Expropriation is not the silver bullet

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The skyline of Hillbrow in Johannesburg

The skyline of Hillbrow in Johannesburg

Expropriation is not that simple and seemingly magical solution to the complicated problem of inequality in our cities, nor is it new to South Africa. We have had expropriation without compensation for years – what else explains informal settlements? What is new is that land ownership seems to have been reduced to “with” or “without” compensation in the public discourse.

Yet owning land does not bring belonging. The tragedy of the apartheid project is not simply the dispossession of people’s land but the dispossession of the texture of their lives – their community; their sense of belonging. To belong in a city does not require land ownership. Belonging means inclusion, having access to economic opportunities, exercising power and voice, and living with dignity – of which housing is only but one component. Indeed, for many millennials, the priority is not owning land but belonging in the urban space. As one millennial at the dialogue pointed out, “we don’t need to own land/property if we can establish our economic identity through different ways”. We need to reimagine ownership in relation to all aspects of city life now and into the future.

Focusing on expropriation without compensation is a mirage. Expropriation is but one of many tools that are useful for transforming the land relationships within cities. What is more important is to look at how (and for whom) we are designing cities and how people are able to access opportunities. In reimagining our urban landscape, what would our cities look like if designed with a poor working class black woman at the centre?

Geoffrey Bickford is a programmes manager at the South African Cities Network.