South Africa’s cities may face multiple, overlapping and interconnected challenges, but they are, nonetheless, the country’s best hope for turning the economy and manifold social crises around.
This was found in a report released by one of South Africa’s think tanks, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) titled ‘South Africa’s future will be decided in our cities’. The project was done in collaboration with Economic Research South Africa (ERSA).
The report argued that South Africa can only succeed if its cities work effectively, and if significant changes to how we think about urban areas and how we govern them were applied.
Ann Bernstein, executive director of CDE said the report, which is based on CDE work on cities over many years and five specially commissioned papers from leading local and international economists, said there was an urgent need to address the lack of skills, experience, and integrity across all levels of management in many of the cities.
This, she said, meant ensuring that officials were qualified to do their jobs, and a way was found to stabilise local governing coalitions with competent political leadership.
“South Africa’s metros should not be a political landing space for those who cannot make it in national politics,” she added.
In its report, the CDE found that cities work best when workers and employers were in close proximity to each other, reducing the costs of finding opportunities and of getting to and from work.
High density was also good for firms because of their proximity to large numbers of potential customers.
But, the report noted that the density levels in South Africa’s cities were dysfunctionally low.
“Cities need to support and encourage densification through investment in infrastructure, improving their own urban management capabilities and releasing state-owned land for high-density housing. National government support to strengthen metros in coping with densification is essential,” said Bernstein.
The report also found that South Africa’s cities needed much improved public transport, as it found that the current arrangements were failing most workers and work-seekers because of low densities and because policies and institutions – national, provincial and local – responsible for public transport “are not fit for purpose”.
The report further found that city governments did not understand or fully appreciate how business worked. It urged urban governments to allow the power and efficiency of enterprises operating in competitive markets to drive their economies.
“By focusing on the needs of business, a better environment for growth will emerge, jobs will be created, workable public-private partnerships can be established, and investments in infrastructure are more likely to yield economic returns,” it read.
Bernstein added that vital steps needed to be taken to stabilise city politics and to ensure that their leadership had sufficient space and political capital to authorise the policy changes that were needed. This, she said, may need meaningful political realignment and required pressure from civil society, including organised business, if it was to succeed.