Extract from 

The South African Urban System  

By Solène Baffi, Ivan Turok, Céline Vacchiani-Marcuzzo 


  1. Introduction

South Africa’s urbanization differs from what can be observed in other African countries in various respects. First, South Africa urbanised earlier than other parts of subSaharan Africa because of its distinctive economic history of mineral extraction and associated industrialisation. By the late-19th century it was still a sparsely-populated territory with a largely agrarian society and extensive arid regions, but with a few localised areas of great industrial dynamism. These emergent cities quickly became powerful drivers of growth with substantial multiplier effects on the economy of the whole region and far-reaching social consequences as 2 they suctioned large quantities of labour from the wider sub-continent.  

The urban population of the country rose rapidly during the 20th century, and the number of urban areas increased more than ten-fold. The urban share of the national population increased from about 17% in 1900 to about 65% today, making South Africa one of the most urbanised countries on the continent (Turok, 2014).  

Second, the pattern of urbanisation in South Africa has been deeply influenced by its extreme political history. The promulgation of segregation laws at the beginning of the 19th century and the implementation of “separate development” during apartheid caused a departure from trends observed elsewhere and produced a distinctive form of urban growth.  

Urbanisation accelerated during the first half of the 20th century and then slowed down. Rapid industrialisation during the first period attracted more and more people from the countryside to migrate towards the cities in search of livelihoods. The growing black African population in the cities produced a negative reaction from the ruling white minority group, which resulted in stringent state controls to restrict further urbanisation. Although the controls did not stop the process, they dampened it, particularly at the height of apartheid between the late-1950s and early-1980s (Turok, 2014). Access to living space for Africans, Coloureds and Indians became dependent of the Group Areas Act at the urban scale, and the implementation of “displaced urbanisation” at the national scale with the creation of so-called homelands. These laws imposed a very restrictive and uneven urbanisation on the country’s development path. Third the removal of restrictive laws and the opening of the country to global economic forces in the 1990s led to the imposition of new spatial dynamics onto the inherited patterns. The polarization of economic activities has been reinforced by the adoption of orthodox macroeconomic measures, namely the Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme in 1998. The inherited socio-spatial inequalities constitute major challenges for the different spheres of national, provincial and metropolitan government. Indeed, the difficulties of addressing the inherited inequalities are exacerbated by the state’s reluctance to constrain private actors in their choice of location. The desires for economic connections to international networks and to gain visibility on the international stage have tended to concentrate development within restricted areas in the biggest cities. These dynamics partly explain why South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with a Gini index of 63.4 % in 2011 according to the World Bank (Todes and Turok, 2017). In order to better understand the main characteristics of urbanization in South Africa, this chapter seeks to identify the various dynamics of urbanization over the long term by identifying their distinctive features from those of cities in general. In order to achieve this, various approaches have been privileged. A first concern regards the evolution of the structure of the urban system over the long term (2), followed by a specific focus on the economic trajectories of the main agglomerations (3). The analysis of the socio-spatial reconfigurations linked with public policies implemented since 1994 then enlightens the current challenges and innovations faced in South African cities (4)….. 

Urbanisation after 1950 

Urbanisation was suppressed between the 1950 and the 1980s by stringent apartheid restrictions on migration. Influx controls restricted the flow of the black population towards the towns and cities2 and were implemented by way of pass laws. These were removed in 1986 as the apartheid system disintegrated, and the rate of urbanisation rebounded (Tab.1). The coincidental decline of manufacturing industry and the growth of business, financial and consumer services have also had distinctive spatial implications, including the growth of Gauteng and other 2 The Native Urban Areas Act of 1923 marked the start of urban segregation, well before the official introduction of apartheid. It underpinned all subsequent legislation. The Act gave municipalities the power to create quarters reserved for Africans. In addition, the text established a system of population control (influx control) involving “passes” which carried the name of the employer, and enabled black workers to leave the native population reserves to go to work in town. At the outset, the system was not widely observed. Indeed the periods in which the mining industry developed and industry expanded created considerable demand for labour in the towns and cities, so that influx control was relaxed in most towns. The text was later strengthened by an amendment in 1937 (Giraut, Vacchiani-Marcuzzo, 2009). 8 metropolitan areas. Many mining towns to the West of Johannesburg and in the Free State have declined, while service-oriented economies, such as Pretoria and Cape Town, have prospered.  

Table 1: Level of urbanization 1911-2011  

Year  Urbanization rate (%) 
1911  18.2 
1921  19.8 
1936  25.8 
1951  35.2 
1960  37.9 
1970  38.5 
1980  42.5 
1991  45.6 
1996  54.4 
2001  56.6 
2011  64.2 


Thus, despite a relatively high level of urbanization at the national level (64% in 2011), South Africa is still characterised by marked spatial disparities. The different features inherited from their histories that were mentioned earlier led to migratory flows that contributed to a complex territorial structure (Giraut, Vacchiani-Marcuzzo, 2009). In more precise terms, the different phases of urbanisation generated three main zones of urban concentration, although without any phenomenon of macrocephaly, which is unusual for the African continent. The primacy index between the first and second urban agglomerations is only 2. In addition, the degree of urbanisation is unequally spread among the provinces (nine in number since the end of apartheid). Gauteng province, which includes the three metropolitan areas of Johannesburg, East Rand (Ekurhuleni4 ) and Pretoria (Tshwane) obviously heads the list with an urbanised population level of 99.6%, followed by Western Cape Province (95.1%). At the other extreme Northern Province has a proportion under 20%. Thus the provinces are at different stages of urban transition, and with considerable differences between regions. Different cities and towns across South Africa perform different functions and interact with each other in multiple ways. 



Solène Baffi, Ivan Turok, Céline Vacchiani-Marcuzzo. The South African Urban System. Rozenblat C., Pumain D., Velasquez E. International and Transnational perspectives on Urban Systems, Springer, pp.285-314, 2018, 978-981-10-7798-2. ffhalshs-01774707f