National Urban Reform in South Africa
City Governance
Cape Town


Recent international agreements such as the New Urban Agenda have emphasized the role of national government in leading coordination and decision-making in driving a common vision for more sustainable, inclusive and productive urbanization.

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, 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. 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.


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 examines 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 entails the collection and analysis of both interview and archival data for two interrelated areas of work.

The first research component has examined 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 contextualises 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 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. 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’. This work relates to other health-related research being done in Cape Town and other PEAK Urban partner cities, and it forms part of a wider debates about the interface of epidemiological evidence for policymaking and wider urban health research.


Primary research for the project has been completed and has culminated in the publication of Supporting City Futures: The Cities Support Programme and the Urban Challenge in South Africa. Published in May 2020, the book captures the lessons emerging from the first seven years of the CSP.

While the process of engaging with CSP was successful and productive, an unexpected hurdle was encountered – a disruption to the CSP team itself. When the Programme reached the end of its first seven-year funding cycle, uncertainty over its future and staff turnover meant the research could not be finalized. Given that the work followed a process of coproduction, simply publishing the results without approval from our partners was not an option. This speaks to several issues. First, it shows that there may be risks in designing governance institutions to be both ‘within and outside’ the state – while this can grant institutions like CSP some flexibility in practice, it can also undermine their continuity. Second, the experience highlights some of the challenges of undertaking research in a truly coproductive way. The benefits of access and cooperation can be counterbalanced by the risks of reliance on other partners.

The project’s planned focus on urban health governance took a somewhat different trajectory. In early 2019, additional funding was secured to enable further research on the links between urban development and reproductive health/family planning in the global South. This will inform the activities of the IUSSP Scientific Panel on Family Planning, Fertility, and Urban Development. A number of outputs are expected to arise from this work. Among other issues, they will argue that those involved in urban governance and development should pay far greater attention to urban demographic dynamics, including fertility rates and regulation. The disconnection between urban and demographic/health sectors represents some of the wider problems of urban governance; the challenge of creating effective development strategies that stretch across disciplines, sectors, and scales of government.