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03 May 2011

Growth of urban municipalities leads to poor services in informal settlements

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Press Release

South African cities are making a vital and growing contribution to all-round national development, despite their internal problems. This is one of the main findings of the 2011 State of the Cities Report, published by the SA Cities Network. It marks the 10th anniversary of democratic local government, and is published on the eve of the May 18 local elections. 

‘The relative success of large urban areas is attributable mainly to stronger economic growth over the last decade’, says main author Professor Ivan Turok, Deputy Executive Director at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). ‘This has generated higher levels of employment and the tax revenues to fund improved public services and social grants throughout the country.’

The nine biggest urban municipalities now account for 60% of national economic activity and the bulk of formal jobs. Growth has been reinforced by government investment in road improvements, airport expansions and other transport infrastructure. 
Improved economic opportunities have encouraged people in towns and rural areas to migrate towards the cities in search of better living standards. This has resulted in metro councils struggling to keep pace, partly through insufficient support and flexibility in national housing, land and social infrastructure policies.

‘Consequently, the share of households living in informal dwellings and without access to essential services has increased in the major cities, against the trend everywhere else. This has added to the frustrations of poor communities and helps to explain why protest action is concentrated in informal settlements on the margins of the big cities’ Turok says.
When the metro councils were formed in 2001, the government underestimated the task they were set. Bringing together disparate administrative structures to form single-tier city-wide authorities was a big achievement. However, the jurisdictions of the original core municipalities were greatly enlarged and extra responsibilities were added to service extensive low income areas from a limited tax base. The report argues that there is now greater recognition in government of both the challenges and potential of urban areas.

The major stresses and strains faced by the metros are as follows:
    •    Insufficient employment to meet the needs of people who want to work.
    •    Growth of unplanned settlements and backyard shacks lacking basic services and vulnerable to floods and fire damage.
    •    Competing demands on municipalities from different communities to reduce historic backlogs maintain existing services and accommodate new growth.
    •    Municipal financial difficulties associated with negative cash flows, inflationary wage costs and administrative deficiencies.
    •    Looming environmental concerns – water scarcity, energy shortages and overloaded sewage treatment facilities.
    •    A dispersed pattern of new building that is inefficient, unfair and environmentally damaging.

Turok lifts out three important messages for policy emerging from the report:
First, following a spate of bad publicity, it is important to rebuild trust in the competence and integrity of metro government. New municipal leaders should acknowledge past problems and restore credibility by tightening up internal procedures and making decisions more transparent. The voice of communities should be strengthened by revitalising ward committees and other oversight mechanisms. The new Consumer Protection Act will force the metros to get their houses in order by giving residents new rights to demand improved services.

Second, the government deserves praise for its current initiatives to devolve housing and transport powers to the metros. An integrated city-wide approach to transport, housing and spatial planning should help to manage urban growth more efficiently and equitably in the future. The metros will need to rise to the challenge, and will require additional resources and technical assistance to fulfil these functions effectively.

Third, the original vision of metro government should be revisited. A bold vision is needed of productive and inclusive cities in which all citizens can lead useful and fulfilling lives. It means giving priority to socio-economic development and jobs above all else. Developing human capabilities and active citizenship is a better way forward than welfare or consumerism. 

This requires the different spheres and agencies of government to work together more closely. It implies a multi-level developmental state in which the power of each sector is harnessed to ensure that every city achieves its potential. Metro councils should be the catalysts to make this happen.

Note to editors:
The 2011 State of the Cities Report is available at
For further information or interviews, contact
Professor Ivan Turok, Deputy Executive Director, Economic Performance and Development research programme, Human Sciences Research Council.
Tel: 021 466 7866; Cell: 082 735 4078; E-mail: