Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

A Story about “Africa Time”

Madulammoho’s office is always busy.  The three directors who run Madulammoho are constantly dashing in and out of meetings.  House Managers visit so frequently that I’m not sure who works here and who doesn’t.  Tenants come in to sign papers.  There is constant chatter in the open floor workspace.

When I started working here two weeks ago, they threw me right into the activity right away – just as I like it!  Instead of giving me old manuals to read, my supervisor sent me to an exhibition called “Interbuild Africa” on my second day.

Madulammoho’s driver, Albert, was to drop me off on his way to his deliveries.

The Expo Centre is a 15 minute drive from the office.

About 5 min from the office, Albert stopped to get gas.  In South Africa, you don’t pump your own gas: gas attendants are one more job needed in a country with surplus labour.  Albert told the attendant his gas choice.  We waited, he paid, he started the car.  To my untrained ear it sounded exactly the same, but he immediately turned it off.  He called the attendant back and spoke to her in Zulu.  Turns out she’d filled it with diesel instead of normal gasoline.

A group of other gas station employees came over and pushed the truck back to get it out of the way.  Laughing and joking, they lifted it up so that the diesel poured out onto the pavement.  Periodically they’d lift it again to keep the gas flowing.

This is my second day of work.  I’m in Hillbrow, still a little anxious out from all the horror stories I’ve heard from white South Africans.  We’re stranded in the worst part of Johannesburg.  We’re beside a construction site and there’s a line of a dozen men sitting on their break and watching us.  I’ve just met Albert and am still unsure of how well I can trust him.

I felt like I should probably be concerned, but really I just wanted to laugh.  Here I am stuck in one of the most dangerous parts of one of the most dangerous cities in the world – and it’s only my second day.  Well, I can tick that off my list of things to do.

It took an hour for the gas attendants to drain the truck of diesel and refill it with gasoline.  We then continued on to the Expo Centre and I asked Albert to come pick me up at 3pm.

Albert told me that my supervisor had said he might come pick me up, so I should phone him when I was ready to leave.

At 3pm I phoned my supervisor.  No answer.  I phoned Albert.  He said he’d phone my supervisor and get back to me.  Ten minutes later the MHA receptionist phoned me back.  She told me that Albert was going to come pick me up at 3:30pm.

I walked around a bit more, then headed out to the front at 3:20pm.  Three-thirty comes and goes, but I’m not worried.  I remembered how long the journey took in the morning: half an hour is nothing.

At 4pm I called Albert.  “Are you still coming?”

“Yes, I’m on my way.  Be there soon.”

At 4:30pm I called again – just in case the truck had broken down or something.  Diesel is not very healthy for a gasoline engine.

Albert said, “Yes I’m close.  Traffic is bad.  Seven minutes away.”

Seven minutes.  Sure.

At 4:45pm, Albert finally pulled up.  He apologized profusely as I got in the truck.  He explained that he’d had to pick something up from one of the projects, but it wasn’t ready when he got there, and then the highway traffic was almost at a standstill.

I just laughed and told him, “Don’t worry about it.  I’m just glad the truck is still working.”

To be honest, I was annoyed.  If I’d known 3:30pm actually meant 4:45pm I’d have sat down inside instead of standing at the gate for over an hour.  But it wasn’t Albert’s fault, so what was the point in getting mad at him?

Albert seemed relieved I wasn’t angry at him.  During the morning ride he’d been taciturn, but now he was quite talkative.  He asked me I knew how to drive manual.  I laughed and said, “Yeah, but I’m really out of practice.”  He began a driving lesson, explaining each step as he changed gears and pointing out which roads to avoid.

Now we’re good buddies.  He greets me enthusiastically every morning.  When he heard me and my supervisor talking about getting the company car repaired, he even said “But then you won’t need me to drive you.”

What a sweetheart.

But that doesn’t mean I want to wait 2 hours every time I need a ride.



My boss complains about the construction industry in South Africa.

He says that it isn’t progressing, that they’ve been using the same building techniques for hundreds of years.

