South African Urban Conference 2018 - Lumec

November 8, 2018

The backdrop for second South African (SA) Urban Conference was the historical Turbine Hall. The theme for the conference was activating an “All-of-Society” approach to implementing the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF). According to the Minister of the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), the first SA Urban Conference was about building knowledge. This year, the conference set out to engage and mobilise implementation to build towards more ‘inclusive, safe, resistant and sustainable’ cities.

There were four major groups represented at the conference, namely, civil society, government agencies, the private sector and academia. Panellists included ministers from the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the Minister of the Department of Human Settlements, the President of the South African Local Government Association, Nedbank, Tongaat Hulett Developments, Shack Dwellers International, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Western Cape Economics Development Partnership and Wits School of Governance, amongst others. The general tone of the IUDF and government agencies was an emphasis to be people-centric and to work in partnership with the private sector, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and civil society to reduce the spatial inequality that was established during apartheid, to move the poor and working class closer to economic opportunities and to strengthen property rights. From the perspective of government, they want to see compact, connected and coordinated cities.

There were a number of discussion points that stood out during the conference. Amongst others, these included, (1) the role of well-functioning and efficient municipalities to ensure the success of implementing the IUDF, (2) the importance of defining what an urban city is in a South African context (3) the role of the arts in our society, (4) lessons from best practice implementation of the IUDF taking place in various locations within South Africa, and lastly, (5) what does the urban agenda and development mean for food security?

What then, is the role each of these groups in the implementation of the IUDF? Following self-reflective sessions, each player defined for themselves how they could contribute towards the implementation of this framework. For academia, building relationships between government and academia is critical to have the kind of impact that brings about real change. This means moving beyond transactional relationships of tendering for research and instead, developing meaningful partnerships with government agencies and communities. Furthermore, it is important to bridge the divide between scholarship and practice, to simplify academic jargon and to build knowledgeable communities by sharing knowledge that is generated by research institutions and universities. An important question for academia is, ‘How do we create evidence for future cities and communities, stead of just tracking for monitoring purposes?’.

On the other hand, government agencies recognise that they need to consult and honour their commitments to communities, they need to be flexible and adaptive in their policies and by-laws to effectively respond to communities. Frameworks need to be tested, therefore, municipalities are seen as vital agents in the experimentation and testing of the IUDF. To see the implementation of the IUDF, government may need to incentivise civil society, municipalities, researchers and the finance and business sectors. Lastly, government recognises the need to improve internal communication and to properly embed the IUDF in local governments. But how can this be achieved? What skills are required to implement the IUDF? Are there tools to guide implementation? And how do you deal with transversal issues?

There are several ways in which the private sector saw itself playing an active role in the implementation of the IUDF. While the current economic environment puts more pressure on business profit, and shareholders’ demands can be in conflict with government plans, the private sector must prioritise and commit to being part of this journey. The private sector can play a lobbying role within their firms to adopt a social focus in their business practices and to partner with government. The private sector points out that there is a disconnect within government at different levels and that regulatory hurdles and capacity challenges make it difficult to work with government. However, where there are capacity issues, the private sector can help to bring in the necessary skills or improve capacity of government.

From the perspective of civil society, government needs to be more responsive, transparent, and engage more in meaningful participation, not consultation. There needs to be regular feedback to communities and short feedback loops. The stance from civil society was clear; they are disillusioned, and based on previous experiences, are extremely cautious of new government policies, frameworks and plans. However, there is still room for change. If civil society is to play a real role in the delivery of the IUDF then they need to be seen as partners as opposed to simply beneficiaries. Civil society can be agents in monitoring and evaluation, as well as in research and improving participation methodologies. Moreover, participation is key to bridging the gap between government and civil society. If the IUDF is indeed people-centric, then implementation needs to be people and community driven, which means that implementation cannot be prescriptive.

In as much as the conference left us with a sense of hope for the future we envisage, it has perhaps brought about more questions than answers, and a need to reflect further about the type of cities we want for South Africa. Over the next few weeks we will delve deeper into the main discussion points that stood out during the conference.

Joanne Parker

Joanne Parker