Mother City megalopolis — Cape Town prepares for a massive growth spurt

In a wide-ranging presentation, Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis reflected on the city’s problems and possibilities… and the matter of a projected population increase to 10 million within a generation.

Decay and decline are not inevitable: Another future is realisable, with Cape Town showing the way. That’s the picture of tomorrow painted by Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis, at a Citadel event in Claremont on Wednesday evening. 

Reminiscing about the first few weeks of the hard lockdown in 2020, Hill-Lewis said that when he was finally able to visit their “local” wine estate, De Grendel, he had an existential moment: 

“All of us [in South Africa] were feeling pretty down about the lockdown. But this was a perfect, perfect day, and I was having a glass of wine with my wife, with a view of Table Mountain, in this incredible, magnificent city. I remember thinking, there is no other place like this in the world. This is where I want to be… this place – Cape Town – is irreplaceable.”

With that in mind, as Hill-Lewis was pondering tossing his name into the ring for the mayorship, he began strategising about what needed to be done to make Cape Town more resilient.

Resilience and planning for the future have been key themes of his 14 months’ tenure as mayor.

“There’s an opportunity for Cape Town to be much more assertive about that which it can do as a competent, well-run local government. And we can start to do something about these things. We have this platform of really sound financial management over many years in the city. We can also start to address some of the pressures which are already under our control.”

But Cape Town is already a victim of its own success: it has become Ground Zero for urbanisation and migration in South Africa. It is bursting at the seams, which is putting massive pressure on the city’s infrastructure. 

Hill-Lewis said the city has an urgent need and the ability to push hard on infrastructure to ensure it can stay ahead of the curve; to ensure that development and densification can happen. 

In the next few years, Cape Town’s population is predicted to explode: by 2025, about 5,133,370 people are expected to live in the city – the projection is that within a generation, 10 million people will call the Mother City home.

Such rapid growth places massive pressure on infrastructure and other resources. Hill-Lewis asks, what will a city of 10 million Capetonians look like?

The megalopolis

“The Cape Town that many of us grew up in, which had a kind of village feel, is long gone. In our lifetime, this is going to be a 10 million-person city. And that’s an intimidating thought.

“We can’t waste time being intimidated; we need to prepare for it and make sure that we stay ahead of all of the pressures that that puts on our city’s infrastructure.” 

A great deal of time has been spent preparing for a ramp-up in infrastructure investment in Cape Town: Already, it accounts for 14% of all government infrastructure spending in the country, he said. But it’s too little. 

“Cape Town’s already punching above its weight… [we know the city’s] infrastructure investment is well behind the curve. We’ve got to do a lot more. Imagine what would happen if we doubled our infrastructure investment. That would be nearly a third of all infrastructure investment in the country.”

This year, a significant amount of resources have gone into expanding the city’s ability to deliver on major projects.

“We have in the past two weeks or so unveiled a R120-billion infrastructure plan for the next decade, which will see us far outstripping any other state infrastructure investment in the whole country. 

“This year already, we’re accelerating to the point where we are now spending the most of any city in South Africa, which is an amazing thing given we are still half the size of Johannesburg. But we made absolutely sure because [we must be] competitive about this.”

Water woes

The first puzzle piece to resilience is water: how to withstand future droughts by producing its own water supply. Hill-Lewis said they cannot rely on the national government to deliver new dams and major bulk water infrastructure, or to deliver better sewage and sanitation services across the city. 

At a sewer pipe replacement programme project in Gugulethu earlier that day, he commended engineers on the progress made, but said the city would be expecting them to ramp up replacements, from 20km per year to 102km next year – focusing on underprivileged communities. 

“We are going to massively improve the delivery of basic services for the poorest residents of our city… the capacity of our network to handle densification… and we get to prepare our city for the future that is absolutely coming.”

Stopping blackouts

To make Cape Town an example of resilience, “we have to stop rolling blackouts”. 

In a recent KFM interview with Richard Quest from CNN, the British journalist said he didn’t understand the lack of outrage about the blackouts.

