Ann Crotty

The government must intervene radically in the ownership of land around South African cities to ensure optimum economic growth, the country’s top mayors were told during a course at the weekend.

Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of the Colombian capital, Bogotá, said the quality of urban life was the most important determinant of modern economic growth and that the leaders of South African cities should decide what kind of cities they wanted.

While land and then capital were initially regarded as the most important factors in economic growth, now it was people, Peñalosa told the mayors and their management teams. “How do you ensure that the best South Africans stay in South Africa and don’t go to London or New York? By making it attractive.”

Peñalosa and his successor are credited by many with turning one of the world’s most violent and corrupt capitals into a peaceful and vibrant city in less than 10 years.

Peñalosa spoke at a unique course called “Leadership in local government: building globally competitive cities”.

Executive mayors in attendance during the first two days of the course at the weekend included Zukiswa Ncitha of Buffalo City, Patricia de Lille of Cape Town, Mondli Gungubele of Ekurhuleni, Parks Tau of Johannesburg; Zanoxolo Wayile of Nelson Mandela Bay and Kgosientso Ramokgopa of Tshwane.

The cities’ management teams are attending the full eight-day course, run by UCT and the World Bank Institute and sponsored by the Treasury and the SA Local Government Association.

The theme of the first day of the programme, which Peñalosa addressed, was “Rapid reform is necessary”. That necessity, as he sees it, is based on the fact that South Africa is currently 62 percent urbanised and is likely to experience a rapid increase in urban population in the coming years.

“In South America, where there is 90 percent urbanisation, the population of the cities increased by 300 percent when the urbanisation rate increased from 62 percent to 85 percent… what’s happening in South Africa now, happened in South America years ago.”

A critical factor determining the success of the urbanisation process would be the availability of land around the growing cities. “If you don’t deal with this issue, you won’t be able to solve the housing problem.”

The lack of available land was resulting in informal developments being established in “very bad locations”.

Peñalosa said that the market economy, in the case of land around growing cities, did not work because the supply of land could not be increased to match the increased demand. “This means that rich land owners become richer… just because cities are growing.”

He said that the government had to buy out these landowners either voluntarily or compulsorily and create a land bank.

The programme is the second to be convened by UCT’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice, which aims to promote strategic leadership in government and places a strong emphasis on accountability in governance.

The seminar will see the introduction of the Treasury’s Cities Support Programme, which aims to support and strengthen service delivery at municipal level.