Updated: Apr 30
Nancy Odendaal, 29.4.2020
The first case of the Coronavirus was documented in March, a number of weeks after South Africa’s president outlined his vision for the country’s economic future in the 2020 State of the Nation address (SONA). The vision included many references to smart cities and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where these are seen as vehicles for the revitalisation of the country’s economy, after ten years of state looting and institutionalised corruption under his predecessor. The Covid-19 crisis has proven Cyril Ramaphosa to be a competent, compassionate and pragmatic leader. The WHO has credited South Africa with taking early decisive action in order to buy time for its stretched public health care system to adjust and not be overwhelmed, and for state monitoring and testing systems to be enacted. As a ‘smart city researcher’ my friends were quick to point out that perhaps these grandiose visions would now be replaced by pragmatic and contextually appropriate leadership. A kinder response perhaps that focuses on livelihoods and basic needs. My response? Yes… and no. In fact, I would argue that this is when, to paraphrase Robert Hollands, the real smart city will stand up.
As a member of this multi-country team researching the contextualisation and provincialising of the smart city in India and South Africa, I have perhaps become a stuck record in continuously emphasising my country’s distinctiveness in its ongoing quest to build a deliberate democracy. Smart has simply become part of the developmental narrative that is a keystone of the country’s constitution requiring local government, in particular, to work for the people, with the people. This conviction has been underpinned by my past research on the digital tools employed by social justice movements in Cape Town and Durban as well as work on local government strategies on this project in addition to prior endeavours. The SONA address shook that conviction somewhat. I was concerned by the technological determinism in the 2020 address and the danger it poses in redirecting resources away from more finely grained agendas such as land reform and social welfare for example. What tempered my nervousness was an innate belief in the power of civil society in surfacing such discrepancies.
The bottom-up responses to the coronavirus in South Africa has confirmed that smart-enabled mobilisation plays an important role in ensuring that the stringent approaches taken by the South African government, entailing some of the most rigid lockdown measures in the world, do not severely impact the poorest segments of the population. One of the biggest fears driving the country’s decisive response has been the prospect of exponential transmission in dense townships and informal settlements. The unfortunate result has been overzealous enforcement with reports of police brutality in some of the country’s poorest urban areas. Excessive aggression is part of the legacy of law enforcement in relation to public health in South Africa. Slum clearance programmes under the British colonial regime as well as during Apartheid were enacted with brute force motivated by a public health discourse claiming to serve the ‘public good’. South Africans are understandably suspicious of such claims, with the Covid-19 pandemic surfacing these worries.
The idea of legacy would therefore be my starting point in understanding the ‘pandemic South African smart city’. Rather than interpreting the virus response as new, as a rupture of sorts, I would argue that some forms of continuity are present. Existing state-led and bottom-up responses are layered, or build upon, a legacy of material and social networking that contribute to an ‘infrastructure of care’. The AIDS pandemic and ongoing Tuberculosis challenge have resulted in the establishment of a system of mobile testing units, screening centres and deployment of community health workers that together, enable mass testing. The government has embarked on community screening and door-to-door testing using a social vulnerability index; with much of this relying on mobile technology. These systems have therefore evolved to incorporate smart features and efficiencies yet coexist with home-based care networks and grassroots communication systems in a hybrid of sorts; the complexion and complexity of which is determined by spatial and socio-economic parameters. As we dig deeper into this, I suspect we’ll find socio-technical responses that become increasingly localised. This connection with the local is reflected in the other nationwide response that speaks to the extensive abilities of South Africans to politicise and mobilise.
The C19 People’s Coalition (https://c19peoplescoalition.org.za/) is an assembly of community actions networks (CANs), thus far established in Cape Town, Gauteng province and the Eastern Cape, together with national church organisations and local ecumenical advocacy networks. The aim is to enable community assistance at a neighbourhood scale through WhatsApp groups. The Facebook page reflects a diverse array of actions that range from food delivery, care for the elderly, local advocacy to information dissemination. This network of attention has received recognition from mainstream politicians such as the Gauteng Premier who acknowledged the need for the state to partner with such initiatives. What emerges from a scan of CAN responses on social media is an intention to hold the state accountable given fears of an overwhelming securitisation of Covid-19 prevention. This is the legacy of community organising in South African cities: an uneasy pivot between collaboration and mobilisation. I would argue that this unprecedented crisis will bring into relief what some of these points of contention are. The use of smart features to enable surveillance, community networking, testing and monitoring form an integral part of this moment and demand interrogation. I would argue that the smart pandemic city will reveal itself to be a hybrid, a continuation of state intentions and community resiliencies; the expansion, formation and morphing of networks that contribute to an infrastructure of care that builds on material and social resiliencies. Whilst technology may appear to drive the country’s urgent response to this crisis, it does not define it.