Regional and Local Economic
Development Initiative

Guest Lecture Explores Role of Small Towns in Post-Apartheid South Africa

The role of small towns in post-apartheid South Africa was the topic of a guest lecture delivered at the Graduate School of Business and Leadership (GSB&L) by the Director of the Centre for Small Towns Regeneration Ms Phila Xuza.

As a leading strategist, scholar and practitioner of spatial economic development in African small towns, Xuza was invited by GSB&L academic Dr Bhasela Yalezo to share with his local economic development class her insightful views of how towns have changed since democracy.

‘Small towns played a very important role in South Africa’s development. In the 1960s, although they were preserved as the most plethoral link of the urban system, these places were important centres through innovation and urban services that were diffused to the surrounding villages,’ said Xuza.

She went on to elaborate how in the 1970s the role of towns shifted and became more administrative. This meant small towns being viewed by the capital system or former colonial powers as places to acquire resources such as people, materials and raw materials.

Xuza then moved on to the 1980s describing how new urban policies favoured towns which played the role of being service centres in rural regions and how with the new political climate of the 1990s towns found themselves under threat again.

‘The change in pass control laws enabled people to move freely which led to the loss of skills. The development of shopping malls meant people no longer had a reason to go to town leading to the demise of some CBDs. Then in 2000 the new wall-to-wall municipal demarcation after the December election changed the game – some towns almost disappeared and some municipalities lost their administrative functions.’

Xuza said while good urban management; functional systems; communication; partnerships; gap house market development; good leadership and governance, and a team of experts were important in developing towns, research also had its place which is why she encouraged researchers to contribute their expertise into this space.

‘We know very little about our towns where the vast majority of our population live and yet we know so much about cities.
‘I am always encouraged by the research coming out of universities and refer to it at every gathering I am part of. We need to think about why townships are not part of towns, why retail in small towns is a problem and to take into account the land debates taking place from a spatial perspective,’ said Xuza.

‘I invite you through your research to explore these issues and get government to see things the way we do.’

Words: Thandiwe Jumo