The development challenges of Rural Towns
As the year winds down, most of us are planning our holidays. Cebisa Mafukuzela, Sustainable Building Consultant at Solid Green, will be travelling to the Eastern Cape. Here she shares her reflections on the predicaments faced by rural towns.7
For many South Africans, the December holidays are predominantly about seeing family and traveling home. This is a lingering symptom of the mining era, which displaced a lot of people and meant that the only time they could see their families was during the December break.
If we look at Johannesburg, a city that developed as a result of mining, we find that this is still true for a lot of people. With a population of almost 6 million, only 58% of that population is born in Johannesburg and considers the city home. 10% are migrants from other countries and the remaining 32% are people who have relocated to Johannesburg for work purposes.
I am part of that 32% and, every year around this time, I prepare for a long road trip to the Eastern Cape. It’s always quite an experience to leave the busy city behind but every time I drive into the rural Eastern Cape, the development gap is evident, and I always find myself imagining a rural landscape that is well serviced, planned correctly, and able to manage the and provide for the needs of those living in these areas.
Why have the rural areas been left to their own devices and what can be done to assist in developing a rural environment that is sustainable but still true to the essence of rural life? The way that rural settlements are expanding is exponential. Houses are being built on land that belongs to municipalities, no planning is in place as villages turn into suburbs, and the result is that roads and services are not being provided in an efficient manner. Small rural towns are overrun and always extremely congested with traffic, without consideration for pedestrians.
So, what happens in December when these small rural towns and surrounding villages have the added pressure of all those visiting from different metros around the country? The already struggling infrastructure is brought under further pressure and the inefficiencies are highlighted. We also see how, in as much as we consider these villages and rural towns home and we enjoy the slowing down of life – going back to basics and enjoying spinach picked from the gardens our grandparents have been working for generations – we must acknowledge that the inefficiencies do have a negative impact on our time spent here. The conveniences and efficiencies of city living is something some people wish they could pack into their suitcases and enjoy with their loved ones who, in some remote areas, still have no access to clean potable water.
So how do we do it? How do we create efficiency and comfort in different rural settings across the country without taking away the things we love most about the rural escape? The last thing we would want is to turn these rural towns and villages into small-scale replicas of Johannesburg!
One positive aspect of rural life is that it is inherently sustainable. Subsistence farming, small-scale livestock farming and rainwater harvesting are ingrained in the fibres of everyday life. These sustainable practices should be at the core of providing services to the villages and towns, and a development strategy rooted in culture and sustainability would provide an environment that allows the essence of rural living to thrive while ensuring that development and expansion are well-considered, allowing for a better quality of life.
How can this be done? I believe that the following key factors should be looked at as the drivers for change and the focus for development: Rural Towns, Sanitation, Transport and Mobility.
Rural towns are the drivers of the rural economy. They house all government services including municipal offices, police stations, clinics, and most schools. These centres present themselves as low-lying fruit in the pursuit of change. The urban planning of these towns is, in most instances, non-existent and this is evident in the amount of congestion one experiences trying to drive through them. Most rural towns in the Eastern Cape are located on the N2 freeway which means anyone driving from KZN to the Western Cape is forced to drive through almost all the rural towns along the route adding to the congestion of the town.
A focus on urban planning, providing infrastructure for informal trade and focusing on the pedestrian access to town centres, will alleviate congestion, provide spaces for trade and industry, and also ensure that as the town grows and expands, there is a consideration and special planning for residential, commercial and industrial spaces around and throughout the town.
Most, if not all, rural homes have a long drop toilet at the end of the yard. I grew up using a long drop for a long time and, when well-constructed and maintained, these present little to no danger and are completely hygienic. What has started happening is that some homes have introduced flush toilets and installed septic tanks on their properties. This creates a service issue as these septic tanks need to be emptied, and it also increases the use of potable water, which is sometimes not available.
Introducing modern composting toilets would be a simpler solution that doesn’t require constant servicing and is modelled after something most people are already familiar with and can self-maintain. This also eliminates the need for the use of potable water for flushing and, after some time, provides compost that can be used in existing gardens and small-scale farms.
Transport and Mobility
A lot of rural villages are in extremely remote areas. Villagers from Libode, for example, are forced to boat across a river and follow a mountainous route to reach the closest town. In addition to the challenges experienced in leaving the villages, once you arrive in the nearest rural town you face challenges of congestion and difficulty for pedestrians to move around safely.
Planning should take place at a large masterplan scale that considers the requirements of each region and the available resources, existing lifestyles, and biggest challenges; and further consider how those micro requirements would fit into the large urban regional scale of transport and mobility planning. This may be the hardest requirement to plan and implement as it requires multiple partners to move in the same direction and needs buy-in from the state. However, the potential positive implications on the quality of life for communities would be exponential.
If we look at a town like Tsolo as well as the surrounding villages, one finds that a large part of the community still uses horses on a regular basis. The town is sometimes referred to as “emaHashini” which loosely translates as “where the horses are”. The area and surrounding municipalities hold a heritage event and competition in the village of Manka that celebrates traditional horse riding. This presents an opportunity to create what can be considered an Equestrian Town where the town centre focuses on pedestrian and horse-centred transportation. Cars, taxis, and buses could be diverted around the town, with transport interchange nodes at the entrance and the end of the town instead of in the centre, thus resulting in less congestion and a better flow of movement.
A more dedicated focus on urban planning while considering the contexts and lifestyles of rural communities, would be a big step forward in helping to create efficiency and comfort for the residents of rural towns and villages.