Ralph Mathekga

Ralph Mathekga: Are charter cities the answer to South Africa's urban decay?

2020-03-10 10:36
Could charter cities be the way to stimulate the economy? asks the writer.  (Dudu Zitha, Beeld)

Could charter cities be the way to stimulate the economy? asks the writer. (Dudu Zitha, Beeld)

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The idea of a charter city is enticing - however, it raises serious moral issues in the context of South Africa as it effectively entails us building new cities to avoid the urban decay and also the social problems that has engulfed our metros, writes Ralph Mathekga

Among some of the ideas that have been put forward in dealing with the current urban decay in South Africa is to build new charter cities. This refers to cities governed by its own laws and driven by its own development agenda.

To form a charter city is ultimately to form a development community guided purely by development laws that are tailored for hyper-economic performance.

The arrangement such as Hong Kong is often put forward as some form of a charter city; whereby the rules are somehow relaxed to allow for hyper-economic growth.

I have heard some people saying South Africa ought to consider the charter city model as a future development path to encourage emergence of economic communities. 

When one looks deeply into the reasons why we get enticed to consider charter cities, a moral question emerges regarding how those charter cities were to be constituted if they are to be formed in South Africa.

Charter cities are meant to be populated by those whose only intention is to participate in its economy.

These are individuals who are supposed to be driven by the quest to accumulate more and more goods in a market society without the oversight of laws that affect "normal" cities.

The reason to start a charter city is based also on the realisation that cities, as they exist, are not fundamentally geared toward hyper-economic activities.

Thus, the laws that govern our ordinary cities or townships, for example, are inherently not designed to accommodate individual thought in a charter city.  

Come to think of it, in our development context the creation of charter cities would effectively mean building communities made up of only rich people who are not interested in the social question, but rather focused on their individual quest to maximise economic returns for themselves.

These are individuals who want to lead lives not too concerned about the social well-being of others who might be less fortunate and unable to participate in life in the charter city.

This means that charter cities are built to exclude the poor.

Imagine a charter city in South Africa where the rich thrive in isolation from the rest?

This is what charter cities effectively entail: economic communities that can thrive in isolation from the rest of the world around them. 

This is a controversial plan that raises serious moral questions.

The fundamental question for me is the moral justification for building cities that essentially exclude certain people on the basis of their income.

One can argue that there are already certain areas in some of our cities where a certain part of the population is excluded from living there due to affordability issues.

Indeed, there are exclusive places where only the rich can afford to live.

However, to start a city with the view to attract only the rich and exclude the poor is morally questionable, particularly if the poor are expected to service that city with their cheap labour.  

The idea of a charter city is enticing - however, it raises serious moral issues in the context of South Africa as it effectively entails us building new cities to avoid the urban decay and also the social problems that has engulfed our metros.

One should ask if the idea of charter cities is a reaction to urban decay and the growing social problem that has taken over our cities.

If charter cities are a way to cut and run from the current challenges we are confronting in our cities, then we need a better solution because it would be difficult to quarantine our new charter cities from the country’s social problem.

Our current cities evolved to where they are due to economic activities around them, and they were not engineered from scratch to be cities.

If we were to engineer a city from scratch, it is important to think hard about the moral basis for such a city.

It is difficult to justify the idea that a city can be built purely to shield it away from social problems that exists across the society.  

The current urban decay in places such as Johannesburg is indeed frustrating.

However, the solution might not lie in creating totally new cities, but to start by revitalising the existing cities including small towns that are also experiencing challenges.  

- Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.


Read more on:    development  |  economy
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