Cities have shown the way in responding to emergencies and crises

South Africa has found itself straddling a number of emergency governance issues. Cases in point include the drought that hit the Cape in 2018, the public riots in July this year, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, the ongoing corruption and malfeasance and the Eskom power crisis.

In this article I argue that cities can be beacons of good governance in times of crises.

Nowhere are the effects of the environmental, health, governance and energy crises more manifest than in our cities. City governments are finding themselves playing a central role in dealing with these complex sets of emergencies. In the wake of the past and current emergencies, cities have come out as the first responders. Their role has shed some light on the shortcomings of our multi-level state capabilities to respond to crises and how these can be mitigated through effective local government.

South Africa’s disaster management system, which is a policy framework for dealing with emergencies, outlines the capacity of the state to coordinate and communicate across different levels and functions of government and society, to mobilise the necessary intelligence, resources and actions required in times of an emergency. 

The onset of Covid-19 revealed some fractures in the disaster management frameworks. These shortcomings included functional disputes in terms of who within the state (national, provincial and city) is responsible for what during disasters and emergencies.

An all-of-society collaboration in times of crises is critical as demonstrated in the cities’ responses to a number of crises that beset them. There is an ever-greater need for co-governance and co-creation and levels of trust in mounting a responsive and sustainable emergency response. An all-of-society approach includes a participatory emergency governance approach, which combines a range of actors that include research institutions and academia, the state (all spheres), private sector, civil society and residents. An effective all-of-society approach requires genuine relationships to be forged with all partners. Cities should strive at all times to be open and willing to involve citizens in decision-making during emergencies through citizen assemblies, online consultations and crowdsourcing solutions among others.

Cities’ emergency response plans must not only be about those that live in the well-serviced centres, but must include those that live in the outskirts too. Emergencies disproportionately affect marginalised people, who are already economically and socially vulnerable. Human rights and social justice must be integral to the emergency and disaster governance response. Speedy emergency responses may not only be beneficial for the vulnerable but can go a long way in further protecting them from current and impending inequalities. The need to respond to the homeless plight during the Covid 19 pandemic was one of the positive aspects of this inclusive and people-centred response to emergencies.

The adage goes “never waste a good crisis”, and it follows that disasters and emergencies should be used by our cities as an opportunity to learn, innovate and bring about systemic changes to mitigate future risks.

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Sithole Mbanga
Sithole Mbanga is the chief executive officer of The South African Cities Network and has been with the organisation since 2002. He was part of the South African Local Government Transformation Programme that pioneered the new system of local government in democratic South Africa and is the nominated deputy secretary general of the Pan African body of local governments, the United Cities and Local Governments Africa

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