SA cities join hands for growth

The trend towards greater global economic integration over the past three decades has resulted in significant changes to the organisation of economics and politics, particularly at the level of cities.

Growing cross-national economic activity has resulted in new supranational financial and business arrangements (the G7/8, OECD, World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organisation), the formation of multination blocs (the EU, Nafta, Asean, Apec, Caricom, SADC and, more recently, Nepad/AU), the de-bordering of economic sectors, and the emergence of region-based forms of economic and political organisation, sometimes referred to as global city-regions.

A new initiative by South African cities is in response to the impact of global economic integration on cities, and the changing role of cities within the global and national economy.

The newly formed South African Cities Support and Learning Network (Cities Network) brings together nine of the country’s largest cities together with the South African Local Government Association (Salga). One of the network’s major aims is the sharing of information and expertise to “focus on the role of cities in the global and national economy”.

The network originated at a meeting last year between the mayors and city managers of the nine largest cities in South Africa, together with Provincial and Local Government Minister Sydney Mufamadi. It was agreed then to establish a forum to promote shared learning between cities.

Andrew Boraine, adviser to Mufamadi, said: “The name of the game now is regional cooperation and not competition between cities.”

While the SA Cities Network focuses on the full scope of the urban management process, four thematic focus areas have been identified:

  • City economic development;
  • City responses to HIV/Aids;
  • Urban indicators; and
  • Urban transport.

The Economic Development programme will concentrate on rethinking and defining economic development strategies for SA cities. A key feature of the project is to allow the cities to improve contacts and links with national government and the private sector. According to the Cities Network, there is a “lack of coordination” between government departments and metropolitan regions and cities.

“For example, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has many programmes available to promote higher levels of investment and to increase access to international markets. However, many metropolitan municipalities have insufficient knowledge of these programmes.

“In addition, there tends to be very little connection between parastatals and national agencies such as Transnet, Portnet, Intersite, Metrorail and ACSA (the Airports Company of South Africa), whose investment decisions have enormous impact on cities, and the cities themselves”.

Boraine added: “We also plan to develop a common trade and investment strategy for South African cities in partnership with the Department of Trade and Industry”.

A driving force behind the initiative is the need to compete in the global arena. Globalisation has led to cities having to re-evaluate their position and ability to promote trade and attract investment and technology.

Boraine said: “We need to harness the benefits of globalisation and control the negative effects such as the marginalisation and growing inequality between and within countries.”

The Cities Network points out that well-managed cities are a pre-requisite for attracting investment, and are essential for national competitiveness. “The quality of the locality is now an important criterion for investment decisions, in addition to costs, infrastructure and availability of skills”.

With an estimated 70-75% of South Africa’s population expected to be living in urban areas within the space of a generation, and between 70-80% of gross domestic product (GDP) already being generated in the cities, the “economic viability and sustainability of cities is critical for national economic performance”.

South Africa’s cities
South Africa’s cities are relatively small by global standards, with the only megacity (10 million people plus) being located in the Gauteng urban region (a combination of the areas of Johannesburg, Pretoria and the East and West Rand).

As a result of both its geography and political history, South Africa has a relatively balanced hierarchy of cities and towns. As a middle-level developing country, South Africa also possesses a higher level of resources to address a range of urban challenges than many other developing countries.

However, the difficulties and challenges faced by South African cities, particularly in the context of the impact of globalisation, are enormous.

In line with worldwide trends, South Africa’s population is rapidly urbanising (see box on right). While the urban transition presents challenges of poverty, homelessness and marginalisation, it also presents opportunities for economic growth and social development.

With the ongoing insertion of South Africa into the global economy, and the tendency towards concentration of firms in urban areas, the importance of metropolitan regions in South Africa is rapidly increasing.

At a Cities Network planning workshop held in February this year at Stellenbosch, Minister Mufamadi said: “As a specialist urban-focused forum, the Cities Network will have a role to play in accessing data, generating ideas and providing examples of best practice.” He went on to say that “our cities are in competition with urban regions around the world for an increasingly mobile capital”.