South Africa urbanized earlier than most African countries owing to a mining boom in the late nineteenth century that continued through most of the twentieth century. It resulted in wide-ranging interventions, initially to accelerate it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and then to control it. Urbanization was most forcefully resisted under the apartheid regime at enormous human and social cost. Apartheid also skewed the urban structural form in distinctive ways, leaving racially-segregated and fractured cities with dense poverty traps on the outskirts.
South African cities now have low population densities in central and suburban locations and high densities on the periphery. This distorted urban form has harmful human and environmental consequences. It creates poverty traps on the periphery and favours road-based transport.
Cities remain the dominant centres of economic activity, but they are not performing to their potential or reaping the benefits of agglomeration because of their inefficiency and infrastructure constraints. The post-1994 democratic government recognizes the problems of a fragmented urban form, but its interventions have been too short-term and sector-specific to initiate change.
“Service delivery” has become the dominant mantra across government, implying the roll-out of separate housing, electricity, water and other programmes run by different departments. They respond where the population is growing, which tends to be where there is cheap or leftover land available, rather than planning ahead based on a vision of more integrated, functional and productive cities.
There is a continuing legacy of inequality, informality, infrastructure backlogs and transport congestion, which hamper social and economic progress to this day. Therefore, urbanization has always been controversial and has posed dilemmas for the government. According to UN Habitat, South Africa lacked until recently appetite for an explicit National Urban Policy (UNP). Popular sentiment has been pro-rural and – until recently – there has been no political vision for the future of cities.
Best practice: The Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF)
IUDF is a policy initiative of the Government of South Africa, coordinated by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA). The IUDF seeks to foster a shared understanding across government and society about how best to manage urbanisation and achieve the goals of economic development, job creation and improved living conditions for people in South Africa. The IUDF started implementation 2015 (Source: IUDF website).
 This chapter has been compiled from UN Habitat’s Publication “The Evolution of National Urban Policies: A Global Overview”. First published in Nairobi in 2014 by UN-Habitat.