“Which techniques are those?” I ask.

“Slow, labour intensive ones.  We have too much labour here and not enough jobs.  They take as long as they can to build something so they get paid more or have a job to go to.  It feels like one step forward, two steps back in this country.  We’re inefficient here.  Technology has been invented that could do the job in half the time for a fraction of the price, but then you’d put people out of work.”

Even the building materials haven’t changed.

“We use bricks because those require local people to make them.  But I decided to try something new on Fleurhof [the project MHA just finished constructing].  We used aluminum framework.  It’s light and durable.  It’s recyclable.  It requires less maintenance, so it’s safer.  Women can lift the pieces too.  We have to force the construction to adapt and progress with the times.”

Labour politics.

Employment issues.

Safety concerns.

Sustainability questions.

Gender complications.

This is how I try to make civil engineering interesting – by zooming out to consider the bigger picture.

Blending In


Today I saw two white people at the supermarket in Hillbrow!  This is the first time I’ve seen other white people in the area, besides the five who work for Madulammoho.  Out of those five, however, only two go out regularly to visit the projects.

My skin makes it difficult to blend in to this neighbourhood – and by “difficult” I mean impossible.  Even though I’m used to looking different – not white enough to be Canadian, not yellow enough for my Asian heritage – I feel particularly conspicuous here.

How do I establish myself in this neighbourhood?  I’m beginning to recognize people, so I’m sure they already recognize me.

Do I follow the same strategy as the new MHA Maintenance Manager?  He’s new in Hillbrow too; he started working a week before me.  

I’ve noticed he makes a point of greeting everyone.  As we walk around, he’s continually waving at the men loitering on the sidewalks and saying “Howzit” (the typical South African greeting).  He wants people to recognize him as a friendly guy who’s working to improve the neighbourhood.

I’m not sure that approach is going to work for me.

Unfortunately, the situation is more complicated because I’m a woman.  (As usual.)  Men constantly talk to me as I walk through the streets. 

Sometimes it’s a simple “Hello” as I go by.  That’s ok. 

Other times they mutter “Whitey” or “Asian.”  Fine, I can handle that insult. 

But I don’t like it when men yell, “Hey baby” from across the street.

And I really, really don’t like it when a stranger touches my arm and says, “Be my wife.”  That’s just too weird.

My coworker laughs about it.  She’s gorgeous: she’s used to the attention.  We often walk around together – either to the store at lunch or the taxi hub after work.  Yesterday a man gestured at her to stop and she said, not even pausing, “Who does he think he is?  He’s holding hands with his girlfriend!”

But she doesn’t have to visit the projects.  She just works in the office.

Am I rude if I ignore all the men?  Am I encouraging their behavior if I acknowledge them?  Can I be friendly without being flirty?  I think I’ve finally figured out how to do that in Canada, but the culture here is so different than I’m used to.

Plus there are so many diverse cultures.  You even have to be careful with eye contact!  Some groups find it respectful, but others find it rude to hold eye contact too long.  Will a smile be taken as an invitation?

As my main strategy, I try to be seen with my coworkers as much as possible.  We walk around the area every day.  I also walk around by myself as an attempt to assert my independence.  Furthermore, I frequently buy fruit from the women’s sidewalk stalls and chat with them.  Maybe I can create a presence among the women of the neighbourhood.  That should count for something, right?

I’ve never let sexism stop me from doing something.  That’s why I’m still in this male-dominated profession where I learned years ago that it’s not worth wearing fitted clothing or skirts above the knee to work, no matter how cute those pencil skirt outfits look.

But these experiences are still frustrating.  I just want to do my job without having to worry about all this bullshit.

The Lonmin Massacre: Impoverishment, Resistance, and the Mining Industry

Informative read about the SA mining massacre a couple weeks ago. Also provides background information on the mining industry in general. Bit long, dissolves into advocating protesting at the end, but definitely still worth checking out. – Beth


By Sam Hawke

It’s been now a week since the most shocking police killings of the post-apartheid era were inflicted on South Africa. But it’s not only time that provides greater perspective on the issues. The massacre must be seen in its proper context. By no means limited to a tale of inter-union war and police brutality, we must open our eyes to corporate human rights and environmental abuse, alongside growing worldwide opposition to the atrocities of the mining industry.

