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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Special report on cities in transition

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  Johannesburg Development Authority

New thinking needed to cope with challenges of new century

JOHANNEBURG, 11 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - Southern Africa is experiencing some of the highest levels of urbanisation in the world, and governments are scrambling to cope with the needs of their growing and increasingly dysfunctional cities.

The continent has seen its urban population grow at an average annual rate of 4 percent, outstripping Latin America and Asia. In some individual countries, like Malawi and South Africa, the figure is significantly higher.

Unlike other parts of the world, where urban transition has been linked to industrialisation and greater economic opportunities, urbanisation in sub-Saharan Africa has come at a heavy cost. In stagnating national economies, city authorities have been left with few resources to address the needs of their residents.

Tens of millions of migrants from the countryside have resigned themselves to urban squalor in sub-standard housing, with limited access to piped water, electricity, refuse collection and other basic municipal services.

According to the UN agency, HABITAT, an estimated 187 million Africans are accommodated in slums; just 19 percent have access to running water; and only 7.5 percent are connected to a sewerage system.


Development experts point out that Africa's urban centres are largely the product of colonial development, where function, physical design, administrative and legislative structures often grew out of what had been trading centres.

At a recent international conference of urban planners, Zambian academic Chalo Mwimba noted that the main aim of colonial town planning had been to "control the influx of Africans to urban centres, or discourage their permanent residence".

He pointed out that British urban colonial planning in southern Africa typically reserved the city core for whites, leaving an undeveloped buffer space around the central business distric (CBD). Towns were often pre-planned and imposed on localities, without much attention being given to existing constraints.

Alison Brown of Cardiff University's Department of City and Regional Planning observed that modern urban planning in Zimbabwe has reinforced the segregation of the colonial era.

Brown further suggests that Harare's urban layout is completely contrary to the philosophy of sustainable cities, which advocates compactness, mixed-use development and high-density construction to reduce the use of non-renewable energy for transport.

In South Africa the Group Areas Act of 1948 pretty much reserved residential areas inside the cities for whites, while locating blacks in townships and homelands. In Johannesburg, for example, blacks had to live in areas like Soweto on the fringes of the city. Today, distinctions between formerly white and black areas have blurred, with people living where they want to - if they can afford it.

However, providing housing for the thousands of internal migrants from rural South Africa, as well as migrants from all over Africa, has proven to be an overwhelming challenge to local authorities.

Police have often had to evict squatters in Johannesburg, resulting in anger towards the government. The Johannesburg Tenants Association, which claims to represent residents renting apartments in the inner city, has launched a campaign to occupy empty buildings for its members to live in, "until the authorities provide alternative accommodation".

In response, the municipal authorities have embarked on an ambitious plan to build more low-cost housing, so that poor communities will not be relegated to far-flung townships without adequate access to transport, shops, schools and places of work, thus marginalising them even further. Increasing the availability of rental stock and the introduction of "flexible" housing, which can be upgraded to middle-income housing over time, is also envisaged.


Kadmiel Wekwete, a senior technical adviser to the UN Capital Development Fund, notes that Africans only moved to towns and cities in large numbers after attaining independence in the 1960s.

Post-independence national governments were caught off-guard, and proved ill-equipped to handle the rapid influx of migrants as economies weakened, leading to a crisis of "unmet" needs.

"Cities and towns that used to be clean and efficient began to be sites of decay and rot. For many citizens, cities did not provide access to better services; for many, urban living conditions were worse than rural living conditions," Wekwete commented.

The situation worsened in the 1980s, when many countries had to adopt structural adjustment reforms. Policies espoused by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank led to retrenchments and severe cuts in municipal budgets and, hence, inadequate financial and administrative resources to provide adequate basic services to urban populations.

Observers acknowledge that better financing is the key to rescuing African urban centres, but concerns over urban governance are prompting calls for better management and the reform of municipal systems.

Almost a decade ago, the UN Global Report on Human Settlements noted that access to adequate shelter, healthcare, education and other basic social services, while offering opportunities for economic security, were the main markers of sustainable development in an urban context. Equally important was the right of urban residents, especially the most vulnerable, to participate in local decision-making processes.


The fundamental problem facing African cities is the lack of revenue. Economists point out that the taxing power of local authorities is simply not wide enough, and the yield from existing sources is often inadequate to meet expenditures.

Botswana academic Aloysius Mosha has highlighted that African cities are usually largely dependent upon income derived from service charges and taxation on property, while the more lucrative sources, such as taxes on income, sales and other business imposts, are monopolised by central governments. Many cities have to depend on central government allocations, which are generally inadequate.

Poor management of municipal finances compounds the situation and contributes to funding shortages.

Mosha suggests a greater sharing of revenue between central and local government, and more creative ways of expanding the revenue base to improve collection levels.

According to Wekwete, improving urban governance capacity is about reviewing financial health. He notes that most African cities are currently experiencing major fiscal crises - many are not even able to pay salaries to their employees.

