Metros in SA: Debate on national policy choices

The recent local government elections saw the creation of two new metropolitan municipalities in South Africa: Buffalo City (East London) and Mangaung (Bloemfontein). A third contender, Msunduzi (Pietermaritzburg), fell by the wayside in the aftermath of a fair amount of opposition to its proposed metro status.

This is, perhaps, not surprising. Simply stated, any declaration of new metros inevitably brings to the fore fairly normal tensions between urban and rural development.
The metro debate in South Africa is significantly influenced by different policy perspectives on what constitutes the ideal national development path—and on how potential conflicts between urban and rural development can be mediated.

Because the country has never developed an explicit national development strategy, tensions between urban and rural development continue to play out. They also continue to influence views on whether metropolitan areas, and their governing municipalities, are anything special in the development landscape.

Metropolitan areas are large, densely populated urban conglomerations, often covering multiple cities. There are a number of definitions of what constitutes a metro area. Most of the criteria, however, revolve around capturing a functional settlement within specific boundaries. Hence if people live in one area and work in another, their commuting patterns will reveal the functional boundaries of a particular conglomeration.

Metropolitan government in South Africa is a single-tier system, which sees one institution being established to govern the metro area in question. This is an important point to mention because if one removes a local municipality (such as a significant secondary city) from the ambit of the larger district municipality within which it falls, it diminishes the chances of local fiscal redistribution occurring from the secondary city to its rural hinterland.

There are two prevailing views on the role of metropolitan areas. The first (arguably dominant) view sees metropolitan areas as the engine of a country’s economic growth. Proponents point to the overwhelming contribution made by metros to national GDP. Much is also made of the fact that most of the world is urbanising rapidly, with major cities now housing the vast majority of a country’s population and, concomitantly, the bulk of its labour force.

Internationally, many national governments now look to metropolitan areas as critical sites of creativity and innovation. As the global economy moves into a more knowledge-oriented one, engineers, IT specialists, financial gurus and artists are increasingly locating themselves in cosmopolitan cities that offer them outlets for their creativity. These types of workers, in turn, attract major firms to these areas. Indeed, one of the newer ways of defining what constitutes a metropolitan area revolves precisely around the number of research and development firms that locate to a particular area.

Because of their unique characteristics then, many believe that these metropolitan areas need to be governed by specialised institutions—metropolitan municipalities (or metros, as we term them in South Africa).

Viewed with suspicion
The other argument states that metropolitan spaces are not necessarily special within the national context—and policymakers need to be wary of ploughing too many resources into those areas. This school of thought is usually accompanied by a view that there needs to be very carefully balanced development between a country’s urban and rural areas. Underlying these arguments is the belief that making metros or large cities “special” somehow negates the value of rural areas. There is also some wariness that this will take national fiscal resources away from rural areas. As a result, any policy choice that is explicitly “pro-urban” is often viewed with suspicion.

In a dual economy like South Africa’s, it is almost inevitable that such policy choices are immensely difficult to make. However, these unresolved policy choices and conflicting perspectives on what makes for “good development” arguably lie at the heart of the resistance to the declaration of new metros in South Africa. And in the absence of a uniform view on the role of metropolitan areas, debates about how large urban conurbations should be governed become equally difficult.

Despite this resistance, however, South African metropolitan spaces are evolving fairly rapidly into sophisticated economies. Municipal areas like uMhlathuze and Emfuleni, for example, are becoming densely populated spaces with significant volumes of international trade. If we are to harness the gains that many believe metropolitan areas can bring to national development, we need to have an honest conversation about the role of these urban pockets in our country.

In having that conversation, we need to look not only to international experience, but also to our unique spatial legacy. But despite our apartheid past, we must keep sight of the fact that the world is changing rapidly. Knowledge is the new commodity that defines economic success, and large cities are typically where knowledge is created and nurtured. South Africa’s future development trajectory cannot afford to ignore that reality.

Lynelle John and Landiwe Mahlangu are, respectively, a board member and chairperson of the Municipal Demarcation Board

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