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The Awesome History of Development

The following post is the script from a presentation I gave to Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in January 2012 entitled “The Awesome History of Development: Abridged Version.”  It was based on my class notes for “Geography 364: Globalization, Cities, and Regions” taught by Dr. Jamie Peck in 2011.


Today we’re going to explore the history of Western development and its implications for contemporary development in the Global South.  We’ll begin by discussing the period post-WWII known as the industrial age to explain some of the dominant attitudes that emerged regarding the relationship between urbanization, technology, and economic development.  We’ll then talk about how global systems changed in the 1970s in the post-industrial period.  Lastly we’ll spend most of our time focusing on the implications for the present day.

Although we’ve broken up these sections according to time, it’s important to remember that all these processes are overlapping.  For instance many scholars argue we are still in the industrial period and that the Fordist system of manufacturing still dominates.

1940s – 1970s: The Industrial Age

The “Fordist Regime of Accumulation” describes the dominant economic structure followed by most countries in the Global North.   It began in the 1920s and reached its peak between the Post-WWII period and the mid-1970s.

Fordism is based on the strategies of Henry Ford.  He believed in mass production and improving efficiency.  These techniques significantly lowered the cost of producing cars in his factories.  He also believed in paying his workers a living wage so they, too, could afford his cars.  He wanted to create a consumer base for his product.

Ford’s strategies were one of the main causes of increased consumerism that began after WWII.  During this time, Western countries – particularly the United States – saw unprecedented economic growth.  In many ways this was the “golden age of capitalism.”

During the same time as economic growth, many countries developed their own version of the Keynesian welfare state.  John Maynard Keynes was a British economist who believed the government should do anything possible to avoid a recession.  He advocated demand-side government spending to stimulate growth even if it meant going into debt.

The purpose of the Keynesian welfare state is to redistribute wealth so everyone has a minimum standard of living.  This means increased taxes and lots of government provisions such as infrastructure investment, welfare services, homeless shelter programs, pension plans, etc.

Unfortunately the golden age of capitalism and Keynesian economics reached a crisis during the mid-1970s.  Many cities and countries had high levels of debt and could not sustain high taxes.  This occurred for a variety of reasons, but one of the main drivers was outsourcing.

Companies in the Global North began to outsource their manufacturing to the Global South.  Although this resulted in higher profit margins, it also caused deindustrialization and high unemployment in previously prosperous cities.

1970s – 1990s: Post Industrial Age

With this economic slump came the rise of neoliberal government policies brought on by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the United States.  What is neoliberalism?  It’s the increase of a market-oriented and capital-centric political doctrine.

Liberal economics are very different from liberal politics.  The “liberal” in “neoliberalism” refers to freedom in markets, not freedom for individuals.  It’s based on various financial liberalization policy positions such as flexible labour markets, privatization and deregulation, small government and tax restrains, and decreased government spending.

During the 1980s, many LDCs also had high levels of debt.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank issued loans to poor countries, but these loans came with conditions attached called “Structural Adjustment Policies.”

SAPs forced neoliberal policies developed in the Global North onto the Global South:  public services were privatized, long-term infrastructure investment was halted, borders were opened for foreign investment and trade, etc.  These policies had disastrous consequences for developing nations.

Although it’s tempting to completely blame Third World poverty on SAPs, it’s also important to remember that these countries were already in debt for other reasons.  That’s why they needed loans in the first place.

1990s – Present: Globalization

We’ll briefly discuss “globalization” because it’s a term to that’s thrown around a lot in literature.  Globalization in an unfolding process intertwined with neoliberalism.  When people argue against globalization, they’re usually arguing against the neoliberal form that is currently taking place.

Politicians often use it as a justification to advance a neoliberal policy or agenda.  To many people, “Globalization” seems like an inevitable global transformation they can’t stop.

How did this current wave of globalization begin?  By advances in technology, particularly transportation and communication.  These advances gave markets and supply chains new international reach.  Major transnational corporations now have unprecedented power over numerous countries’ local economic conditions.

Furthermore, globalization combined with neoliberal deregulation has arguably fuelled a “race to the bottom” in both the Global North and Global South.  In developing countries, this often means relaxed environmental regulations, an extremely low minimum wage, and little (if any) employee protection provided by the government.

1990s – Present: Developing Countries

The 1990s and new millennium were supposed to make up for all past troubles of the SAPs.  The belief was that since many developing countries were now operating in almost a utopian free market, progress had to be imminent!

Did this happen?


The 2003 UN Development Report stated “The main single cause of poverty and the inequality during the 1980s and 1990s was the retreat of the state.”

Unfortunately development and growth without redistributive policies does not create a ladder for people to climb out of poverty.  After SAPs were implemented, slum growth exploded.  Big business agriculture made it impossible for many rural communities to support themselves.  Migration increased to cities.

Furthermore, this is also the first time in history than urbanization is occurring without economic growth: there are no jobs available in the city.  For the past 30 years we’ve witnessed a huge jump in inequality both between the Third World and First World as well as within Third World countries themselves.

World Development Report 2009

So how are international agencies responding to this crisis?  Here are some quotes from the World Development Report published by the World Bank in 2009:

“Economic growth is seldom balanced. Efforts to spread it prematurely will jeopardize progress.”

“With development, people and production become concentrated in some parts of countries, called ‘leading’ areas. Economic density grows in these parts while incomes in places economically distant can lag far behind.”

“No country has grown to middle income without industrializing and urbanizing.”

As you can see, the World Bank justifies increased inequality by calling it inevitable and necessary for economic growth.  This report unquestionably favours the urban.  The authors argue that people have to move out of the countryside to cities for economic development to happen.  They also argue that trying to mitigate inequality will stunt economic growth.

EWB’s Strategies

What is EWB doing to address these problems?

I hope you can see from this presentation that most of the problems in developing countries are not technological.  The technology has been invented to address poverty: energy, sanitation, transportation.

The problems, however, are in the system.  That’s why EWB focuses on working with local organizations to develop solutions.  We believe that Third World countries have had enough strategies imposed on them from the outside.  Ultimately we are accountable to the people of LDCs in which we operate, not our donors or stakeholders.

Slum Housing 101

In many peoples’ minds, the word “slum” conjures up imagines of cardboard boxes and temporary shantytowns.  It carries connotations of crime, filth, disease, and immoral behaviour.  Politicians use it to describe the homes of people they want to relocate.  Developers use it to justify communities they want to demolish.  It’s a place where homeless children run wild as single mothers prostitute themselves for a buck and abandoning fathers drink themselves to death.

Ok, maybe that last sentence was a little much.  But you get the idea.  Most people who don’t live in slums – especially in the developed world where we are far away from Third World realities – think of them as places of abject poverty and moral deprivation.

Unfortunately, both the actual number and proportion of people living in slums is increasing as population growth and urbanization continue.  Today, half the world’s urban residents live in slums.

So what’s the solution?  These people need homes.  Simple as that.  These people need secure tenure.  They need access to basic necessities like clean water, waste disposal, transportation.

There are three basic strategies to slum housing.

[Please note the following information is taken from my class notes for “Geography 352: Urbanization in the Global South” taught by Dr. Charles Greenburg in 2011.  The text for the class was Planet of Slums (2006) by Mike Davis.]

1.  Public Housing

Public housing was a common strategy employed by governments all over the world during the mid-1900s.  Some examples of countries that still have strong public housing policies include Cuba, Venezuela, and Kenya.  Essentially, the state either uses vacant land or clears existing slums to build large projects.  These typically take the form of huge apartment complexes.

