Defend Truth


We need new cities now to address urbanisation and its housing and poverty crises


Mmusi Maimane is leader of Build One SA.

In the next 10 years, we should be doubling the number of South African metros from eight to 16. I can suggest eight right now across seven provinces. George, Kimberley, Mahikeng, Polokwane, Nelspruit, Pietermaritzburg, Welkom and Mthatha.

“When China needs new places for people to live, they just build a new city. They’ve built 600 of them since 1949” wrote Nathan J Robinson last month in Current Affairs magazine, of which he is the editor-in-chief.

Robinson’s article put forward suggested solutions to solve California’s housing and homelessness crisis that has overwhelmed the west coast state over the past two decades.

There shouldn’t be a housing crisis in California, he states. “It’s not like California is full – the state’s land is vast and mostly sparsely populated. There are enough homeless people in California (160,000) to populate an entire [new] city of their own.”

I found this reading of California’s homelessness situation both apt and comparable to the South African experience. Though the causes and the intricacies of each differ, the problem is the same and thus the solution can be the same.

Tragic events over the past week – the floods in KwaZulu-Natal and the fire in Langa, Cape Town – again bring to light the question of spatial planning in South Africa. Our country is plagued by systemic governance challenges in both urban and rural development and planning. And these are not mutually exclusive tasks. Instead, the success of one depends on the success of the other.

There is a pattern within government whereby action is only taken in response to the consequences of a problem, instead of addressing the cause. It is the converse of the adage “prevention is better than cure”.

Take the Langa fire as an example – 260 structures were destroyed, affecting 767 individuals. I was on the ground on Easter Monday to assess the matter and to provide immediate relief for affected individuals, and became aware of deeply unsettling truths.

The most stressful thing for these nearly 800 displaced people was not the loss of their dwellings or their personal belongings. Instead, the most stressful thing was to make sure no one else would come and erect a shack on the small piece of land their shack was erected on before the fire. People would stand guarding their land all night, pointing to a more complex problem facing government.

Net urban migration into cities is out of control, driven by two factors. One, almost nonexistent rural development – economically and socially – and two, the absence of new, functional cities across the country.

This means cities like Cape Town and eThekwini cannot provide adequate basic services to a moving target in total number of residents. This results in too many people living on the periphery of cities as a sort of “non-resident” or “quasi-resident” of that city.

Like California, our high concentration of people within a few cities affects every resident, but disproportionately affects poor residents. So, what to do?

In his 2019 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that South Africa has not built a new city since the dawn of democracy and the time has arrived to think about building a “smart city”. He was partially correct. But his solution falls short of what is required.

We don’t need to think about it. And we don’t need just one. 

Innovation-driven thinking about the future requires building many new cities for the future. China is an example of this, as alluded to by Robinson. In the next 10 years, we should be doubling the number of metros from eight to 16. I can suggest eight right now across seven provinces. George, Kimberley, Mahikeng, Polokwane, Nelspruit, Pietermaritzburg, Welkom and Mthatha.

In doing this, you de-densify current cities and alleviate pressure, create new economic opportunity, and pave the way for changes to the economy and the world of work.

Take for example Nelspruit in Mpumalanga. The province’s economy is highly dependent on coal production which currently provides many thousands of jobs. As we move away from coal towards a greener, more sustainable energy mix, forward thinking needs to consider how new jobs – with transferable skills – are created in the province. A move from linear thinking to lateral thinking about cities and local economies is required.

In addition to this, focus needs to be redirected to getting the basics right in urban and rural development.

First, more concise, bespoke urbanisation plans for our existing cities are required. A national Ministry of Cities should be established to oversee this process.

Second, a rethinking of spatial planning in existing cities to build smart cities that are work, live and play areas. There are pockets of certain cities that have got this right, and we should learn from best practice how best to reproduce this success.

Third, a more conscious approach to rural development. It is true that not every South African will live in a city. However, there often is no choice for rural citizens. Where people are not working, the invisible hand of the economy pushes them into cities to find work and sustain a livelihood. Meaningful rural development can address this.

And finally, local law enforcement needs to step up and apply the law without fear or favour. The moving-target phenomenon will continue as long as land invasions are allowed, and densely populated informal settlements are built in contravention of by-laws.

If we get the basics right, coupled with aggressive focus on building new cities and rural development, we will avoid the tragedies that are witnessed year in and year out. Sadly, this isn’t the first fire in a city’s overcrowded informal settlement, and it certainly won’t be the last. In seeking solutions, emphasis ought to be on prevention instead of cure.

More importantly, this approach will develop and grow our economy, it will respect and uphold the dignity of citizens, and will help break down the walls of ignorance that still exist between the haves and the have nots in our country’s major cities. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Alan Jeffrey says:

    What we need more than anything is a radical plan to stop and reverse runaway population growth. most of the ills we face on Earth are related to this issue-poverty, destruction of the environment, depletion of resources, social tensions etc etc.. the answer or at least, alleviation of most of our problems will follow from such a plan

  • James Grinyer says:

    Not one mention of how this would be funded. But assuming funding is found, the ANC can never be trusted not to steal most of it, plus they prove every day, they are incapable of building anything that would last.

  • John Weinkove says:

    7% of people in the UK live in the countryside. We must expect the same thing in South Africa. Moving to the cities is called urbanisation. This whole concept has escaped our current government.

  • Peter Atkins says:

    If I understand the proposal correctly, it is to expand more smaller cities into Metros rather than just let the existing Metros grow through people coming from rural areas, desperate to escape poverty. Sounds good to me, especially if the new cities become “work, live, play” areas. Now to get the required investments. Maybe use the SEZ type incentives?

  • Jill Tyson Tyson says:

    Cities in the “New world” are prone to massive increases of population. Cairo, Mexico City and others quadrupled in size in a few decades. Our cities should plan for this now. Well placed new cities would be vital.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted