National Urban Reform in South Africa
City Governance


Recent international agreements such as the New Urban Agenda have emphasized the importance of national government as a nodal point from which to lead processes of coordination and decision-making to drive a common vision for more sustainable, inclusive and productive urbanization processes.

Even in a highly devolved governance context such as South Africa, national political-economic dynamics have been formative and reformative of the objectives and modalities of urban governance. National government is also the key point of macro-policy prioritization, for example through the allocation of powers and functions, the design of the civil service, and the political emphasis on the form of service delivery and state action. While what happens at the local scale is heavily shaped by subnational capabilities and power struggles, urban transformation cannot be reduced to the actions of, or responses to municipal government.

Opportunities for urban transformation cannot be understood without reference to the wider national context of pre-existing governance arrangements, practices or politics of the urban. Detailing the national urban policy emphasis is especially important in sectors or clusters that are constituted (or partially held) as national rather than local responsibilities. Countries vary in this distribution of the functions that structure cities but, whereas most municipal authorities are allowed jurisdiction over basic services like waste, sanitation or environmental health, larger budget functions such as transport, health or macro-economic policy typically are the domain of national government departments. In practice, managing cities demands careful integration of multi-scalar and multi-functional government.


As South Africa implements a new national urban development framework (COGTA 2016) to deliver on the aspirations and objectives of the New Urban Agenda, it is imperative that we take stock of past national-scale urban reform efforts, so that we might acknowledge our inheritance while avoiding the repetition of past gaps, mistakes and debates. Moreover, South Africa’s long history of national-level urban reform initiatives, pursued in favour of various political-economic objectives, makes it a rich empirical case from which other contexts can learn.

This project will examine the history of national-scale urban reform efforts in South Africa from the start of the twentieth century (the end of the Anglo-Boer or South African War) to the present. Taking a long historical perspective on the emergence of urban governance initiatives is justifiable partly due to the poorly developed nature of African urban and planning history. In other contexts, the historical reasons why certain governance priorities exist in the present tend to be well understood. This is not so for Africa.

Methodologically, the research will entail the collection and analysis of both interview and archival data. These data will be analysed with a conceptual framework informed by two main bodies of theoretical literature: Foucault-inspired work on the ‘analysis of government’ and the historical genealogy of problematizations; work on multi-scalar, multi-level and meta-governance relating to state capacity, especially in respect of urban and spatial development.

Using this methodological and conceptual framework, the research project will entail two interrelated areas of work. The first research component will examine the history of national-scale urban governance reforms in South Africa in order to shed critical light on contemporary governance priorities and institutional arrangements. More specifically, this work will contextualize the current planning and fiscal reform agenda of the Cities Support Programme (CSP), a key state capacity-building and urban reform programme located in the South African National Treasury. This work highlights the complexity of urban transformation in a post-conflict context and assesses innovations in the forms of sectoral and multi-sectoral place-based support for large cities across government.

Secondly, we will examine the genealogy of urban health as a critical domain of governance. Historically, health has been the most enduring driver of South African urban policy creation and reform. However, health issues do not fall directly within CSP’s reform agenda. In addition, CSP is a contemporary initiative aiming for systemic reform, while addressing specific issues such as climate resilience and public transport. Using health as a historical lens enables us to look at the nature of urban governance reform over a much longer period – something possible because the historical archive around urban health issues is particularly well populated. The health lens enables us to examine different ways of reading urban reform and the ‘healthy city’, by uncovering the different methodological and theoretical traditions that have framed questions of health as they manifest in cities. This work will relate to other health-related work to be done in Cape Town and other PEAK Urban partner cities, and it will form part of wider debates about the interface of epidemiological evidence for policymaking and wider urban health research.

While the focus is on national-scale reforms for both these areas of investigation, Cape Town, as the South African city with the longest history of urban governance institutions and practices, demonstrates most clearly the challenges of multi-scalar urban governance reform and alignment, offering an informative case study for the research agenda outlined above. Cape Town has also long been a leading metropolitan centre of public health repression/reform and urban health innovation, making it an ideal historical case from which to assess the history of policy, practice and reform in the health domain.