Sunday Times

All SA cities need to learn these five lessons


This year South Africa celebrates our 30th anniversar­y of the end of apartheid and the transition to democracy. And we celebrate this in the best and most appropriat­e style — by holding a democratic election.

I was just seven years old when our country had its first real, democratic election. Too young to fully grasp the importance of the event, but aware enough to know that it was a big moment. One of my earliest conscious memories is of watching Nelson Mandela’s inaugurati­on on TV.

Now this will be our seventh democratic election, and by far the most significan­t since 1994. For the first time the result is not certain and there is at least a prospect that there will be a change in national government.

In reflecting on our 30th anniversar­y, there is much to praise. South Africa is an indescriba­bly better place than it was under apartheid. That tens of millions of citizens voting this year would not have been called citizens in the past, says it all.

But, for as long as the nearly 11-million unemployed South Africans see little prospect of a better future, we cannot possibly claim that we have made best use of these three decades.

So long as poverty deepens, so too will South Africa’s politics fray. Voters will be pushed to the fringes, where pedlars of the politics of division and hate lie waiting, biding their time.

For us true believers in the precepts of liberal democracy and its power to generate human progress at scale, the soil is getting rockier. That is the scale of our challenge, and I feel it very personally.

It is at the intersecti­on of politics and economics that you can achieve real social progress, which is why I enjoy my job so much. Our mission in Cape Town is to offer a living demonstrat­ion that progress towards the promise of 1994 is still possible. I am incredibly proud to represent a city that is showing that this vision is still possible.

Cape Town may be a global tourist destinatio­n and regional economic powerhouse, but I think the city’s biggest achievemen­t lies in showing that there is an alternativ­e path available for South Africa. Rather than stagger from crisis to crisis, Cape Town is gearing itself for the future.

I want to share with you five differenti­ators to our approach to governance, which explain why Cape Town is outperform­ing other cities. I consider these universal truths, and I have no doubt that their applicatio­n elsewhere would deliver the same improved results.

First, you must have a clear and bold sense of national ambition, something that you are unambiguou­sly aiming for. This is best illustrate­d with a question: “What is South Africa aiming for today?” None of us can compelling­ly answer that question, and certainly no-one in the national government can. Instead, there is a growing belief that the failure of the state is inevitable.

In Cape Town we refuse to believe that. We want to show that no-one in South Africa need accept that our country now only has a reverse gear. Instead, we should lift our ambitions and unashamedl­y aim for excellence and progress.

Second, to deliver progress, you must build a merit-based state. This may sound obvious, but the South African example is proof of how easily aspiration­s of power can trump the ability of the state to meet the needs of citizens. Three decades of cadre deployment have eroded the capacity of the state to deliver basic services.

In Cape Town we have depolitici­sed the public service, and brought back the notion of it as an excellent career option for talented candidates. As our reputation as a place of excellence grows, so too does the calibre of candidates we attract.

Third, long-term success requires the devolution of powers away from the centre to energetic local and provincial government­s.

Government functions should reside closest to the people who benefit when they work well, and suffer when they fail. In that way there is more democratic accountabi­lity. And this means local government­s can act to protect their residents from the consequenc­es of national failures.

In Cape Town we are aggressive­ly asserting the width and breadth of our local powers, and deliberate­ly testing the definition of those powers to their maximum, especially in the areas of energy supply, policing and passenger rail.

Fourth is the importance of future-proofing through infrastruc­ture investment. The state of many cities and towns today is a lesson in what happens when you neglect infrastruc­ture, or don’t invest in new infrastruc­ture in anticipati­on of future growth. We vowed that this would never happen to Cape Town, and we’ve become obsessed with making sure we are ready for the future. At almost 5-million people, Cape Town is about to overtake Johannesbu­rg as South Africa’s most populous metro. Ours will be a city of close to 10-million people within a generation.

Rather than be daunted, we have decided to meet this prospect head-on. We are now rolling out the biggest infrastruc­ture investment pipeline of any city in the country. Over the next three years we will outspend South Africa’s other big cities — Johannesbu­rg and Durban — combined.

My fifth lesson speaks to a distinct philosophi­cal difference between our city government’s approach to beating poverty and the approach of our national government. Here I refer to the truth that only growth can fund more redistribu­tion.

Whether you’re dealing with revenue generated from municipal rates or revenue from national taxation, the principle is the same: a low-growth economy with a shrinking revenue base is not compatible with growing redistribu­tive measures. If you want to do more for the poor, you must have growth to pay for it.

In Cape Town we have grown revenues without the need to overburden taxpayers, by growing the local economy. This allows us to run the most redistribu­tive government in the country, with a full 75% of our budget and infrastruc­ture investment spent in poorer communitie­s.

If you were to focus on these five areas I believe you will have laid the foundation­s for a successful city anywhere. US economist Ed Glaeser has a quote I love: “I know of no pathway from poverty to prosperity that does not run through city streets.”

But to succeed, these cities will need stronger local powers, growing local economies, competent administra­tions, and clear ambitions. In this way we can build a more prosperous future. After more than a decade, Cape Town has covered enough ground following this approach to start showing meaningful difference­s in outcomes.

✼ Hill-Lewis is mayor of Cape Town. This is an edited extract of a lecture at the London School of Economics

 ?? Picture:
Raymond Preston ?? Aerial view of the long queues of voters who turned out to cast their ballot in SA’s first democratic elections 30 years ago.
Picture: Raymond Preston Aerial view of the long queues of voters who turned out to cast their ballot in SA’s first democratic elections 30 years ago.

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