These are troublesome times, all over the world. Challenges are real and there is no point in pretending it’s all going to be okay. Let’s face it, we can’t recover from the dysfunctions of so-called democracy just like that. There are still deep racial divisions, underfunded education systems, bigoted leaders and unfinished peace processes to contend with. Humanity is in pain and turmoil, and likely entering what complex systems theory call “creative destruction”. It is in that spirit that we should look at what we can rescue; what, despite all the chaos, still works.
At the Mobility Indaba workshop organised by the Dutch Consulate last month, the facilitator asked us to brainstorm in groups on the things that work when it comes to transport in Cape Town. At first, the room went silent. It was easy to point to the flaws in the system, but nobody could think of a positive. Then someone raised her hand. Said she found people really helpful in giving directions when she was lost. Participants looked at each other and nodded in agreement.
Another hand went up. “Drivers are respectful when traffic lights don’t work and they manage to follow the stop-go formula without traffic officers”.
More hands. “Minibus taxis have great coverage.”
“There are tons of people cycling in certain parts of the city; they are just not in the CBD and so don’t get the limelight.”
“There are areas of the city deemed ‘unsafe’ where people have come up with ingenious ways to provide services.” (In Gugulethu, for example, outside shops you can get someone to push your grocery trolley to your home. And so, the informal economy thrives.)
“Big transport interchanges might seem untidy but they work for a lot of people.”
And the list went on uninterrupted for several minutes.
At a subsequent course about social entrepreneurship, I was again reminded of how people find ways to meet adversity by tapping into what does work. Participants came from all over the world and regardless of the entrepreneurial idea they had developed, they all had something in common. It was the burning desire to help create, not profit or credit, but as Lisa Kane, one of my colleagues at Open Streets, would say: “love and connection”.
In times of despair, it seems nothing can be more powerful than reconnecting with our humanity and the things that still work. Our hearts tick along and our brains strive to untangle the web of chaos and contradictory messages society is giving us. As a response, people often take to the streets, which are a platform for connection, protest, movement and interaction.
I believe we need more of these platforms and hope that by facilitating more opportunities where we can use streets for dialogue, creative expression and play we can contribute to the resilience of our communities.
A couple of weeks ago, we worked with a team of tireless volunteers to put on the third Open Streets Day in Langa. A mix of local residents, university students and followers of the Open Streets movement gave up a Saturday to learn about road closures, permits and first aid. Then they gave up a Sunday to put their learnings into action when King Langalibalele Drive became car free. Volunteering can be disconcerting. Why would you spend your time and resources for no pay? Many have studied this phenomenon, and there are strong logical and academic reasons for how and why it happens. I’d like to think it’s because we believe there is enough working in our communities that each one of our contributions can enhance and multiply for the benefit of more.
Next Sunday, we repeat the exercise in Bellville when we turn one of the main transport arteries of Cape Town, Voortrekker Road, into Open Streets for the second time. The work with our local partner, the Greater Tygerberg Partnership, and the many individuals and groups volunteering their time and resources to turn the street into an urban playground is inspiring and gives me hope. The location could not be more symbolic: turning one of the most congested and people-unfriendly roads in the city into a place where people can, walk, cycle and play is a testament that change is possible and that simple changes can be powerful.
It is easy to get distracted by all the challenges, and we must take them seriously. They are altering our lives and our future. But we mustn’t forget there is also power in the simple things; how we interact with others and with our surroundings. If there is something that will always work, it’s our imagination, which is stimulated by play. Perhaps many answers lie there. Reconnecting with our humanity, with the kid inside, to believe again that a better world is possible might sound romantic and even superfluous, but that is precisely what happens at Open Streets Days. If you don’t believe it … come to Bellville on 20 November to see for yourself.