Planning in post-apartheid South Africa’s erratic urban environment – Politics, Dysfunctional municipalities, Planning ‘skills shortage’, Fragmented urban form, and Blame games.

South Africa is urbanizing rapidly, with 67% of its population currently residing in urban areas. There is no evidence that this trajectory will change any time soon – estimates point out that by 2050, 8 in 10 people in the country will be living in urban areas. This will drastically increase demand for basic services and infrastructure in our urban areas – and consequently inundate most local governments’ capacity to provide basic services for their surging population as is already the case in many municipalities. The development of new cities and the strengthening of the capacity for urban planners are coming out strong on the spectrum of possible intervention measures against contemporary and future urban challenges.  The president of South Africa has highlighted the intent to build new cities and recently expressed concern over the shortage of skills for planners in the country.  Contrary to the president’s view on the shortage of skills in planning, the problem lies more in the environment in which planning is supposed to take place than in planning skills.

Planning in an environment infested with deep-rooted poverty and world record-breaking inequalities is by no means easy.  It is a kryptonite to one of the professions at the helm of addressing the imbalances of the past – town planning.  The systemic and perpetual exclusion of vulnerable population groups in South Africa not only renders bleak to the future of South African urban areas but also compromises the government’s intentions and efforts to attain an inclusive and sustainable urban configuration as well as threaten to hamstring or worse off reverse the gains of almost 28 years of democratic government.  This uniqueness of the South African urban situation calls for town planners and decision makers of a unique caliber, who measure up to the unique challenges at hand. The acknowledgment of the role of town planning in driving inclusive urban development, by the president is music to the ears of anyone who is paying attention to the development trajectory of our urban areas – which I assume is everyone.  Inequality and exclusion by any other name are the order of the day. The chasm between the haves and have-nots continues to deepen and widen. Planning “through a mandatory inclusivity or inclusionary process”, as recently called for by President Ramaphosa in his speech, is acknowledged as a great leap towards sustainable urbanization in South Africa.

In his 2018 speech at a send-off ceremony for newly appointed engineers and town planners to support distressed municipalities, the then COGTA Minister, Dr. Zweli Mkhize mentioned that the performance of the most of municipalities remained below expectations. He stated that “only 7% of the municipalities in the country are considered to be well functioning, with 31% being reasonably functional, 31% almost dysfunctional while the remaining 31% is dysfunctional.”  As if that was not problematic enough, he went on to state that “the situation in the country has been such that only 55 municipalities out of 257, had engineers leading their technical divisions.” The ultimate question therefore is; who is leading such divisions in the majority of municipalities? The answer to that question is always more disturbing than it is shocking, and it construes the genesis of the perpetuation of the egregious predicament bedevilling our municipalities today, and more importantly the town planning profession. The ability of municipalities to plan, deliver, operate and maintain infrastructure is dependent to a greater extent, on the capacity of officials to execute their responsibilities. The critical nature of urban functionalities and responsibilities demands requisite levels of expertise and skills, mainly in the field of town planning. However, town planners are struggling to make the required impact due to several loose ends in our planning systems and excessive political interference in the profession. In some cases, the profession has been ‘hijacked’ by merely rent-seeking agents who unfortunately sort to manipulate the loose ends in the system or policies and brazenly ‘parachute’ themselves or get ‘parachuted’ into roles of professional town planners through other means besides merit – qualification, skills, and experience. The disturbing consequences of this are glaring for everyone to see, as indicated by the above-stated statistics – as they say, ‘the proof is in the pudding.’ 

In a bid to deal with this scourge, the government through COGTA has made an effort in 2018 to intervene in distressed and dysfunctional municipalities in line with Section 154 of the Constitution, which provides that national and provincial governments must support and strengthen the capacity of municipalities to manage their affairs, exercise their powers and perform their functions. The Tuma Mina initiative has seen the appointment of several town planners including young graduate town and regional planners to intervene in areas where their expertise was identified to be scarce. This goal was to improve the lives of the people. The recent speech by the president reaffirms his commitment laid down in his Thuma Mina Pledge as outlined in his 2018 State of the Nation Address. The call for building inclusive cities guided by professional planning experts is getting louder with the Eastern Sea Committee’s focus on Inclusive Smart Cities as laid down in the Smart Cities Development Framework. The president highlighted the need for municipalities to own and control the land around urban areas. It is through ownership of land that municipalities can be able to control urban development and plan for inclusion and spatial integration through densification. Densification makes it relatively affordable for people to live and work in urban areas as it reduces the commuting cost as well as the cost of extending municipal service to the people, hence is it a tool for urban inclusivity which the president is heralding. 

Going forward, as we have a lock on comprehensive planning skills and a suitable environment, we must ensure that our cities are inclusive, and future new cities must address concerns relating to the fourth industrial revolution in a matter which shields against what research has already noticed and termed ‘digital divide’. We need a balanced mix of economy, environment, and society in our built-up environment to implement the inclusive city concept. We must examine our historic cities, which have a colonial contradiction with high-density African neighbourhoods and low-density European neighbourhoods. Now we must eliminate this amalgamation that colonization caused and build continuous cities with no socioeconomic stratification.

Prof Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu (PhD)
University of KwaZulu-Natal

Related Posts