Various issues have arisen regarding public housing.  For instance, who gets access to housing?  Usually public housing targets lower middle-class or upper-lower class, meaning not necessarily the poor people most in need.  It’s also very expensive for governments to maintain.

In South Africa, the government is turning over most of its public housing projects to private non-profit organizations (like Madulammoho).

2.  Spontaneous Housing

Most of today’s slums are examples of spontaneous housing.  Also known as self-help housing, this strategy allows poor people build their own communities.  Migrants are left alone to build slums wherever they can find room, whether inside a city or on its fringe.  Unfortunately the areas left over are often vacant for a reason, such as environmental damage (pollution) or unsafe locations (cliff sides, fault lines).

But besides that problem, this strategy sounds pretty straightforward, right?  It’s actually relatively uncommon for states to sanction spontaneous housing.  Governments do not want to condone slums.  If you’d read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (2003), think of slum the main character lives in.  It’s adjacent to a large construction project, but everyone knows that once construction is finished, the government will demolish the slum.  The police visit periodically to destroy parts of it and assert their authority.

Herando de Soto of one today’s biggest advocates of spontaneous housing.  He argues that if the state gives people title to the land, it promotes upward mobility.  People feel safe investing in their houses and gradually upgrading their lifestyle.  Essentially, if the state would just get out of the way, people’s natural entrepreneurial instincts and the market will sort out the problem of insufficient housing.

Mike Davis, on the other hand, argues that giving slum dwellers title ship will not stop many of the problems associated with informal housing.  He calls de Soto’s strategies “soft imperialism” meaning that titling will increase land value and make slums more attractive to the middle class.  It is a way for the state to move land development costs onto the poor.

Davis also admits, however, that titling gives slum dwellers legitimacy and a political voice that they would have otherwise.

It’s a complicated subject, no?

3. Sites and Services

The third strategy regarding slum housing is a mix between public housing (arguably doing too much) and spontaneous housing (arguably doing too little).

“Sites and services” means that the government selects areas for development and sets them up with basic wet infrastructure and power.  The poor are then left to build their own homes.  Sometimes governments sell property credits or subsidized housing materials.

This strategy allows the state to decide where migrants can live, which hopefully means it’ll environmentally safe places.  On the other hand, it also means the poor have no choice in location.  Often the sites are too far away from the town centre for people to live and commute to work.  In addition, even the most inexpensive sites are too costly for many poor people.

Today, most governments are leaning towards spontaneous housing as their coping mechanism.  In the past, many experimented with public housing or sites and services, but those were SAP-ed away by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.  (SAPs are “Structural Adjustment Policies” that the IMF and World Bank imposed on Third World countries wanting loans in the 1970s and 80s.)  Since the 1970s, states have moved from strategies of replacing slums to improving them.  Or hoping they improve themselves.

Second Wave Urbanization

[Please note the following information is taken from my class notes for “Geography 352: Urbanization in the Global South” taught by Dr. Charles Greenburg in 2011.  The text for the class was Planet of Slums (2006) by Mike Davis.]

The modern world has experienced two major waves of urbanization.  The first occurred around the time of the industrial revolution from approximately 1750 to 1950.  During these 200 years, the amount of people living in cities around the world increased from 15 million to 423 million.

This first wave mostly affected Europe and North America.  Overseas migration to the New World relieved population increases in European cities.  Natives were slaughtered, immigrants took over, resources were extracted, etc etc etc.  Oops, I mean brave settlers explored the new frontier and conquered dangerous, untamed wilderness.

Sorry.  No more editorial; back to urbanization.  (If you read my blog you have to put up with my bias.  Ha, watch my view count drop to 2: my parents.)

The second wave of urbanization is occurring right now.  It began in 1950 and is predicted to continue until 2030.  In less than 100 years, scholars estimate that the world’s urban population will increase from 309 million to 3,900 million.  In 2007, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population was living in cities.  This proportion will only continue to increase.

That’s huge!  The speed and scale of urbanization happening right now is completely unprecedented!

