Power to the cities – but what about the rest?


Catalan independence rally, 2013: Barcelona’s push to go its own way has been greatly bolstered by the perceived gap between the British and Spanish governments on issues of devolution/independence.


One week ago, Scotland nearly voted to go its own way, led by a win in Glasgow, the ‘Yes City’. Just as Scotland has found itself governed by political parties it did not vote for (Conservatives, in particular, hold just a single seat there), the UK’s fourth largest city now finds itself inside a union it voted to leave. This is a feature common among the world’s great port cities, which often pride themselves on spectacular disloyalty to the countries they find themselves attached to. Cape Town has, at times, and to hotly contested degrees, pulled away from the path South Africa as a whole has chosen, and Capetonian exceptionalism runs old and deep as a literary, artistic and political tradition.

In a time when cities around the world enjoy an influence in national and international affairs that they last wielded when the modern democratic nation-state was young, a growing number of cities have used that influence to wrest powers and money from central government, for themselves and their immediate hinterlands. This means that Glasgow and Edinburgh, despite a loss for the nationalists, stand very shortly to gain a raft of new devolved powers, which are likely to include greater powers over income tax.

In Catalonia and the Basque country, these developments have been watched with considerable envy: the government in Madrid takes an entirely different view of the possibilities of allowing Spain’s autonomous communities to go their own way. Of course, Scotland is not a region of the UK; it has always been a separate country, maintaining its own legal and educational systems, to which a raft of new devolved powers were added in 1999 with the creation of the Scottish Parliament. Meanwhile, countries such as Belgium seem to have reached the practical limits of federalism, since the three language-based ‘Communities’ of Flanders (Flemish), Wallonia (French) and the German-speaking regions essentially run every major aspect of government except foreign affairs. When Belgium surpassed Iraq’s record for the length of time it took to form a national government after an election, this was partly because it didn’t really matter to anyone on a day-to-day level: Belgium’s regions have chipped away at the central state to the point that it is bare scaffolding.

South African cities cannot do that, of course: constitutionally, ours is a unitary state. But that same constitution outlines several grey areas of overlapping competencies that are alive with opportunity, especially in fields such as spatial planning. The recent Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act (2014, yet to enter into force) is a long-overdue attempt to tease out the meaning of these concurrent competencies by clarifying just how much leverage and independence South Africa’s metros and municipalities can aspire to.

SPLUMA has yet to take effect, but even a cursory reading of it highlights a deepening problem in South African local government, that of divergence in capacity. Put simply, provinces like the Western Cape enjoy a minimum level of competence in a large number of areas while parts of, say, the Eastern Cape can still seem like a failed state to the casual visitor. The Western Cape benefits from generations of private wealth and public investment; the Eastern Cape has suffered from the inverse, along with all of the ruinous innovations of Apartheid spatial planning. The Western Cape is in a position to actually implement SPLUMA; few provinces are. This means that a growing number of laws can only be said to be ‘real’ in the South African provinces with the three largest metros.

While the Western Cape is, then, not gaining any new powers in law, it tends to gain de facto powers to regulate itself all the time, simply by virtue of its greater capacity to meet legislative requirements on a basic level, such as attracting spatial planning professionals to each municipality. The Western Cape was, for example, the first to pass its own Land Use Planning Act giving local effect to the aims of SPLUMA. The City of Cape Town, in turn, will be the first metro to meet the basic provisions of these acts through major milestones such as its rationalisation of 27 separate zoning schemes into a single, integrated one.

Other provinces have been left behind, although there is significant variation within municipalities. And the gap seems to be growing, as better governance begets private investment, which delivers the kinds of taxes that municipalities will come to lean on ever more heavily in the context of declining central-government funding.

So, why does this divergence matter? Is it not broadly inevitable that disparities between different parts of the country will persist over decades? And does this not simply allow different provinces to compete on their strengths – some on what they offer, such as delivery, and some on what they don’t ask, such as low taxes?

After all, East Germany today is still poorer than the former West, despite nearly USD 200 billion in transfers since reunification. Money spent in the former West mostly goes further and yields a greater return. In spite of state largesse, much of the East has been witness to a declining population since 1989. Of course, these solidarity payments are not, first and foremost, economic ideas, so failure to level a country’s wealth map does not mean they aren’t working. They are, for states hastily stitched back together, political imperatives for which someone has found a fiscal and financial incarnation.

South Africa is like this, in some ways: the manifest cruelties and vast profits of the migrant labour system, by which black men undertook “virtually life-long participation in the urban labour market as a means of preserving a primarily rural way of life” (1), constitute a vast transfer of wealth, over centuries, from blacks to whites and from rural areas to the cities. The wealth gap between the three provinces containing South Africa’s largest metros and the rest of the country is large, and it is a crucial that the central government work to narrow it; solidarity spending means directing state money to where it is most needed rather than where it is likely to catalyse the most investment.

This idea may seem obvious, but – as the Scottish referendum shows – much depends on whether ordinary voters perceive large regional transfers on solidarity principles as a matter of basic justice, or as theft. Alex Salmond’s Scottish Nationalists claimed that oil revenues amounted to a large outflow of ‘Scotland’s’ wealth: where does that leave depressed English regions such as South Wales and parts of the North? Presumably, they should share only in ‘England’s’ wealth – which is to say, the surplus generated by London and the Southeast. Or should Manchester be expected to carry its hinterland? This is a slippery slope, because the North Sea oil won’t last forever, and the parts of England that are now struggling were once cash cows for the Exchequer. Unitary states are premised on the long game.

As South Africa’s cities, with an opposition-run Cape Town in the lead, work to secure greater autonomy from central and provincial government in a growing number of areas, these arguments matter. Our cities have a preponderance of articulate indignation and highly-resourced ire versus rural areas, and we are all better off when these are turned on the state of governance beyond and between the metros.

If our cities start to improve because a future Transport for Johannesburg has wrested powers (and staff) from the national passenger railway operator, or because eThikweni has taken steps to micro-manage its dynamic port, that is good for our cities. But what about the railways as a network, and the ports as a system, and the small settlements in between that depend on network and the system as such? These municipalities have no leverage of their own; they cannot, like the metros, pursue their goals by other means.

Transport for Cape Town is an entity founded in 2012 to coordinate all public transport modes in the metro. It is supposed to enable the alignment of goals and prevent the duplication of effort, to foster intermodality and combat spatial fragmentation. Yet its key “Vision of 1” – “1 Plan, 1 Network, 1 Management System, 1 Contracting Authority, 1 Ticket and Timetable, 1 Unified Enforcement System, 1 Fare and 1 Brand” – reflects something more than just a partnership between relevant stakeholders. It reflects also the extension of a dynamic City government and its oversight and delivery culture into the opaque world of the parastatals and their mysterious ways. If this is what it takes to get the trains to run on time, we have effectively given up on smaller municipalities and less able metros, who have nothing to prod the parastatals with.

A Guardian commentator noted under an article discussing renewed calls for English regional autonomy, “Until we can accept that the consequence of local autonomy is varying provision locally, then we won’t be mature enough to cope with federalism” (2).

1: Delius, P. 1996. A Lion amongst the Cattle. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.

2. Link


About Brett Petzer

I'm a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at brettpetzer.com