Review: Urban Governance In Post-apartheid Cities: Modes Of Engagement In South Africa’s Metropoles

Editor(s) Christoph Haferburg and Marie Huchzermeyer
Publisher University of KwaZulu-Natal Press
Year 2015

Society and government in South Africa are confronted by a considerable challenge to transform a country which was founded upon the exploitation of its natural resources and native inhabitants into a just and economically viable modern state. Nowhere are the challenges, tensions and contradictions more evident than in the nation’s metros, and where the objectives of local government, the private sector and communities intersect.

This book examines how city governments in post-1994 South Africa engage with other parties, particularly the private sector and communities, in an effort to fulfil their mandates. It explains the function and structure of local government and, in particular, the responsibilities of the eight largest cities, which have ‘metro’ status in South Africa. Although Johannesburg is used as the primary reference, examples are also drawn from elsewhere.

The book is organised into five parts. These describe its purpose and overall context, the vision and role of the state in addressing some of the contextual challenges, examples of interactions at community level, some roles and initiatives that have been negotiated by the private sector, and some ways in which place and space have determined the nature of engagements.

This collection of perspectives and stories covers a wide range of themes in policy and practice: housing, security, social integration versus exclusivity, gender and justice, high profile events, protests and violence, community agencies and community politics, and the leverage of the private sector and moneyed classes.

I have reviewed this book from the perspective of a development facilitator, seeking to learn how different city managements engage with particular actors in various fields, looking for strengths, weaknesses, trends, lessons and potentially useful precedents. I found the chapters to be concise, relevant and written in a broadly accessible style — and supported by plenty of diagrams, tables, maps and photographs to aid comprehension and enable comparisons.

In a new democracy with considerable development needs and challenges many of us are preoccupied with how to engage directly and productively with government. This timely volume provides valuable insights into how and where local government is engaging with other stakeholders in South Africa today — and to what effect.

The primary difficulties highlighted by the book are created by the contradictions between the government’s neoliberal, developmental and social welfare obligations. A viable private sector undergirds the economy but its profit imperatives confine it to financially-manageable fields of operation, which inevitably exclude clients who lack such basics as adequate income, shelter, health or education. Where attempts at compromise or coercion have been made they have proved unsustainable. Any ’honeymoon period’ for government in the new South Africa is now clearly over; its weaknesses, flaws and wishful thinking are aggregated early in the book (in Chapter 2) so that there is no avoidance of the challenge to be faced.

I really appreciate Alison Todes’ presentation of the South African context in Chapter 2, organised into pithy, vivid summaries of the economic, political, demographic, spatial and institutional changes that the country has undergone in recent times. It gets to the heart of these matters. As a resident I expect to often draw upon it as a reference, and I would expect anyone not as familiar with contemporary South Africa to find it a very illuminating and stimulating introduction or update.

In her conclusion, Todes highlights the crucial economic role of cities and its consequences nationally in the power and directions of urbanisation and locally in persistent spatial segregation, escalating income inequalities to a grotesque level and the stresses and conflicts that result. These include fascinating details such as a decline in household size within cities, reflecting the need of job seekers within the large margins to be as adaptable and mobile as possible. She also distils the plight of government as it tries to fulfil obligations and expectations that in practical terms are mutually opposed.

The chapters which follow demonstrate the very varied ways in which metro governments, private sector organisations and forms of community agency engage (or desist from engaging) with each other to achieve their objectives. Some combine profit, safety, security and exclusion, as in the development of gated residential estates. There are also examples from the other end of the housing spectrum in which the private sector is scarcely interested and a fascinating polemic is displayed about the merits of antagonistic, agonistic and pragmatic approaches by community agencies. In other chapters insights are provided into the process and real or imaginary effects of great metropolitan events — ‘festivalisation’ — such as the FIFA World Cup and other ‘global city’ initiatives; and of how the introduction of catalytic transport strategies has been managed by different metros. Windows into an increasingly privatised security industry, the persistently inadequate attention to women’s rights, the complexity of grassroots representation, and the sustained application of inappropriate town planning regulations are all illuminating. This is a very stimulating book.

The book also nudged me into some new perspectives, such as about the value or productivity of violence versus agonism, and how money and efficiency may trump politics and policy. The essence of this book is a stream of rich narratives about how wealthy and poor people navigate or flounder in the contradictory and confusing waters created by a struggling government. These are complicated matters to research. Getting to the truths of such circumstances in one’s own city and milieu is a daunting enough prospect, let alone being brave enough to write about it candidly. The authors are to be congratulated, and the editors even more so, because they have procured a fascinating and complementary suite of stories, in a very readable volume. It is a fascinating and stimulating urban reader and creates a point of departure and reference for studies of other places and spaces.

I expect this book to arouse interest across Africa and among all students of government on the continent. There is no philosophising here; it is a collection of real stories and crisp analyses of transactions at the crucial city level in South Africa. Without pretending to offer complete coverage of metropolitan issues it provides enough to provoke the reader to enquire about the gaps, and to ask the same questions about other cities in other countries. It will surely also inspire questions about the balance of power, responsibility and resources between central and local government, and about the ability of government at any level to engage fairly, responsively and constructively with both civil society and the private sector.


Gerry Adlard has many years of experience as a development facilitator and coordinator, and holds a doctorate from the University of Cape Town in urban geography.

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