Ekurhuleni: The Making of an Urban Region

Author(s) Bonner, Philip and Nieftagodien, Noor.
Publisher Wits University Press
Year 2012

The former East Rand – the extensive urban region lying to the east of Johannesburg – has played a pivotal role in South Africa’s economic, social and political development. Ekurhuleni: The Making of an Urban Region is a fascinating and well-researched book that narrates the dramatic history of the region. Over the last century or so the area grew rapidly to become the country’s leading mining territory. It then evolved into South Africa’s manufacturing heartland.

Decades of economic growth attracted a booming population, for which the region was ill-prepared, resulting in squalid living conditions and considerable hardship. Ongoing social dislocation was another feature of the region, as the apartheid government sought to impose a stark pattern of spatial segregation on different social groups, with black community enclaves on the margin. Ekurhuleni experienced more forced removals than any other part of the country.

The white minority consistently sought to exploit and control other sections of society, fuelling social division and outbreaks of violent conflict. These struggles sometimes went beyond race to cultural, ethnic and national distinctions. The book describes how differences emerged within and between communities, and between different parts of government, especially the local and national authorities. Apartheid was not a monolithic, undifferentiated and unchanging project. Although heavily ideological in character, there were also pragmatic features of its development.

Moreover, subjugation and oppression usually provoked a counter-reaction, the strength and impact of which varied greatly over time. The most effective responses were achieved when community groups formed powerful alliances with trade unions and student organisations to oppose state injustices and to press for reforms. Political mobilisation in Ekurhuleni intensified during the 1970s and 1980s, and made a unique contribution to the ultimate collapse of apartheid and introduction of democracy.

Decades of brutal social engineering have left deep scars on the social and physical fabric of the region, including isolated townships and overcrowded informal settlements with appalling standards of living. The comprehensive reorganisation of local government in 2000 was intended to create the basis for spatial integration and resource redistribution by amalgamating the fragmented towns and transforming the decaying townships and destitute shack areas. However, this has proved to be more complicated than envisaged, so progress has been slow. The different towns of Ekurhuleni have a long tradition of competing with each other to attract investment and jobs, which inhibits cooperation.

Ekurhuleni metropolitan municipality covers an enormous territory and it remains a rather artificial administrative entity. It includes many localities with parochial identities and extensive informal settlements requiring costly infrastructure investment. It is one of South Africa’s most difficult metropolitan areas to govern precisely because of its dispersed character and the absence of a common identity or functional coherence. This book draws on original interviews with key figures in the political struggle and skillfully pulls together the existing literature. It is a very useful contribution to understanding the tortured history of this region and the complicated legacy facing the current administration.

Two themes are addressed rather briefly in the final chapters, but not given the attention they really deserve. First, there is limited discussion of current government policies which are tending to perpetuate and reinforce, rather than to counter-act, the region’s fragmentation and segregation, particularly the RDP housing programme which has created new dormitory settlements on cheap peripheral land. Second, de-industrialisation is having a profound effect on the region’s economy and society and threatening the hard-fought political gains. It is undermining the fragile stability of local communities and jeopardising the fundamental viability of the metro.

Professor Ivan Turok is the acting Executive Director in the Economic Performance and Development Unit of the HSRC. He is Honorary Professor at the Universities of Cape Town and Glasgow, and has a PhD in Economics, MSc in Planning and BSc in Geography.


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