The revolt of South Africa's metropoles: a revolution of rising expectations

Johannesburg skyline: the challenge is to create a city that is liveable, safe and resource efficient. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

The major metropolitan cities in South Africa rose up in revolt on August 3 2016. It was peaceful and democratic but a revolt nonetheless. The changes may not be as dramatic as experienced in some countries. But they are remarkable in the context of South Africa’s history.

The outcome was a disaster for the African National Congress. Yet the “revolution of rising expectations” in the metropoles is a global phenomenon. Nor is the concept new. Academics used it in the 1960s to describe the rise of the American Civil Rights movement. This coincided with higher levels of income growth and upward mobility for black Americans.

Populations revolt when lives are improving but not fast enough to meet their rising expectations. The residents of South Africa’s large metropolitan cities are privileged in national terms but were among the least inclined to vote for the ANC. A sense of “relative deprivation” – in addition to undeniable conditions of “absolute deprivation” - may have influenced the 20% to 25% of people in townships such as Alexandra and Tembisa who voted for the Economic Freedom Front.

But many who were clearly part of the mainstream modern economy also voted for the Democratic Alliance. They included a significant minority of black Africans. These are people for whom the rhetoric of “service delivery” holds little meaning. They all have electricity, water, sewerage and refuse collection. But they are concerned with the quality and reliability of urban infrastructure.

This is a segment of the population prone to middle class anxiety. They are fearful of losing their middle class status. Areas of their lives about which they harbour the most fears include the quality of education for their children; safety and security in cities where crime rates are among the world’s worst; health benefits for old age; the state of the modern economy; personal freedoms; environmental futures; and the integrity of governance.

Understanding the metropolitan context

As urbanisation – and also the growth of large cities - continues relentlessly, the demographics are against parties that fail to engage an urban base. Fortunately, there is a growing corpus of scholarly and policy-related work which offers an understanding of the metropolitan context and guidance for action.

For the first half of 2016, there is a striking list of new releases on urban development in South Africa. They include:

These documents collectively fill a number of gaps. They make a cogent argument for paying attention to cities. They offer a vision of liveable, safe, resource efficient cities in the future. They provide an impressive understanding of urban processes across South Africa’s large cities. And they include a package of strategies and actions for urban planning, transport, infrastructure, land development, active communities, urban governance and city finances.

To be sure, there are limitations to knowledge, and deficiencies in the actions proposed. Too little is known, for example, of the lived experiences of people across South Africa’s metropolitan cities. Too little is also known about the way in which these cities' real economies actually operate.

Nevertheless there is, arguably, substantive guidance for agencies of government concerned with engaging the expanding complexities of the country’s metropolitan cities. The tragedy is that politics may interpose and this may not happen. The national leadership of the ANC, either consciously or unconsciously, may take revenge on the electorates that turned away from it. New parties in power locally may reject or ignore the positive programmes introduced by their ANC predecessors. Or unstable political coalitions may cause prolonged paralysis.

The demands of urban elites

The government is either not able to meet the anticipation of a rising quality of life, or is the source of huge anxiety for a group deeply concerned with slippage, over time, into economic distress.

From the temporal perspective of August 2016, the vanguard for change in South Africa is the educated urban elites concentrated mainly within its largest metropolitan cities. This includes the 46% of the black middle class which lives within Gauteng

Elsewhere in the world we are seeing similar processes. In the 2015 Delhi Legislative Assembly elections, for example, the previously little known Aam Admi Party swept to power with 67 of the 70 seats. The Congress Party, which had ruled Delhi for a decade-and-a-half, was left with zero seats. The Aam Admi Party had skilfully managed to create a cross-class and multi-interest alliance by tapping into the tetchiness of a metropolitan electorate expecting the dividends of Delhi’s economic success.

Responding to the aspirations and expectations of a metropolitan electorate requires a high degree of sophistication. In the case of Johannesburg, the ANC-controlled local government had a level of adeptness and talent rare elsewhere. But it still struggled to convince its electorate.

Vulgarity of the national leadership

The local leadership could also do little about the blundering and vulgarity of the national leadership. This has repeatedly caused the metropolitan electorate to cringe with anxiety and embarrassment. The Gauteng provincial government under David Makhura is impressively lucid and visionary. Yet it still fails to adequately grasp the nature and potentials of the metropolitan city.

An example is its proposal to build “new cities” beyond the metropolitan edge. What it should be doing is building on the social, economic and spatial energies of densifying urban areas where growing numbers of people live in closer proximity to economic opportunities, cultural activities and each other, in a diversifying cosmopolitan mix.

With the ANC no longer having a clear electoral majority in five of the six large cities, the temptation may be to focus on the interests of the reduced support base. There is clearly a need for public representatives who are able to articulate the interests and needs of people living in rural areas, towns and small cities. But parties that disconnect themselves from the energy, innovation, social diversity, intense pressures and the ability of metropolitan cities to make global connections will drift into a lethargic conservatism.

Government must mediate across a diversity of spatial interests, from deep rural areas to global business hubs. But the animation and effervescence is most likely to come from the engagements with the complexities of metropolitan cities.

Our hope is that rational minds, and a long term view, will prevail.

The Conversation

Philip Harrison receives funding from the National Research Foundation.