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After the Bell: SA desperately needs a brand-new, shiny, start-from-scratch city

After the Bell: SA desperately needs a brand-new, shiny, start-from-scratch city
Illustrative image: (Photos: Rawpixel)

There have been some proposals for new cities in SA, but none that would be run by a private entity within a special economic zone.

I wrote on Wednesday about the problems of state collapse highlighted in the Harvard Growth Lab’s most recent report on South Africa, many of which we know all too well. But the second half of the report focuses on a different problem: urban planning.

Although the issues of state collapse are very familiar, the findings of the study in this area are an eye-opener, at least for me. 

The conventional view of urban planning in SA, if you can call it that with a straight face, is that it’s all apartheid’s fault. Apartheid split cities into disconnected, sprawling segments and the result has been massively different urban development histories, with long and expensive commutes for workers.

The theory is, of course, largely and transparently correct. But, it turns out, it is a bit more complicated than that because, for one thing, why has so little changed in the 30 years since democracy?

One of the things the report did was examine cities which have had growth spurts largely after the apartheid period, including George and Mthatha, the former capital of the Transkei. Rather than developing in a different way, both seem to be replicating the problems associated with apartheid-era city development.

And what are those? Most cities around the world are densely populated in the centre, and the population density drifts off as you get into the suburbs. South African cities don’t work like this, and the most obvious example is Johannesburg, where most of the residents live more than 30km from the city centre. 

Parts of Joburg city are densely populated, but nothing even vaguely comparable with other cities of the same size.

On the increasingly rare occasions I go into central Joburg at night, Gotham City and the Batman floodlight shining up into the sky are not far from my imagination.

So why is this deviation from the norm a problem? The simple answer is that the great efficiency of cities is usually something called urban agglomeration: you get the sudden boost associated with all kinds of economies of scale which play into one another.

The easiest way to imagine the benefit is to imagine the opposite: if a city is not providing services, everybody will try to create their own solutions. 

They will try to find their own power, their own water, their own security, and so on. In a city that works, these problems can be solved en masse, which ends up being much more efficient. 

This is one of the reasons why cities have such a developmental advantage over rural areas. And there is also the surge of creativity unleashed when people in close proximity to one another meet and share ideas and solutions. 

What the study found, therefore, was that the apartheid-era planning explanation needs to be looked at a bit more closely. 

What SA started with was disconnected cities where economic opportunities are far apart, formal housing is exclusive, and mobility is expensive. 

“Post-apartheid policies are not reversing these outcomes. In fact, we find that they are exacerbating them,” the report finds. That is a pretty chilling finding.

What happened in the post-apartheid period was a push for government-provided houses that was supply-side driven. Because the Constitution says “everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing”, government built millions of relatively high-quality houses during the RDP period.

“However, by taking away the agency of people to choose where they want to live, these programmes exaggerated spatial exclusion in cities,” locating the RDP houses essentially in areas where land was cheap.

The solution, the report finds, is to focus on reforming the demand side of the equation: ease the zoning laws, change the building codes, and let residents have more of a say over where they want to live. 

This seems sensible enough, but the fantasist in me would love to see SA completely starting again with a set of new cities. In some ways, SA has done that already with the establishment of Sandton, now effectively the capital of the country.

The idea is much less intimidating than it sounds.

A bunch of African countries have decided to go down this route, but, interestingly, they are not necessarily entirely new cities in entirely new places. Eko City in Lagos is really just a new suburb, as is New Cairo, although this project is on a much larger scale.

The really interesting one is Tatu City, just outside Nairobi, because it runs as part of a special economic zone, so it has a private-sector administration. It’s designed for all income levels and all types of industry and is centred – as many of these new cities are now – around ecological principles.

Tatu City is pretty developed now, with four schools and 70 large-scale industrial companies, and eventually 250,000 people will live in the 2,023-hectare area.

There have been some proposals for new cities in SA, but none that would be run by a private entity within a special economic zone.

In some ways, the closed housing developments north of Joburg are in this bracket, but they tend to focus on high-income residential developments only. These are islands of prosperity in a sea of misery; they are not an inclusive solution to SA’s spatial planning dilemma.

That requires a bit more imagination. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kevin McShannon says:

    Thanks for highlighting this Tim. One could postulate that apartheid spatial planning made use of race as a convenient cover for the real business, which was land speculation. Which would give the answer to why not much has changed since 1994. Because the conditions which allow speculation still exist. A proposition given new credence by the German state of Baden Wuertemburg which voted to introduce it in 2025, is to base municipal property valuation on the land value only, not what is built on it (for rates to collect municipal revenue) The creation of special economic zones, are in effect some sort of version of that, being attempts at promotion of economic activity. But the whole of South Africa could become a special economic zone, if we changed the property rating system, to reduce speculation in land prices, and to foster conditions for more and better economic activity, which is mostly a factor of affordable access to land and its natural resources. And less tax on production. Then we could use the infrastructure we already have, in our decaying towns and cities, and renew them and densify them, and stop the sprawl. We don’t need a new city. We can’t afford it. It would just be a case of a change of zoning making agricultural land, city land, and somebody will profit big, just from that rezoning.

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