Spatial transformation: Achilles’ heel for SA’s cities

Spatial transformation is a major challenge plaguing South African cities. More than 20 years into democracy, South Africa’s cities continue to be divided along race and class lines, with poor, predominantly black citizens living on the urban periphery far removed from city-based work opportunities. Commuting to city centres is expensive and time-consuming.

Spatial transformation is the “Achille’s heel,” said Sithole Mbanga, CEO of the South African Cities Network, at the launch of the State of South African Cities 2016 report in Cape Town Thursday. The report is published every five years.

“Spatial transformation is an experience,” said Sithole. “It’s about how citizens experience being in the city not only about the change of the structure and form of a city.”

South African cities are exclusionary — particularly for the poor. The lack of spatial transformation results in cities that are inefficient and unsustainable, said Sithole.

While Johannesburg has been leading with its ‘Corridors of Freedom’ strategy [which aims to reform the legacy of apartheid era spatial planning chiefly through transit-oriented urban development] spatial transformation hasn’t happened there, he said.

Sithole reminded attendees at the report launch, held at the offices of the South African Local Government Association, that Germany and South Africa were liberated at roughly the same time. But in German cities the differences that characterised the separation between East and West do not remain. South Africa, however, has continued to perpetuate the differences defined by the apartheid era.

One of the key issues is that people think that spatial transformation is the function of local government alone, said Sithole. But for spatial transformation to happen there needs to be national and provincial government engagement, along with involvement from civil society and the private sector.

Sithole lamented the absence of an active citizenry in city governance.

Panelist Hopolang Selebalo, of civil society group Ndifuna uKwazi, highlighted how spatial imbalances manifest in Cape Town.

In the city a significant proportion of poor, working class residents live far from work in locations characterized by poor and informal housing, and have long and expensive commutes to access work, schooling, and healthcare services, she said.

While a remnant of apartheid that has been difficult to tackle, this “historic spatial division is perpetuated by the construction of social housing on the outskirts of the city which results in dire consequences,” she said.

Ndifuna uKwazi is involved in the Reclaim the City campaign, which is demanding that the state use public land in the city for affordable housing.

“The seeming trend in the Western Cape through our experiences with provincial government has been to dispose of well-located public land to the highest bidder rather than construct affordable housing on these sites,” said Selebalo.

No new social housing has been built in Cape Town’s inner city since democracy, she said.

The City recently made public its plans to develop affordable housing in the city centre through the development of what is known as the Foreshore Freeway Precinct. Bids for the project must include an unspecified percentage of affordable housing, which can be built within the development, or somewhere else within the CBD, reports Groundup.

Panelist Ivan Turok, executive Director in the Economic Performance and Development Unit of the Human Sciences Research Council, called for a long-term approach to addressing urban challenges.

“We’re not going to address issues of spatial transformation by the dominance of short-term considerations,” he said.

Based on work he has done as part of a city planning commission for a report on eThekwini, the municipality that houses Durban, Turok highlighted core issues neglected in that municipality and elsewhere. These include neglect of the economy, the challenge of spatial transformation, not taking informality seriously, and municipalities being too inward looking without doing enough to connect with other spheres of government, civil society, and the business community.

The city is “facing enormous challenges which threaten to push it beyond a tipping point into a crisis which will have very very profound implications,” said Turok. “Those issues face all of our cities. Those risks of serious destruction and social dysfunction are pretty obvious to most of us in the room.”


Brendon Bosworth  is the editor at

Download the full State of South African Cities 2016 report from the South African Cities Network.

Photo credit: State of South African Cities 2016 report.

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