Reversing inner-city decay

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A homeless nyapoe addict makes a fire in an alleyway in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. The neglected inner city attracts criminals and drug addicts, and ordinary citizens fear leaving their homes after dark. Reversing this decay should be a central priority. Picture: Mpumelelo Buthelezi
A homeless nyapoe addict makes a fire in an alleyway in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. The neglected inner city attracts criminals and drug addicts, and ordinary citizens fear leaving their homes after dark. Reversing this decay should be a central priority. Picture: Mpumelelo Buthelezi


President Cyril Ramaphosa recently added his voice to calls to address the severe decay of historical inner cities in most of the country’s major cities and towns. Inner-city revitalisation was important, he indicated, as part of the economic recovery process, especially since the Covid-19 lockdown had compounded the country’s economic crisis.

The president’s voice is important. Let us hope he will now spell out approaches, programmes and resources to give it concrete effect.

My doctoral research (2017–2020) on inner-city turnaround, economic development and tourism zones, in addition to lessons learnt as a practitioner and facilitator, informs the following advice.

Fortunately, there are examples of effective area-based management, special ratings areas and city improvement districts. Let us learn from what happened in Cape Town’s Sea Point/Green Point/CBD, Durban’s Florida Road (Morningside), and from global case studies and reports.

Read: Mpumalanga dept allegedly ignored complaints because ‘ANC heavyweights were involved’

Even though Cape Town may be doing slightly better than other large South African cities – which is accredited to progressive inner-city governance, city improvement districts and the active municipal problem building unit – there are still challenges to overcome.

One is 10 Wright Street, Woodstock, a deteriorating building that is being occupied illegally by close to 200 people. It is an arduous process to vacate them so that the building can be sold and repaired or demolished to make way for a new development.

While most of the historic inner-city districts of large South African cities and towns were still economically viable and an attraction for local and international tourists two decades ago, severe decay is evident two decades into the 21st century.

This decay manifests in several ways, including the lack of effective waste management, increased criminality, insufficient law enforcement, ineffective municipal service delivery, social ills and a deteriorating built environment.

If timeous interventions are not implemented, inner-city areas will spiral further downwards and become even more dangerous for residents and visitors.

Significant opportunities for economic, property and revitalised tourism development – as well as much-needed accelerated job creation – are among the benefits of effective inner-city turnaround strategies, which are vitally important in this Covid-19 era.


What has caused our inner cities to fall apart so badly? Research has found that the following factors are largely to blame:

  • Lack of vision caused by ineffective political leadership, political instability, lack of continuity in the municipal leadership sphere (councillors and managers) and complex politics
  • Issues relating to internal municipal and external stakeholder collaboration
  • Corrupt practices, and a total lack of attention and oversight by municipalities
  • Ineffective, uncoordinated and incoherent municipal by-law enforcement
  • The absence of legal and financial sanctions for transgressing owners of problem buildings, and for careless and ill-disciplined community members (for example, those who dump refuse)
  • Inadequate municipal service delivery
  • Undocumented immigrants
  • A general shortage of expertise and knowledge

When city governments and municipalities have no dedicated inner-city turnaround programmes and no expert project managers who can effect change (in collaboration with the state/business/community), then there will be no change.

Without aligning stakeholder focus and resources, investor incentives, and overlay zones to speed up property development, there can be no improvement.

Read: Dead man awarded R50m tender

Ineffective waste management by municipalities, dumping of refuse, general mess and lack of cleanliness all accrue towards creating ghost town-like squalor and chaos.

Inadequate crime management programmes, combined with a country in which crime bosses call the shots (for example, the recent assassination of respected anti-gang unit section head Lieutenant Colonel Charl Kinnear in Cape Town, and many others) can only lead to disinvestment from South Africa and from inner cities, leaving whatever is still decent to be trashed by those who simply do not care.

Loitering and littering in streets, and crime and social ills such as drug dealing make some inner-city inhabitants too afraid to leave their homes after sunset, even if only to buy essentials at the nearest shop.


Precinct-based turnaround programmes need to be driven transversally across municipal departments and in collaboration with external stakeholders by knowledgeable programme managers. Network and stakeholder collaboration, based on good rapport between leading individuals who are diplomatic, innovative and creative, must be promoted.

