Looted Spar Tops liquor store in Sandy Centre, Pinetown on July 12, 2021 in Durban. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/DARREN STEWART
Looted Spar Tops liquor store in Sandy Centre, Pinetown on July 12, 2021 in Durban. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/DARREN STEWART

The recent episodes of destruction and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng, as well as escalating taxi conflict in Cape Town, have brought life in SA’s cities back into sharp relief. The specific factors that have contributed to sparking the fires around these events are undoubtedly varied, but a common theme, among the many reflections being penned, is the acknowledgment that for many South Africans the places where most of us live and work — our cities — are beset by contradictions that appear to have become increasingly irreconcilable.     

At a time when the country has needed to muster its fragmented capabilities to meet the needs of a growing population of young people, we have fallen woefully short. A path out of this mess will require not only concerted effort to attend to issues of basic incomes, employment and safety, but will also need us to take a much closer look at the Frankenstein cities we have crafted onto the festering carcass of apartheid urban life.

While national policymakers have often tended to focus on the depths of poverty in SA’s rural areas, it has been the major urban areas that have borne the brunt of much of this economic, social and political morass. As the country has urbanised — in highly uneven and unequal ways — so the already straining metropolitan local government system has increasingly begun to experience not only lapses in services but more complex processes of institutional and infrastructural failure.

While many politicians dream of a world where their policies attract people back to mythical, bucolic economies, the harsh reality is that our major cities will continue to absorb more of the country’s population, both in times of crisis and in any times of plenty.

Urban experts such as Prof Ivan Turok and Dr Justin Visagie of the Human Sciences Research Council have reminded us that even during years of some urban instability, migration to SA’s cities has been a key factor in supporting households emerging from poverty. Others, such as my colleague Prof Justin Barnes at the Toyota Wessels Institute of Manufacturing Studies and the Gordon Institute of Business Studies, have noted the benefits to manufacturing supply chains from their geographic clustering in cities.

Yet despite these widely acknowledged indicators of the real and potential power of urbanisation, when the fleets of cabinet ministers and their advisers and chief bureaucrats gather in their planning sessions the matter of a path out of crisis for SA’s cities always seems to get lost.

Many of our policy documents still tend towards unhelpful and inaccurate binaries of cities as places of advantage and rural areas as places of disadvantage. As a result, these policies often promote what Prof Mark Oranje of the University of Pretoria has referred to as “geo-spread”, where public resources are predominantly directed to rural areas as a form of compensation for their disadvantage. Informed by this logic, national grants to small rural municipalities far exceed those for metropolitan cities in per capita terms. It also explains the approach of government ministers pushing for more rural-based special economic zones, while the ones at the periphery of cities perform anaemically.

Across our cities we see the abandonment of public passenger rail transport, while President Cyril Ramaphosa repeatedly talks of “new” and “smart” cities at a safe distance from the troubling hubs of existing urban settlement.

While the almost universal capacity of cities to help support national prosperity is increasingly appreciated around the world, this effect continues to be further curtailed in SA by the choices of political elites across our cities. In many cases they have shown little inclination to lift their heads from internecine squabbles for power and control over resources. This is a tale told not only in the ranking of much municipal debt as junk, but also in corruption charges and allegations against some of those who have wielded power in these cities. Insights from researchers such as Crispin Olver and Richard Pithouse reveal that these elite networks rarely have the interests of the cities or their citizens at heart, seeking instead to build political machines of power and patronage.

All of this has transpired despite SA’s Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF), adopted in 2017, arguing that “cities can enable a country to build a dynamic competitive advantage and allow its people to advance socially and economically”. The extensive lists of commitments in that document look increasingly unlikely to be realised in SA any time soon. In the Game of Thrones world of SA urban politics, blame for this gets generously passed around in ways not too dissimilar to that described in local government minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s now famous “zol” quip. As a result, there are increasingly few of us willing to express much confidence in what goes for urban municipal governance in SA.

The ever-growing to-do list that faces us as South Africans can quite easily seem overwhelming, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. But if history can teach us anything at this time it is that a state that takes seriously its mandate to create a viable public good, in the form of decently managed cities, has a much better chance of enabling its citizens to realise their collective human potential. Squandering the potential of urbanisation will leave us as a country with cities of hungry, justifiably angry and perhaps even easily misled citizens, with little faith in promises of a more prosperous shared future.

• Robbins is research head at the Toyota Wessels Institute of Manufacturing Studies and a research associate at the Urban Futures Centre, Durban University of Technology, and at Policy Research in International Services and Manufacturing, University of Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.

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