Thoughts before the opening event of ‘People Matter: the Human Impact of Planned Redevelopment’

I have been invited to participate in an opening event for a one-day international symposium with the above title. The symposium starts tomorrow, Saturday 13 September, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; the opening event takes place tonight (Friday 12 September) and will involve a story-telling circle of activists and resident leaders from different places. Brief blog posts linked to the event can be viewed on http://www.colab.mit.edu

Posts on this blog include the following:

‘Communities as a force in public revitalisation’;    ‘Disasters fast and slow: grieving for a lost home’;    ‘The agony of displacement: reflections from Nigeria’;    and    ‘Reconstructing from bits and pieces: a Cape Town story’

Is it serendipitous that this invitation came just as the District Six campaign / attempted conversations with CPUT were becoming more public? This current case study cannot but be the focus of the story which I will share as a real-time, present struggle for the assertion that people do matter, and it is wonderful to have this opportunity for the affirmation of this position.

The organisers of the symposium describe its genesis as “commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first published study of those human impacts, back in the days of America’s highly contested and ultimately defunded ‘urban renewal’ program.” The study being referred to is by Marc Fried: ‘Grieving for a Lost Home: Psychological Costs of Relocation’.

Reading his chapter which is part of a larger publication (‘Urban Renewal: the Record and the Controversy, edited by James Q. Wilson: MIT Press) in preparation for the symposium has been interesting to say the least. Familiar scenarios in terms of describing impacts of the loss of home; interestingly talking about the loss of homes that were part of a slum in the West End of Boston, foregrounding the fact that they were people’s homes, not that they were slums. It just reminded me of how often back home, the description of District Six as a slum has been offered by some as justification for its destruction.

He describes people in the post-relocation period as having had various levels of readjustments in their new homes, but for the majority he likens their loss of home to having characteristics of grieving. ‘These are manifest in the feelings of painful loss, the continued longing, the general depressive tone, frequent symptoms of psychological or social or somatic distress, the active work required in adapting to the altered situation, the sense of helplessness, the occasional expressions of both direct and displaced anger, and tendencies to idealize the lost place’.

All in all many analogous stories and many different ones as well. Leaves me thinking once again about how we, collectively as South Africans, ensure that due care and thought is given to understanding the human impacts of so much of our recent and not so recent pasts? How can we ensure on a much larger scale, that decision-makers, policy- and programme-planners are compelled to be more analytical in their strategies for linking solutions and problems? No social cohesion is possible with an attitude of ‘let’s forget about the past and let’s move on’; no reversing of the legacies of the Land Act or any other past instruments of injustice is possible without a thorough understanding of how those legacies still live within us as individuals and communities, and how we have been personally and collectively pathologised by them.

I would be interested to learn about how CPUT has invested in the research and knowledge related to its disciplines of town planning , architecture , design and related fields and how its curricular content reflects an awareness of some of these complexities. I pose this as a question because I do not have first-hand knowledge of their syllabi, but if we accept that ‘by their deeds shall we know them’, their recent deed of development violence reflects an unthinking, uncaring and untransformed agenda.

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