A unified vision and long-term focus for geographically manageable (small) development precincts is important.

For example, in Port Elizabeth, the still-deteriorating central area – with some of the best sea views in the country – could be divided into six to 10 improvement precincts. The town square area of the city is a particularly underutilised and neglected potential tourism gem.

Public and other stakeholders should align their resources per precinct for a long-term solution to inner-city decay and problem buildings.

The country is hovering on the edge of a deep economic and social precipice.

In practical terms, the deployment of “boots on the ground” – in the form of security wardens who are connected to a CCTV system and police services – makes a huge and immediate difference in inner cities.

There is much potential and a great need for short- to medium-term turnaround projects inland and in our coastal cities. However, to harvest immediate economic and tourism low-hanging fruit, these projects should be initiated and intensified right now.

In Durban, the laudable property development initiatives in the Point area have not been successfully set in motion because of the lack of zero-tolerance of crime policies and safe, clean tourism corridors and zones that could link the harbour area, the Point area, the Esplanade, South Beach, North Beach and the vital historical precinct around the city hall.

Vibrant Florida Road in Morningside, on the other hand, is a success story.

In East London, in the originally popular central beach area close to the historical town centre, there is considerable potential for money to be made by prudent investors – once a sustainable, long-term, well-managed turnaround programme has been launched.

Now is the era for the co-production of such programmes and public services, when the private community, and academic and municipal sectors join hands, but within the framework of a broad, ongoing inner-city improvement programme.

Read: Mthatha woman charged for R4.8m Covid fraud

Effective application of public-sector programmes and project management practices is crucial to reversing inner-city decay.

Residents’ and property-owners’ collective organisations can make a huge difference to a turnaround initiative, given the apparent lack of effective political leadership in some situations.


The rationale of why – apart from Cape Town, Johannesburg and only one or two other locations – so few municipalities coordinate inner-city turnaround programmes is unclear.

My doctoral study – and observations by any passionate patriot – points to the urgent necessity for these initiatives.

It is no secret that South Africa needs hope, creativity and integrity now more than ever after its painful history.

Successful programmes to rehabilitate inner cities are rewarding, with renewed local economic development and investment, tourism development, property investment, increased property tax income for the municipality, job creation, and the creation of smart and innovative, thriving African inner cities.


The following are specific roles a municipality can play to turn inner-city decay around and manage problem buildings in those areas:

  • A dedicated programme or project manager should be appointed and mandated by municipal managers to effect inner-city turnaround.
  • The appointee should work across municipal departments and with stakeholders outside the municipality.
  • The creation of a municipal problem buildings unit would encourage the owners of such buildings – by means of public administration and legal instruments – to take the necessary remedial action.
  • The enforcement of laws and by-laws would contribute to restoring law and order in affected communities, and is a vital component of any strategy to address issues pertaining to inner-city decay.

Apart from serving notices on the owners of problematic buildings, those who own unruly bars and taverns, consume alcohol in public, deal in drugs and illegally dump refuse should all be brought to book. The relevant laws and by-laws should be strictly enforced.

. Where a substantial portion of the inner city has become significantly dilapidated, it would be wise for the municipality to identify, as a start, a small precinct (for instance, four city blocks or two streets) and ensure that problem buildings, waste, crime and any other related challenges within that area are addressed and brought under control as soon as possible.

Read: How innovation, industrialisation and collaboration can solve SA’s clean water challenge

Further small precincts can then be identified and similarly tackled.

. Various incentives can be introduced to encourage the rejuvenation of affected areas – for example, property tax reduction incentives, streamlined applications for property development, limiting bureaucratic red tape and introducing tourist attractions.

The following logical steps will be necessary for an effective turnaround process: aligning municipal departments within a city government with interest groups and stakeholders in the private and community sectors; identifying and declaring tourism zone/s or local economic development precincts; allocating sufficient resources in a sustainable, long-term model context; and the appointment (on contract) of a dedicated senior programme manager by the city government.

It is no secret that South Africa needs hope, creativity and integrity now more than ever after its painful history.

The country is hovering on the edge of a deep economic and social precipice. Let us get to work!

Conradie is a public policy expert and independent facilitator on inner city turnaround programmes


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