Impressions about physical South Africa

by Cees Bruggemans: Consulting Economist, Bruggemans & Associates.
What are the main physical impressions about modern South Africa? Some of this stuff may surprise.

The population has increased 10-fold since 1905, increased 3-fold since 1966, and has doubled since 1978 (35 years). That’s massive by any yardstick.

Over that last one-third of a century, the share of the population that is urbanised has increased by half, from about 40% to 65%.

Urbanites have therefore increased 3-fold over that period. That is a very large increase in our cities and urban settlements.

This does not come as a surprise, not when observed on the ground or from the air. Our cities have expanded reach everywhere while also experiencing densification.

On the ground, it is the visual assault one experiences today, and especially the sense of congestion on roads when compared to the late 1970s.

That already starts to raise some uneasiness.

Has the road system changed? It certainly has. In 1966 the only bit of double carriage way was the entry into Braamfontein (I think).

After that, military needs took over. Strategic access was needed in a hurry everywhere. And so roads got build along the West coast, on the south coast (a Presidential stamping ground) and the main arteries became four, six and today even eight-lane highways.

All the main cities and even middle sized ones thickened their road arteries considerably.

Even so, the congestion steadily rose with our rising modernity, flagging our progress.

From the air, many small towns more than doubled or even tripled in size, as the Old town was matched with a sprawling New town, the former leafy, the latter often still much barer.

Sprawling megacity settlements sprung up, originally south west of Johannesburg (Soweto), then north of Pretoria, east of Bloemfontein, the entire Cape Flats, the hills of Natal and so around all major cities.

As a student in the early 1970s, I could hitchhike (safely) from Muizenberg to Stellenbosch (50km) on a hick road without encountering anything except Port Jackson. Today the story is somewhat different.

Also today, the 2000km coastal strip along the west, south and east coasts is populated with holiday and retirement homes on a scale far outstripping anything seen 40 years ago.

But besides all this human beehive activity, what else is physically noticeable?

The nation grew out of its many city corsets, creating in places new commercial nodes. The visual impact has been dramatic, just like in Mumbai today, only our scale is much more impressive.

I am referring to how the flight from old city centres was replicated in many instances, often ending up with two city centres, the old ones still mainly populated by government departments and agencies and the new mostly commercial ones.

It happened in Johannesburg (Sandton and many other satellite centres surrounding the mega city), Pretoria (Centurion, Lynwood, North Pretoria), Durban (Umhlanga Ridge), Cape Town (Durbanville, Canal walk, Claremont-Newlands, Somerset-West-Stellenbosch, and up the West Coast), even in Bloemfontein.

Okay, so what?

Well, hanging in the air on the usual commercial air routes, it is rather telling what has changed little to very little. There are the electricity power stations (the same old stacks all these years, minus a few ancient city landmarks that were imploded). The dams (Berg River Dam near Franschoek is recent, but elsewhere in the country?). The mining areas with one or two exceptions, especially in the North West province (platinum belt) and Limpopo/Mpumalanga (coal mines). Harbours (modernised and expanded, with Coega new). And then especially industrial areas.

From the air, the industrial footprints of Gauteng, Cape Town, Durban-Westville-Pinetown, Pretoria, PE-Uitenhage, East London and most stuff in between is so the same.

Perhaps a gigantic new warehouse here or there, and presumably more gutted and modernised settings within existing industrial zones, with a lot more modern physical equipment, but the actual industrial area footprints one can mostly trace out with closed eyes.

Starting at about the same time (1978) a bunch of westerners were taken out to a koppie outside Hong Kong and looking inland saw nothing. That is today Shenzhen, a city of 10 million (putting greater Johannesburg in the shade).

And that is only one city. Go around the Chinese coastal belt especially, and the industrial explosion has been phenomenal. But okay, that is China and 10% compounded real growth annually, and we are us.

Hang above greater Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Vereeniging, Bloem, Kimberley, PE and East London, and the same sensation may take hold. No real physical expansion of an industrial nature.

No surprise then that our industrial activity has shrunk by half as a share of GDP to about 12% today from 23% in 1970 even though real GDP has more than doubled.

We have had an enormous shift into services, for which reason all the shining office towers, extensive office parks and the sprawling giant-sized shopping malls, and inside them the explosion in information technology, computers, smart phones and internet, television and radio media, taking us ever inward rather than outward.

Is this sustainable?

In its limited context it is, but it does not cater adequately for the many millions in the poor city settlements on the margin of modern post-industrial life and their often limited skill sets.

They need to be absorbed more comprehensively but for that we need a physical footprint somewhat more extensive than the one barely coping with what has been created so far. It cannot all become smart computer based. We need physical shifts, too, real evidence of social mobility and progress for a society with a far too large marginalised component to its population still.

Sadly, so far nothing or at most very little. One wonders where that leads by 2050 (another 35 years away).

Useful resources:
FNB Economics
FNB Economics provides economic and financial data and comment on the performance of the South African economy as well as the global economy with particular reference to elements that impact on or have the potential to impact on our economy.
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