The second wave is occurring mostly in developing countries – also known as LDCs (less developed countries), the third world, the global south, or post-colonial countries.

Today, there is no new land to exploit.  There are no large landmasses for the urban poor to feasibly take over.  The migrants have to make room where they can in already over-crowded cities.

But there is no room.  There isn’t enough formal housing.  There isn’t enough infrastructure for basic necessities.  People are migrating too fast for the state to catch up.

At least that’s what most governments say.  Whether facilities can be constructed fast enough is debatable.  It depends on priorities.  A couple new stadiums for the Olympics or World Cup?  Easily accomplished.  Housing for the poor?  Sorry, not enough funds.

As a result of rapid urbanization, slum and shantytown growth is also exploding (more to come later regarding the word “slum”).

The following is a direct quote from my class notes:
“Finding adequate housing is the biggest problem facing the urban poor.”

This is why I’m in South Africa right now.  Not to save the world or salve my privileged conscious (well, maybe a little bit), but to relieve some of the pressure facing Johannesburg’s urban poor.  Organizations like Madulammoho are working hard to keep pace with urbanization.  Yes, this NGO has expanded extremely rapidly since it began in 2005.  But look at the speed of migration!  We need to learn from mistakes and build new, adequate projects as fast as possible.  Because – not to sound too ominous – people will keep arriving regardless of whether or not the state is ready for them.

What are some other possible solutions?  Governments could change policies and regulations to reflect the new reality of rapid urbanization.  Instead of trying to stop migration – which has proved extremely difficult and expensive, if not impossible – they could explore alternative means for enabling people to build/find their own housing.  But that’s a whole other subject to tackle and, unfortunately, I’m not nearly knowledgeable on that topic to write about it yet.

Anyone else?  Thoughts?  I love hearing your opinions.


I don’t like the dark.

It’s not a huge fear (like my fear of spiders) but I just don’t like being alone at night.  I’m ok walking in the city where there are streetlamps and cars driving by, but I hate walking around the island at night  – even though it’s probably much safer.  There’s almost always enough moonlight to see clearly and the houses aren’t that far from the road.

In South Africa it’s not recommended to be out at night.  Especially alone.

The lack of streetlamps gives every street a sinister feel.  Even though I’ve read many urban planners who discuss the link between adequate lighting and security, I never actually felt that link before now.

A couple days ago I went for a run in the park after I got home from work.  At the beginning, there were lots of people out; most were walking their dogs.  About halfway through, I realized dusk was beginning.  There was much less people out, although I still got passed by the occasional cyclist.

Dusk quickly became nightfall.

I ran hard those last 2km.

I felt safer once I reached the street again.  Now I was running past houses instead of the river.

Proper lighting: one more thing that I took for granted back home.

Taking Taxis

I know I wrote earlier that the taxi buses have a bad reputation, but that’s among white people.  As I’m quickly learning, anything that involves the black population has a bad reputation among the white people here.  It seems to me that the reputation is usually worse than the reality.

The truth is that taxi buses transport the majority of Johannesburg’s working population every day.  They’re fast, frequent, and reliable.

For the last couple days I’ve been taking taxis home from work.  It’s easy because Hillbrow is the beginning/end of the route, so I can just walk to the taxi stop from the office and get into one of the waiting taxis.  To take it to work from my home, I’ll have to stand beside the highway and signal.  I haven’t done this yet.

They’re an adventure.  Four rows of seats, three people per row, except for the back row which has four people.  It’s hard to believe 16 people (including the driver) can fit into one of those vans.

A broken taxi being pushed along a street in Hillbrow

It’s R10 (Rand is the SA currency) a ride, which is about $1.20 CDN.  Once inside, everyone passes their money to the centre person in their row, who then passes it up and mutters how many people it’s for.  So if you’re in the back row, one of the middle people passes it up and says, “Four.”  If you’re in a middle row, someone passes it up and says, “Three.”  Then the driver passes back the change and whoever passed the money up passes around the change to his/her seatmates.

