The 2016 municipal elections are over. Politicians campaigned tirelessly on issues of service delivery, infrastructure, crime and the scandals engulfing President Jacob Zuma, scoring political points in the process. Yet we heard little about the most critical issue facing municipalities: jobs.

Earlier this year, Statistics SA revealed that 5.7m people actively searching for jobs are unable to find one. That is 500,000 people more than last year.

It’s not surprising: our cities are battling to juggle the rapid increase in SA’s working-age population (now 36.4m people), coupled with the mass migration of rural populations to urban areas.

To satisfy this hunger for jobs, we can’t simply look to our first-tier cities — Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Secondary cities have to come to the party. These include Pietermaritzburg, Tlokwe (Potchefstroom) and Polokwane, which have to find ways to reinvent themselves if they are to compete for investment.

But can smaller cities do this?

For a start, they need to isolate their competitive advantage, and develop it. A "jack-of-all-trades" approach won’t work. If a municipality’s strength is its ports, technology, or manufacturing edge, it must double down on this.

A recent World Bank report, "Competitive Cities for Jobs & Growth: What, Who and How", confirms that all the cities that were truly globally competitive focused on their strengths.

Take Tlokwe. This city in the North West can use its excellent academic facilities to create a sophisticated knowledge-based economy and position itself as a research and innovation hub. It could attract knowledge workers and develop industries that complement its core strengths.

Tlokwe’s proximity to Johannesburg allows it to develop new travel and tourism products and then market these to the country’s largest market .

Whether it’s manufacturing or intellectual capital, cities must look deep within themselves to determine their strengths.

They need to think like businesses and adapt accordingly.

Of course, you need leaders who can cut through the politics and bureaucracy to maximise the potential of their cities for the people who live there. They have to focus on the long-term benefits beyond their five-year terms and resist populist pressures in order to achieve sustainable growth.

Take the Gautrain, one of Gauteng’s biggest success stories. Former Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa mooted the idea years before the first soil was turned. Today, it’s a world-class speed train service.

Second-tier cities also need to have solid and transparent economic data, which provides a compelling story for investors.

Cities that provide businesses with sharp, concise information about factors such as economic performance, wellbeing of the population and where start-ups are located will be the ones that attract investment.

They also have to position themselves as aspirational destinations, where people want to live and work. As it stands, South Africans who relocate typically choose Johannesburg, Durban or Cape Town. So what are cities like Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) and Mangaung (Bloemfontein) doing to harness these people?

When young people choose a city where they see a future for themselves, they are two to three times more likely to stay. Companies also want to invest in cities with a younger workforce.

Johannesburg’s Newtown is a prime example of how to regenerate an inner city, providing a canvas for young South Africans to live, socialise and shop.

It’s easy to see why. A typical 25-year-old isn’t ready for a staid house in the suburbs. He or she wants vibrant central areas: green spaces, river walks, downtown boulevards and art districts in modern city renewal projects.

Only in that way will SA’s forgotten cities put themselves back on the agenda.

•  Bac is a director in Grant Thornton’s property and construction division

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