Guest Column

OPINION: We need to ease urban density by investing in rural areas

2020-05-09 15:24
The Johannesburg skyline. (iStock)

The Johannesburg skyline. (iStock)

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 It is high time that South Africa kickstarts an urban-rural integrated approach by developing rural infrastructure, decentralise industries and create employment opportunities and a market for locally produced goods, writes Chuma Mbaleki.


The outbreak of the Covid-19 global pandemic and the subsequent response by various government structures in curbing further spread has drawn a clear picture of how dense our urban areas and cities are.

Stats SA reports that by 2018, at least 66% of the country’s population lived in urban areas and cities, with a rising population density of 46 inhabitants per square kilometre.

Gauteng and the Western Cape are the largest recipients of in-migration, whilst the Eastern Cape has registered the stark number of migration outflow.  

The major socio-economic issues that have motivated urbanisation in South Africa is poverty and unemployment.

About 6.8 million people experienced hunger by 2017, while the unemployment rate is above 25%.

The Department of Co-Operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) highlighted that some of the challenges emanating from high population densities in urban areas include environmental degradation, unemployment, urban poverty, poor living conditions, criminality as well as an increase in the cost of living.

The present urban population statistics is expected to have escalated into 71% by 2030, meaning at least, 8 out of 10 people will be living in urban areas, thereby contributing more to the challenges currently created by the dense urban population.

The urban wage gap is one other contributing factor to in-migration. Urban wages exceed rural wages, regardless of skills level and productive capacity.

However, this may be explained by the fact that provinces regarded as rural, mostly depend on subsistence agriculture as their major source of income and food.

KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Limpopo are the provinces with large rural areas, where a majority of people are largely dependent on subsistence farming.

Nationally, of those involved in agriculture, only about 10% receive support from the government to sustain these activities. 

All the aforementioned problems call for urgent interventions.

There has to be a way in which government can create a balance between rural and urban areas to ensure efficient distribution of services.

This will be achieved by reducing the number of people flocking into urban areas in search of greener pastures.

The government will only succeed in this task by creating a business friendly and growth enabling environment in rural areas.

This will help reduce or eliminate urban poverty, growing squatter camps, improve service delivery and ensure better living conditions in urban areas.  

Decentralise industries currently located in mega-cities into secondary cities.

These projects will want to be preceded by infrastructural development in rural areas aimed at improving communication and effective transportation.

Wisdom can be drawn from countries that adopted the same strategy towards economic development such as Singapore.

Singapore, as a former colony of the British Empire rose to be one of the world’s fastest growing economies with no foreign debt, a consistent growing economy and business friendly environment.

After gaining independence in 1965, their government rolled out an integrated development approach, expanding the country’s transport, communications as well as industries.

To this day, their port is the busiest in the world, connected to about 600 ports in 123 countries, with 199.9 kilometres of rail, connecting industry to industry and city to city.

Adding to this, they have a country-wide free WI-FI service, whilst over 90% of households have uninterrupted access to internet.

Despite being a relatively smaller country to South Africa, Singapore’s investment on infrastructural development has enabled growth in their economy, with transport, communication and manufacturing industry playing a major role.

South Africa has few lessons to learn from that country’s speedy development, especially noting that the same sectors responsible for Singapore’s growth did not perform well in the last two quarters of 2019 in South Africa.

It is high time that South Africa kick-starts an urban-rural integrated approach by developing rural infrastructure, decentralise industries and create employment opportunities and a market for locally produced goods.  

Secondly, transform the agricultural sector from subsistence into commercial level by providing needed support to rural smallholders to enable sustainability and competitiveness.

The first step should be addressing the skewed land ownership in South Africa and creating access to information and market opportunities. Vast hectares of South African land is in the hands of the minority.

Secondly, access to information and support has to be improved to ensure improved rural capacity and productivity.

Government has to see to effectiveness of institutions whose primary objective is to provide support to farmers such as the Land and Agricultural Development Bank of South Africa, Agri-BEE, Agri-SA and others.

A transformed agricultural sector, under the above setup will guarantee increased local production, more income for households and will further reduce the urban-rural wage gap which currently motivates further movement of people from rural to urban areas.   

These measures, correctly and carefully put in place, will honestly translate to rural economic development, more opportunities.  

- Chuma Mbaleki, Data Analyst 

Read more on:    coronavirus  |  urbanisation  |  pandemic  |  rural development
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