Long road to spatial transformation of SA’s cities

In 2016, the spatial transformation of South African cities remains elusive. South Africa’s cities are still characterized by urban sprawl, the private car dominates, and poor, mainly black South Africans remain on the urban margins, excluded from economic opportunities.

The legacy of Apartheid spatial engineering and planning continues to inform the reality of urban life after more than 20 years of democracy. In cities, where the majority of South Africans live, “it is harder in 2013 to reverse apartheid geographies than it was in 1994,” notes the recently released 2016 State of South African Cities Report, published by the South African Cities Network. And the ideals of equity, prosperity and sustainability captured in the country’s various urban development policies — the 1997 Urban Development Framework, the 2011 National Development Plan, and the 2016 draft Integrated Urban Development Framework — have yet to be realized for the majority of South Africans.

Spatial transformation is critical for the growth and development of South Africa’s cities. The report goes into great detail about why a long-term agenda that fundamentally changes the spatial structure of South Africa’s cities is necessary to create cities that are more inclusive, and economically and socially just. Below is a brief summary of what the report highlights as necessary to transform South Africa’s cities:

Land transformation

Poorer people need to live in better-located urban areas so that they are close to opportunities. This can be achieved through long-term planning that involves protecting land in areas of future urban growth for low- and mixed- income and mixed-use development.

A transit-oriented development (TOD) trajectory will enable the “stitching together” of poor, peripheral suburbs with mixed-use and industrial nodes that offer jobs and economic activity.

City builders need to prioritise pedestrian walkways rather than vehicular traffic and create more public squares and parks.

Transforming politics and power

Corruption, inefficiency and political power-brokering challenge spatial transformation, while the private sector, and also private/public collusion, and private individuals have power over built environment decisions. Greater transparency is required, along with shared values and ethics, so that public, private and civic stakeholders can create sustainable, integrated cities.

Transforming institutions and intergovernmental relations

There is a need to move away from the traditional “silo approach” exhibited by government. Intergovernmental relations must be strengthened to drive the spatial development agenda.

Cities need more funding and fiscal instruments need to be streamlined to respond to the integrated nature of development and spatial transformation. Cities also need to make better use of instruments, such as land value capture tools, and improve project management processes to get the maximum value out of interventions that have larger social benefits.

Transforming management and capacity

Officials need multi-disciplinary skill sets to deal with complex urban and land reform issues. Likewise, to achieve better public transport integration, particularly to integrate the minibus taxi industry, requires multi-disciplinary skill sets and innovative approaches that can engage with urban complexity.


The full chapter on Spatial Transformation in the 2016 State of South African Cities Report is available for download.

Photo credit: 2016 State of South Africa Cities Report.

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