Thoughts on a world class African city

Article via Urban Joburg by 

On 8 July 2013, the Advertising Standards Authority dealt with a case on Joburg’s assertion of itself as a ‘World Class African city’. Our newest contributor, Michael Clark, interrogates this notion.

On 8 July 2013 the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that an advertisement of the City of Johannesburg in which it referred to itself as a “world class African city” was “misleading”. According to ASA, the city had made various misleading claims in the advertisement, namely that it was financially secure, environmentally friendly and had continuously created employment opportunities despite the economic downturn. This finding came after a Johannesburg resident, Steven Haywood, laid an official complaint with ASA to dispel the claims made in the advertisement. In dismantling the city’s claims Haywood argued that the city had received three qualified audits by the Auditor-General and had written off revenue worth R12 billion as “unlikely to materialise”. Haywood also argued that the city was losing R1.2 billion worth of electricity and R800 million worth of water a month, and was therefore not environmentally friendly. With no evidence refuting the complainant’s claims, ASA was left with “no option” but to rule against the city.

While it is laudable that Haywood came forward and challenged the questionable claims that the city presented as fact, the ASA ruling also raises an important question: What is a “world class African city”?



We all too readily allow ourselves to get caught up in labels like “world class”, but we seldom unpack what these notions mean. We never ask ourselves; “world class” according to whom and for whom? Instead we automatically assume the standardised notion of a “world class” city as perpetuated by the mainstream. We assume, as Edgar Pieterse writes, “that modern, gleaming, skyscraper-filled cities, with adequate networked infrastructures in place to support them, is the only and ineluctable way into the future”. These cities are aesthetically pleasing cities free of “crime and grime”, free of the chaos of informality and free of the poor.

However, these assumptions of what a “good” or “bad” city is may be short-sighted. Poverty and informality are inescapable realities of our cities and we should be finding ways to make our cities work for all who inhabit them rather than trying to airbrush these elements out. We live in a country where the vast majority are poor, vulnerable and often relegated to the outskirts of cities. The city is as much their home as it is anyone else’s. We also need to recognise that the stigma of the poor as somehow dirty, lazy, inferior and, to quote an apartheid era law that sought to “rehabilitate” people out of poverty, “idle and undesirable” is a fallacy perpetuated over generations.

With income inequality steadily increasing in South Africa and significant levels of South Africans that remain trapped in severe structural poverty, there is a pressing need to acknowledge that any South African city will necessarily require differing groups to harmoniously cohabitate urban spaces. This reality goes beyond mere tolerance. Instead it poses unique opportunities for us to consider markedly different notions of development. In this way we can reconceive of the city as a place where various income levels and different groups live together, each contesting and negotiating their shared lived realities on a continuous basis.

We also need to reconsider our stance on informality. Regularly, we reject informality as a feature of the “third world”. This dismissal is often informed by the belief that informality potentially threatens our economic interests. As a friend recently argued, a home owner has to consider her investment after all. However, this loses sight of the fact that economic stability is often informed by the prevailing notions of what a city ought to be. For example, people are usually willing to invest in clean, “safe”, non-poor areas as they’ll supposedly receive a good return on their investment. On the other hand, people are less likely to invest in areas that are poor and exhibit informal characteristics. But this is putting the cart before the horse, as investment itself drives economic stability. Thus, if we alter our assumptions about what a desirable city looks like, economic stability will follow.

Informality also presents possibilities to address some of the most pressing social challenges facing South African cities. Embracing more informality in building regulations and standards, for example, could unlock considerable low cost housing stock and informal trade has the potential to alleviate the dire consequences of unemployment. Informality is also what gives many cities their unique magnetism. An obvious example is the incredible informal market places of the Middle East. This is not to suggest that urban regeneration should not occur, but rather that regeneration should take place on a fundamentally altered premise: one where we seek to reconceptualise a city according to the needs of all those who lay claim to it.

If ever there were a “world class African city” surely that would be it?



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