CAPTION: Executive Mayor of the City of Tshwane, Councillor Solly Msimanga, explains how important local government leadership is in the sustainability of cities.

Is civilisation under siege from the weather? In South Africa, you could be forgiven for thinking that’s the case. Climate change is wreaking havoc, causing drought, storms, and wildfires. Who is there to lead us out of danger? Curiously enough, the answer is to be found in your local municipality.

Mayors are the unlikely solution to our collective problem, if they can get their act together in time and lead responsibly. This message rang loud and clear during the plenary session of the African Capital Cities Sustainability Forum (ACCSF), held at the CSIR International Convention Centre, in the city of Tshwane.

Pressing home the point to an audience that included 28 mayoral delegations from countries throughout Africa, Parks Tau, President of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), said, “In the past several months SA has been affected by protracted drought, storms, and fires. These phenomena provide mind-boggling confirmation that climate change is not a myth. On the contrary – as the people of Knysna know to their cost – climate change threatens not only the lives and livelihoods of ordinary citizens, but also the very infrastructure assets on which basic service delivery depends. As local leaders we are at the coalface of managing these extremes and the dire consequences for the communities we serve.”

It’s a formidable challenge, admitted the City of Tshwane’s executive mayor, Councillor Solly Msimanga. Seventy percent of the African population is going to be living in cities in the not-too-distant future. “They’re going to need jobs, but they’re also going to need to live in cities that are resilient to climate change. The urban sprawl we are seeing at the moment, where people build first and plan later, is simply unsustainable. We have to plan the future better, so that our cities are future-proof.”

Msimanga reminded delegates that the purpose of the ACCSF – now in its third year – is to forge a network and fellowship among African capital city mayors to advance city sustainability in Africa.

“Adopting sustainability as a primary objective of service delivery and urban development will result in greater prosperity and safety for city residents,” he said.

“It means providing for the pressing service delivery needs of our citizens while safeguarding the environment on which our cities depend. This includes creating the conditions for business to flourish, especially by leveraging the green economy. It is within the power of mayors and civic leaders to make this happen.”

Sound visionary? So it should, for vision is an integral element of responsible leadership. Without responsible leadership, service delivery and investment are flatly unthinkable –  or so says former Minister of Finance and Member of Parliament Pravin Gordhan.

In a trademark delivery combining brevity, precision and dry-to-caustic wit, Gordhan left delegates in no doubt as to what it takes to be considered a responsible leader.

“There’s a crisis brewing in the world and Africa,” he said. “Growing alienation between business and political leaders on the one hand, and citizens on the other, is being caused by growing inequality, and a growing perception that the elite enjoy what others don’t.”

Gordhan continued by saying that responsible leadership demands that leaders take cognisance of this unfolding reality and recognize that this alienation is harmful. Already it has resulted in political upheaval in the Western world, with alienated citizens making political choices of great concern (Trump, Brexit, the “coalition of chaos” in the UK).

And the role of local government?

“From our point of view, governance in a local government context is extremely important,” Gordhan emphasized. “Cities, towns and villages are becoming magnets for people to assemble around. Cities are seen as points where economic opportunity and enterprise are concentrated: people are hopeful of a better future in a city. In some instances, however, where we are not offering the right kind of vision and planning, cities have become centres of disappointment and despair.”

A better organized city offers more economic opportunities, particularly to the young, and hope for a better quality of life. South Africa’s badly planned cities, with their apartheid spatial planning legacy, have to be turned around – and it is local government’s responsibility to make this happen. Gordhan also touched on the scourge of corruption.

“Corruption is a societal disease,” said Gordhan. “The public is very alive to the fact that corruption exists. To turn it around, we want good governance with ethics and integrity, so we need to set our own standards.”

From an investment point of view, said Gordhan, investors want to see leaders with clear vision, planning capability, competent basic service delivery, and service continuity.

“If we can guarantee those things, we will attract investors from across Africa and the world. We don’t have enough capital to invest so we need to attract them,” he said.

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