The first time I took it home, my coworker walked me to the taxi stop.  I asked him, “How will I tell the driver to stop?”

He said, “Where are you going?

Me: “Jan Smuts and Conrad.”

A man in the taxi nodded and said he’d tell me when to get off.  We took off and barreled along the highway, weaving in and out of traffic.  Whenever people wanted out, they’d quietly say “Next robot” or “This corner.”

“Robot” means traffic light.

Everyone talks quietly in the taxis.

We got to the corner I wanted and I hesitated.  I thought the taxi would turn left because I thought that was Jan Smuts Avenue, but I was wrong.  Right was Jan Smuts, and left was Conrad – where I wanted to go.  The taxi took off from my corner, but someone else (who I hadn’t spoken to previously), said, “No I think she wants off.  She wants Conrad into Blairgowrie.”

A woman told me to walk left and go past Nando’s restaurant.

Needless to say, everyone was super friendly and helpful – despite being black.

(This is an example of me using exaggeration to represent sarcastic humour.)

The next day, I knew exactly where to get off.  Near my stop I slowly made my way from the back of the taxi to the second row (behind the driver, next to the door), and muttered, “Next robot.”

Easy.  Simple.  Effective.

The Importance of Transportation

I am a big believer in the importance of the transportation system.

I focused on transportation engineering in my undergrad degree because I think improving this sector is one of the easiest ways to address our carbon footprint.  In BC, the transportation industry accounts for approximately one third of BC’s GHG emissions.  That’s huge!  But these inefficiencies offer significant opportunities for innovation and progress.

Living in South Africa, I am beginning to see the social importance of transportation.  Johannesburg is car city.  It consists of various suburbs and townships sprawled over a large distance.  These different residential areas are then connected by 3+ lane freeways.

It is impossible to get anywhere in this city without a car.

Public transportation does exist.  The most common form is the taxi (which is different from “cab”).  Taxi minibuses drive along fixed routes and pick people up on the side of the road, making up whatever traffic rules they see fit.  Unfortunately, taxis do not have a good reputation for safety (traffic collisions, mugging, kidnapping, etc.  Ok kidnapping is an exaggeration).

There is also a state-of-the-art train that was built for the 2010 World Cup.  I took it from the airport into the city when I first arrived and it’s pretty cool!  (Spoken like a true engineer.)

Along with the train, the city created some municipal bus routes.  These vehicles are like the blue buses we have in Vancouver, but nicer and newer.

So it’s possible to get to work and back if you plan where you live accordingly.  But it’s really hard to have a social life.  The taxis stop running after dark – not that you want to be standing on the side of the road in Johannesburg at night anyway.  The buses only go along a few major routes.  There are cabs like the ones we have in BC, but you have to phone the company and who knows how long it will take.

It’s frustrating, to say the least.

Even though my hosts have been extraordinarily helpful and generous with their offers to drive me places, I still feel stuck at home.  It’s terrible feeling trapped!  I want to go swimming at the pool in the neighbouring suburb.  Nope.  Check out the Brazilian jujitsu dojo 11 km away?  Buy groceries?  Everything becomes exponentially more difficult.  (Current diet strategy: no food in the house.)

It amazes me how much transportation – or lack of – is affecting my lifestyle.

This transportation system reinforces a polarized class system of the rich and the poor, the accepted and the marginalized.  Imagine being told you can’t buy a vehicle because of your ethnicity… one more form of disempowerment.

We’re incredibly lucky in Vancouver.  We have an adequate public transit system that helps equalize income differentials.  We have bike lanes.  It’s safe enough to walk – plus it’s so pretty that you want to walk!  It’s easy to hail to cab.

How am I supposed to go out drinking in this city?  Forced sobriety – the worst!

On a more positive note, there’s a park near the house I’m that temporarily staying that I can run in, so at least I’m exercising and seeing nature.  But imagine being stuck in the inner city with no recreational facilities.

Conclusion: an effective transportation system is worth so much more than the infrastructure costs.

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