Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN) SARPN thematic photo
Country analysis > South Africa Last update: 2020-08-14  

Constructing a developmental nation - the challenge of including the poor in the post apartheid city1

Overcoming Underdevelopment in South Africa's Second Economy

Jointly hosted by UNDP, HSRC and DBSA

28 & 29 October 2004, Development Bank of Southern Africa, Midrand

Susan Parnell, University of Cape Town (

Posted with permission of Ms Marie Kirstein, Development Bank of Southern Africa.
[Download complete version - 218Kb ~ 1 min (21 pages)]     [ Share with a friend  ]


If only in income terms, South African cities are more unequal today than they were ten years ago. They also have, using a range of indicators, higher numbers of poor people.2 This is despite steady economic expansion (characterised by growth in GDP, a declining budget deficit, falling public sector debt and increasing foreign reserves) and the extensive efforts of the post apartheid state to secure urban reconstruction and development. It is not that there have not been significant advances in constructing a more inclusive system of urban governance, there have been. Since 1994 urban poverty reduction has been a key national objective (Box 1), and city governance is slowly receiving greater national political profile, if only because of the overwhelming importance of urban economies in maintaining and growing the national economy.3 But, the overtly developmental commitments of government have not yet had the desired impact in creating sustained growth or redistribution.

This paper breaks with much of the academic critique of the 10 years of transition,4 and from the conventional view of international development theorists like Escobar and Ferguson,5 by arguing for more not less government. In particular I suggest the need for a more careful assessment of the institutional imperatives necessary for rolling out development at the city scale. My argument is not that the state should be the sole driver of development, clearly this is neither viable nor desirable. Rather I suggest that inclusive city development without comprehensive and progressive state engagement is not sustainable and that in South Africa, as in many post colonial contexts, state apparatus especially at the sub national scale, is inadequately configured for implementing a developmental agenda. In this context the policy emphasis on special projects, like the urban renewal programmes, might be putting the cart before the horse. What is needed is putting in place the fundamentals of city management so that pro poor developmental initiatives can thrive.

Box 1: Key national and international urban poverty reduction policies and objectives

National policy imperatives and targets for reducing urban poverty International policy imperatives and development targets on urban poverty
  • Reconstruction and Development Programme6
  • The Urban Development Strategy7
  • The Urban Development Framework8
  • Developmental Local Government9
  • Urban Renewal Programme10
  • Millennium targets for 201511
  • Habitat Agenda12
  • New Partnership of Africa's Development (NEPAD)13
  • Cities Alliance without slums14
  • World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg Plan of Action15

Paradoxically, South Africa's cities are the center of the nation's wealth but also of its most abject poverty. Without access to land or shelter, work or education the urban underclass must find resources to pay for basic services and costly rentals while they fight to survive in hostile social and environmental conditions. In meeting the challenges of urban poverty the post 1994 democratically elected South African government introduced a system of developmental local government as the foundation for building more equal and just cities and towns.16 Also important was the establishment of metropolitan government and district councils that not only secured non racial sub-national democracy and a single system of taxation, but also created a platform for intra-urban redistribution. Local government does not fund or drive all urban redevelopment and municipal investments provide only a partial perspective on city reconstruction.

Despite the well documented concerns about problematic implementation,17 it would be churlish to ignore the massive national and provincial government investment in housing and other urban infrastructure, or to ignore the positive impact of the deracealisation of the health, education and grant systems on the lives of the urban poor. Indeed there is a case to be made that the government has done exceptionally well just to keep pace with the growth in demand for urban services, and that once population growth slows the impact of the last 10 years of investment will become clearer (see Table 1). Further state efforts at urban reconstruction, including special area based interventions, are also being initiated and are beginning to take shape.18 But, as I will demonstrate, despite democracy and the massive extensions of physical and social services, there are still unacceptable levels of urban poverty. In short, without a critical review of the problem of urban poverty and inequality there can be no solution to the post apartheid development dilemma. I argue in this paper that for a government seeking to unlock the developmental potential of its citizens, such a review must focus on the problem of institutional exclusion. The emphasis on the sub national scale and on urban poverty makes local government an obvious entry point of analysis and intervention.

