This article appeared in the 26 June edition of Legalbrief Today, under Policy Watch

Image result for urban poverty south africa
This is not a South African city – nor even a smart one, since it does nothing to address the issue of urban poverty and slums. The point being that smart cities do not and never will solve those problems … especially in a developing country.

The increasingly dismal state of local government finances and the worrying attitudes of many of the senior officials responsible may have prompted President Cyril Ramaphosa to qualify his remarks in last week’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) about building a smart city. Responding to a debate on the contents of his speech, the President said the notion belonged more ‘in the section on a future and desired reality’ than in the ‘section on dreams’. This is noting that, even if urbanisation and population growth rates remain their present levels, within the next decade ‘an extra 10m people’ will be looking for work and somewhere to live in SA’s cities.

According to the President, each ‘successive wave of people’ arriving in the country’s major urban areas lives further from their centres, services, transport infrastructure and any available jobs. ‘This situation is not sustainable and, unless we find effective solutions, it’s only going to get worse,’ he warned, reminding his audience of the ‘significant backlogs in housing, schools, clinics and social services’ faced by ‘almost all’ the country’s cities. This presented a perfect opportunity for Ramaphosa to elaborate on any plans he and his government may have for finally and decisively addressing the myriad challenges facing SA’s local authorities, including the culture of non-payment for services. After all, the President made it very clear during last week’s Sona that ‘the days of boycotting payment are over’. But alas, nothing more was said on the matter – at least in the official version of Ramaphosa’s response.

Meanwhile, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu was busy painting a deeply depressing picture of local government in which he conceded that ‘the quality of the financial statements provided to his office for auditing’ continues to deteriorate (News24). Especially troubling is that the ‘audit environment’ is becoming ‘more hostile’ (News24), with municipal authorities often pressurising audit teams to ‘change’ any findings pointing to negative audit outcomes or irregular expenditure. ‘Threats’ and ‘intimidation’ are apparently being experienced in ‘most’ provinces.

It is not clear from media reports on yesterday’s debate and the President’s input if any opposition party MPs asked how government intends financing the construction of a new ‘smart city’ – and how it will be maintained once built. Poor infrastructure maintenance has been a concern for many years, as successive Ministers of Finance, Public Works and Cooperative Governance have openly acknowledged. Ramaphosa would do well to confront this issue and the shockingly high levels of financial mismanagement across local government before saying anything more about a new smart city – which will need smart people to run it.