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Going to town on small towns

Although much of South Africa’s economic activity takes place in large cities, the hundreds of small towns across the country have the potential to contribute significantly to job creation and economic growth. Government recognises that the regeneration of small towns will be a crucial factor in moving South Africa towards a brighter future.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of South Africans move from rural areas and small towns to large cities, seeking employment opportunities. As our cities start to become overcrowded, the people who moved to seek a better life often find themselves living in informal settlements and struggling to find jobs. Meanwhile, public sector managers are faced with serious challenges in delivering services and developing infrastructure to keep up with the pace of rapidly growing urban populations.

Conversely, rural areas suffer from a loss of skills, income and economic activity, resulting in the stagnation of small towns.

Small town development integral to economic growth

Developed in 2016, the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) was designed largely in response to the increasing urbanisation that South Africa is experiencing. While the framework focuses on how urban centres can deal with increasing populations, it also recognises the link between rural and urban areas.

The framework states that economic activities associated with urban and rural areas have historically been viewed as mutually exclusive. This dichotomy not only distorts the reality but also fails to address the interdependencies between rural and urban spaces. The reality is that there is rarely a sharp division between rural and urban areas, but rather a rural-urban spatial continuum.

The framework recognises that developing solutions to benefit the whole country is difficult if rural and urban areas are seen as opposites. As explained in the framework, these areas are becoming increasingly integrated because of better transport and communications, and focusing on building strong rural-urban linkages can therefore enhance growth.

According to the framework, the solution to poverty in rural areas cannot be found in the rural economy alone. Rural growth needs access to urban markets and vibrant non-farm sectors. Equally, the growth of urban areas can be compromised by inadequate rural development.

The Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, National Treasury and South African Local Government Association (SALGA) are joining hands to implement the IUDF, through the Cities Support programme, the Intermediate City Municipalities programme and the Small Town Regeneration programme.

SALGA’s Small Town Regeneration programme

SALGA launched its Small Town Regeneration programme in 2013, hosting workshops across the country to share the importance of regenerating small towns and provide a roadmap for growth. The programme looks for ways and means to strengthen small town economies; provide better quality of life; and build and leverage on the local assets of such towns.

Municipalities in the North West, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Northern Cape opted to participate in the programme.

The former Deputy Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Andries Nel, identified the programme as crucial to the implementation of South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP).

“The Small Town Regeneration programme is an integral part of the implementation of the Integrated Urban Development Framework in the NDP. Small towns are a necessary and important link to the development of rural regions, and the role of small towns as service centres, within a hierarchy of settlements, is emphasised,” he said.

Small Town Regeneration in the Karoo

Municipalities in the Karoo have been involved in small town regeneration, through the Karoo Small Town Regeneration initiative. Thirty-five local municipalities in the Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and Free State are part of the programme. The Karoo has been a specific focus due to several factors limiting economic growth, including the isolation of small towns, scarce water supply, constrained financial resources and limited economic activities.

The Western Cape town of Oudsthoorn has started on its path towards regeneration, as the municipality begins adopting strategies for growth. Executive Mayor Colan Sylvester said community members and organisations are now working together to achieve the goal of regenerating Oudtshoorn.

“Through consultation processes, momentum has been created among the community members and organisations to work together to realise Oudtshoorn’s full potential. Oudtshoorn Municipality embarked on a process of establishing a long-term strategic vision to guide municipal and community decisions in achieving economic growth and regeneration of previously disadvantaged areas in all wards.”

Some of the strategies identified include leveraging the significant number of training schools in the municipality, capitalising on tourist attractions such as the Cango Caves and ostrich farms, diversifying the agricultural industry and stimulating the local arts and crafts sector.

Big investments in the Eastern Cape

In the Eastern Cape, the Amathole District Municipality has been leading the charge in regenerating small towns. Through the municipality’s economic development agency ASPIRE, there has been investment in a number of flagship regeneration projects.

“ASPIRE continuously strives to establish future sustainable socio-economic developments for its local towns in an effort to gain commercial competitive advantage. It is for this reason that through the Small Towns Regeneration programme, ASPIRE embarked on creating business opportunities for the local business sector (formal and informal) to shine the spotlight on its small towns,” said ASPIRE spokesperson Luthando Tyala.

The small town of Alice in the Raymond Mhlaba Local Municipality – home to the world-famous Fort Hare University – has benefited from three multimillion projects. These include the construction of a pedestrian footbridge, the completion of a public transport hub, and the conversion of a park in the CBD into a Garden of Remembrance for apartheid struggle icons.

“As has been the norm with other Small Towns Regeneration projects, the Alice Regeneration programme is on other initiative aimed at linking economic development within this small rural town to other important economic generation activities,” said Raymond Mhlaba Local Municipality spokesperson Cynthia Mokitimi.

She added that R39.7 million was spent on the three projects and about 50 locals were employed and skilled in areas such as civil works.

Another R17.2 million was spent on upgrading the CBD in the town of Butterworth, where the installation of streetlights, pavements, parking and loading zones, storm water drainage systems and garbage bins have resulted in a more conducive business environment.

These are just some of the towns that are being transformed through the Small Town Regeneration programme.

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