"It is not uncommon to find the lights at city hall disconnected because it failed to pay the electricity bill. On the other hand, citizens are suspicious of any attempts to raise rates or local taxes because revenue collected is often misused or embezzled," he explained. "The crisis is not just local - most African governments have unsustainable foreign debts and are unable to service them."


Almost 11 years after the first democratic elections, South Africa's urban centres continue to be marked by the city planning of apartheid that still separates the wealthy, mostly white-inhabited suburbs from the poor areas where most blacks live.

As a result of greatly extending the city's borders, the council is now responsible for an estimated 3.8 million inhabitants - around seven times the previous population. According to city officials, about two-thirds of these people are poor, earning less than US $4,000 per annum; around 20 percent are abjectly poor and live in informal settlements lacking proper roads, electricity or any direct municipal services; another 40 percent live in inadequate housing with insufficient municipal services.

National authorities have made a political commitment to addressing the problems of urban poverty in Johannesburg, but the task is complicated by some of the highest crime levels in the world. The Johannesburg central business district has been the victim of capital flight for a number of years, with major businesses leaving the inner city for the relative safety of the suburbs and satellite CBDs.

See separate report:
SOUTH AFRICA: Drive to regenerate decaying heart of Jo'burg

The fear of violent crime has led to the phenomenon of gated communities - islands of walled-off homes and precincts. It was recently reported that crime costs the city over a billion rands a month.

See separate report:
SOUTH AFRICA: Johannesburg - a city of risk and opportunity


While Johannesburg's city councillors embark on ambitious plans to reshape the urban economy and geography, financial constraints pose serious challenges to their counterparts in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare - once tagged the 'Sunshine City' - now widely seen as a mere shadow of its former self, with its population experiencing a rapid decline in living conditions.

As the country faces an extended economic crisis, service delivery in Harare has plummeted. One of the major concerns is the city's inability to provide a constant supply of clean water to its two million inhabitants, while the dire economic situation makes it nearly impossible to fund repairs and maintenance to the infrastructure.

Although internal politicking has aggravated the current situation, development experts have pointed out that modern urban planning in Harare has only served to reinforce the segregation of colonial times.

See separate report:
ZIMBABWE: Changing times for Harare


The challenges facing municipal officials in Luanda appear monumental, given the impact of the civil war, which ended in 2002, on the entire country.

The conflict in the countryside pushed the displaced towards the safety of the coastal towns or the capital. However, a recent study commissioned by the Ministry of Urbanism showed that Angola's urban poor increasingly suffer social exclusion, which inhibits their full participation in the post-war recovery.

As displaced persons seek settlement sites in both rural and urban areas, access to land has become the most critical potential flashpoint for conflict. For the first time since independence, a formal real estate market is emerging, although an informal market has existed for years. The government has offered major land concessions to commercial developers, many of them international companies, for joint-venture residential and industrial construction.

Without clear legal title to the land they occupy, three-quarters of the residents in the peri-urban districts of Luanda are at risk of expropriation by commercial developers or the state, as they have no recourse to legal redress or financial compensation.

For the urban poor, who also have no access to banking or savings institutions, the acquisition of a plot and building a house on it is their only means of accumulating wealth.

See separate report:
ANGOLA: Change slow to arrive for Luanda's frustrated citizens


Mozambique's GDP has been steadily growing since the end of the civil war in 1992, but the central government is still struggling to rebuild much of the destroyed infrastructure.

Years of civil strife forced millions from the countryside into the capital, Maputo, and it was hoped that when peace came, most of the displaced would return to their villages. Instead, urbanisation has continued unabated.
Although life in the city is hard - around 54 percent of residents live below the poverty line - it is harder still in the rural areas, and municipal authorities are finding it increasingly difficult to meet the rising demand for sanitation, water, electricity and garbage collection.

There is also growing concern that uncontrolled urbanisation has impacted negatively on the environment, especially the exhaustion of forest resources around the city.

See separate report:
MOZAMBIQUE: Maputo - overcrowded, underfunded

 Theme(s) Democracy
Other recent SOUTHERN AFRICA reports:

Acute malnutrition rates rise as food crisis deepens,  27/Dec/05

IRIN-SA Weekly Round-up 262 for 17-23 December 2005,  23/Dec/05

Volume of food aid causes transport bottleneck,  19/Dec/05

IRIN-SA Weekly Round-up 261 for 10-16 December 2005,  16/Dec/05

Renewed calls for culling in wildlife reserves raises alarm among conservation groups,  15/Dec/05

Other recent Democracy & Governance reports:

IRAQ-MIDDLE EAST: Street children face hunger and abuse, 26/Dec/05

YEMEN: World Bank cuts support by a third citing slow progress, 26/Dec/05

AFGHANISTAN: ADB approves US $55 million for post-conflict country, 23/Dec/05

NEPAL: UN welcomes Maoist statement on aid and development, 23/Dec/05

WEST AFRICA: IRIN-WA Weekly Round-up 309 covering 17 - 23 December 2005, 23/Dec/05

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