiful suburb of Houtbay in the Western Cape is a case in point. The roads are narrower than what practice codes prescribe. The fire truck cannot reach the section where the fire is. The garbage truck cannot turn to most of the streets and the residents must find a place to dump garbage. The garbage is washed off by rain into stormwater and sewer manholes. Blocked stormwater drains cause flooding and blocked sewerage drains cause sewerage to flow on the road perpetually. This exposes children to diseases and has been proven to the main cause of infant mortality. The roads also get damaged resulting in erratic driving. There is an unproven hypothesis that children raised in these areas without proper sidewalks are more likely to be pedestrian fatalities even outside their residential neighbour hoods because of the innate disregard for cars as dangerous. Engineers must thus appreciate the depth of the impact of their actions and become activists in the provision of equitable infrastructure. Engineering science has inherently discriminatory processes of ‘arriving at solutions to problems. An example is the use of income differentials in Cost Benefit Analyses to determine where investments must be made in road network upgrades. This calls for a scientific revolution in the fraternal sciences that underpin engineering practice to support the quest for equitable cities. In his book, Elite Transition, Patrick Bond notes how the attitude of engineers and town planners carried on beyond 1994 in South Africa. A new generation of engineering activists that advocate for equity in the provision of infrastructure in all neighbourhoods is necessary. Karel Martens in his seminal book, Transportation Justice, determines that those in society that have higher incomes are products of easy access and mobility made possible by political and engineering decisions that gave them the edge in upward mobility usually at the expense of others.


Mr Gundo Vhusani Maswime is an alumnus of the University of KwaZulu Natal. He completed a B.Sc. Civil Engineering and a Bachelor of Social Science Honours in Public Policy concurrently. He is an experienced consulting engineer on designing and supervising the construction of bridges, roads, and water and sewer projects around KZN. With vast managerial and executive positions over half a decade, he is currently enrolled as a full-time student pursuing a PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Cape Town. His research thesis in on the contradictions between engineering science and built environment legislation. He is also presently a lecturer with the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Cape Town.

Mr Gundo Vhusani Maswime
Department of Civil Engineering, University of Cape Town, South Africa