Table 1: The increase in services relative to population and household expansion using Ekurhuleni as an example.

Ekurhuleni 1996 2001
Number of Households 543,122 776,929
Population 2,026,067 2,480,276
Annual average rate of population growth 1970-2001 3.1%
Unemployment rate 32% 40%
Number of unemployed 316,906 516,011
Percentage of households living in informal dwellings 30% 30%
Number of households living in informal dwellings 159,138 223,394
Refuse Removal:
Percentage of households without weekly refuse removal 13% 12%
Number of households without weekly refuse removal 71,304 93,677
Water Supply:
Percentage of households without piped water on site 16% 18%
Number of households without piped water on site 87,899 137,682
Toilet Facilities:
Percentage of households without flush toilet 16% 17%
Number of households without flush toilet 86,227 128,632
Electricity Supply:
Percentage of households without electricity supply 25% 25%
Number of households without electricity supply 137,585 192,450

In this paper I argue that persistent poverty, inequality and underdevelopment in the post apartheid city is the outcome of misplaced understanding of the dynamics of human settlement within the overall developmental agenda of the post apartheid state, especially the local state. I am not suggesting that everything we have in place is wrong, far from it, or that the state should retreat in favour of civil society or community led initiatives. I nevertheless want to highlight three aspects of policy that merit much closer attention if government is to meaningfully facilitate the developmental vision of post apartheid democracy. First, the general reluctance of government and policy makers to acknowledge urban rather then rural poverty and thus face the realities of the urbanisation of poverty and the demands on urban local government. Second the oversimplified perception that racial inequality is the exclusive or even key driver of social polarization in cities has masked other critical lines of social and economic cleavage and will hinder implementation of any serious urban development programme. Third, the tardiness in building an appropriate institutional foundation from which to run a developmental local state that is capable of responding to current and future urban development imperatives means that a large section of the urban population experience institutional poverty. The institutional exclusion that reinforces the poverty of the unemployed, poorly serviced and badly educated population of cities is embedded in the social, environmental and economic functions of city government that flow from the mandate of developmental local government. It is these institutional barriers to development that fall squarely in the domain of government and could provide the levers for unlocking underdevelopment in the post apartheid city.

  1. This paper reflects on urban policy work undertaken for various government departments, donors and NGOs over the last few years. In almost all instances team work was involved and I have gained much from the collaboration of many people. In particular I would like to thank Tim Mosdell and the Palmer Development Group; Edgar Pieterse, Jacqui Boulle and the Isandla Institute; Jusdy Sibisi and SALGA; Andrew Borraine, Owen Crankshaw Graeme Gotz Sithole Mbanga and the South African Cities Network; Kirsten Harrison, Jan Erasmus and the Joburg City Council; Elroy Africa and the Department of Provincial and Local Government and finally Daryl Killian, Chris Albertyn and Daneda. Needless to say the interpretation (and the errors) are my mine.
  2. South African Cities Network, 2004: State of the Cities Report, 2004, SACN, Cape Town.
  3. South African Cities Network, 2004: State of the Cities Report, 2004, SACN, Cape Town.
  4. Bond, P. 2000:Cities of Gold, Townships of Coal: Essays on South Africa's new urban crisis. Africa World Press, Trenton; Desai, A. 2002: We are the poors: Community movements in post-apartheid South Africa. Monthly Review Press, New York; Marais, H. 1998: South Africa Limits to Change: The Political Economy of Transformation. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press.
  5. Ferguson, J (1999) Expectations of Modernity: Myths and meanings of urban life on the Zambian Copperbelt, University of California Press, Berkeley.
  6. ANC, 1994: The Reconstruction and Development Programme, Praxis Press, Durban
  8. SA Government, 1997: National Urban Development Strategy. Pretoria.
  9. South Africa, 1998: Local Government White Paper, Department of Constitutional Development, Pretoria
  10. Details available from Department of Housing and Department of Provincial and Local Government
  16. South Africa, 1998: Local Government White Paper, Department of Constitutional Development, Pretoria
  17. c.f. Kahn, K and Thring, P. 2004: Huchzemeymer
  18. Urban renewal

Octoplus Information Solutions Top of page | Home | Contact SARPN | Disclaimer