The Karoo: Small Towns, New Future
Small towns are in crisis because of rapid urbanisation. Many rural areas of the country have lost their economic vitality as a result of a severe lack of incentives to retain the economically active labour force, namely the young, skilled and entrepreneurial members of the communities. In addition, a former reliance on a single industry and general lack of economic diversification have caused a degree of stagnation for these communities, which often can’t keep up with competition from larger industrial hubs. The South African Local Government Association (SALGA) has taken on an important leading role in coordinating a response to the challenges facing small towns.
The driving force
Discussions on urbanisation in the developing world bring the notion of emerging megacities and the associated rural decline to the fore. While the problems caused by rural-urban migration are certainly very real in the South African context, there is a need to realise that reversing the trend is not viable and we, therefore, need to find solutions to mitigate the negative impacts of this migration. To do so successfully, a shift in the general rhetoric on the topic needs to occur whereby, instead of focusing on the dichotomy of the rural-urban divide, reference needs to be made to the rural-urban continuum.
Policymakers and municipal leaders must start looking at small towns in a more positive light; celebrating the competitive advantages of the rural landscape in South Africa and acknowledging the ways in which small towns can benefit from urbanisation and simultaneously enhance economic drivers for the cities. It is with this context in mind that SALGA, together with key partners, hopes to implement positive growth in formerly bypassed rural towns through their Small Town Regeneration initiatives; deliberately putting the spotlight on the ways in which these areas are important, not simply in terms of rural development, but also in terms of the ways in which they can contribute to regional economies.
The 2nd Annual Karoo Small Town Regeneration Conference
On 10–11 July 2017, SALGA hosted the 2nd Karoo Small Town Regeneration and Regional Economy Development conference at Emthanjeni Local Municipality in the Northern Cape. The theme of the event was ‘The Karoo; Small Towns, New Futures’.
Since 2014/15, SALGA has increasingly prioritised targeting small towns as fertile grounds for effective spatial transformation and the stimulation of economic growth through the creation of employment opportunities and improved utilisation of available services and resources.
The conference brought together leaders from the targeted municipalities as well as policy makers to reflect and report on the progress made since the 2016 Karoo conference. Prominent figures amongst the conference delegates included Northern Cape Premier Sylvia Lucas; Mxolisi Sokatsha, MEC for the Department of Roads and Public Works; and Mayor Hilaria Mukapuli from the Local Council of Luderitz Municipality in Namibia. Proceedings were led by Councillor Sipho S’thonga, the Mayor of Emthanjeni Local Municipality who encouraged all stakeholders involved in the STR initiative to put their heads together, share knowledge and formulate best practice models to find innovative ways to use the resources at hand within these areas for generating revenue in small towns.
Various stakeholders, such as the Centre for Scientific Industrial Research (CSIR), Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the University of Stellenbosch, the South African Weather Services, the Municipal Demarcation Board and the Department of Water and Sanitation together with the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs, actively participated in the programme sharing their unique insights through presentations.
A regional approach
In addition to this acknowledgement for the need for a variety of stakeholders to have an input in the STR initiative for it to be truly holistic and effective, there has also been recognition for policymakers to work beyond arbitrary geographical boundaries and employ a regional approach to the problems within the small towns in the Karoo. This is manifested in the eco-region approach that has seen municipalities from the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Free State and the Western Cape come together to tackle issues that transcend their communities.
It is hoped that this cross-boundary approach to economic development has the potential to aid municipalities in a sustainable way; helping them to diversify economies and subsequently allowing them a degree of protection from various global economic shocks. Building a solid understanding of the resources available within the region provides an excellent opportunity for municipal cooperation and joint planning which will allow communities to work in unison to achieve common goals in the future.
Furthermore, inter-municipal and inter-governmental collaboration will be a key component of the regional approach. Local government entities, under the auspices of SALGA, play a fundamental role in championing holistic solutions in the Karoo and encouraging partnerships to be formed between the small towns, civil society, the private sector and academic institutions as well as provincial and national stakeholders. This should help solidify a strong bottom-up planning process which takes into account the insights of those working on the ground and helps those in power to implement more effective policies.
It is clear that SALGA is leading the charge in changing the way small towns in South Africa are viewed. The unique approach fostered through the STR and RED initiative not only encompasses the perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders but also works across boundaries to tackle common issues plaguing economic development in rural areas at a regional level. While the initiative is ambitious, this type of nuanced programme may just be the thing that is needed to give these communities a much-needed boost and essentially discover and unlock their economic potential.