“The moment you call it load shedding you are dressing it up with a nice bow and giving it a cutesy name. This is a power cut – the sort of thing that should not happen in an advanced economy, period, and what is more… it’s been happening for years. This is it – this is the norm.”

Hill-Lewis concurred, saying South Africans are not angry enough.

“We’ve had this for 15 years and there is no single technical reason why we should have load shedding. We have a regulatory and political explanation for why we have load shedding, but not a technical explanation.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

“It was a deliberate choice not to invest adequately in new generation capacity. It was a choice not to care for our fleet appropriately. Those things are the consequences of political leadership and decision-making.”

Hill-Lewis said most cities are operating on the assumption that eventually Eskom will resolve the energy crisis, but it has been going on for so long that the economy will be crippled by that time.

“So we’re going to do it ourselves. We’ve had our first major tender for 200 megawatts of independent power. We have a responsibility to solve this as quickly as possible, so we are pressing ahead.

“Just a couple of weeks ago, we [became] the very first city on the continent to pay people for the power that they send back to the grid. In the next three weeks, 500 megawatts of industry dispatchable power [will be turned on].”


Hill-Lewis said Cape Town has too much crime and the city could not match the resource allocation of the SA Police Service. There are about 28,000 officers in the city and about 3,500 metro police officers.

In collaboration with the provincial government, the city is working to correct the resource imbalance through the Law Enforcement Advancement Project, which has dispatched 1,000 officers to the streets – to the 10 worst crime hotspots in the city, which together account for just under 50% of all murders in Cape Town.

Since their introduction, violent crime has declined – particularly in areas that were always in the top 10 worst hotspots.

“To see them starting to slowly fall off that worst list is very encouraging. Indeed, it is… the only example of a model that is working. It’s not rocket science; it’s good, old-fashioned, visible policing, with bobbies on the beat. They are searching people, finding hundreds of weapons and drugs. Each weapon seized is a life saved.” 

It’s also about tech support. Cape Town has hired a chief technology officer for the metro police department, who was previously attached to Interpol. The city is also investing in tech such as drones, body and dash cameras.

Police have arrested more than 400 wanted criminals by pulling them over in the streets, because they were able to log their number plates immediately.

Next month, unmanned aerial surveillance technology goes live. The drones will be able to be dispatched to anywhere in the city within minutes. 

“That is going to be an absolute game-changer for our ability to make the city safer.”


The informal minibus taxi industry “comes with its own complexities”, Hill-Lewis acknowledged, but provides a necessary service. The rail system, though, is totally dysfunctional.

“If we want to have a 10 million-person city, we need a functioning rail system. There’s no city in the world that is successful that can move that many people that quickly, without a train system.”

Cape Town has asked the government to allow it to take over the management of the rail system. In March last year, the Cabinet released a policy paper calling for the devolution of rail networks to capable and competent metros.

“There’s an enormous amount of technical work still to be done. In the years ahead, we can look forward to a joint locally and provincially managed train system that has been ceded to a professional team.”


The culture of disrespect towards public spaces “needs to be changed”. Hill-Lewis said rivers and stormwater drains are polluted with rubbish that ends up in the ocean. 

“It’s time to change the culture by putting resources behind cleanup crews, increased refuse collection in informal settlements and to hold people accountable for their behaviour. 

“Every company, school, sports club, religious fraternity… everyone can spend half an hour getting together and cleaning up a little bit. It’s not just about cleaning up your street. It’s about the message that it sends to everyone watching you.

“We want people to see that in Cape Town, you can’t litter like that. And over time, we will get that culture change that we need.”

The stick could work too: the city has massively upped fines for littering and law enforcement officers are being encouraged to fine people for littering and illegal dumping.


Hill-Lewis said small-scale or micro developers, who are prepared to put up structures on government land, are able to do so quicker and more affordably than government. 

The problem is, the city has traditionally seen these structures as planning violations because they don’t have building plans, designated erfs or legal connections to services.

“One of our projects is to help regularise those buildings and encourage more construction of them so that, hopefully, more capital and more funders will get into that very small-scale, very affordable formalisation of informal settlements without the state’s involvement.”

With off-the-shelf, pre-approved building plans, the council can survey those sites and register the properties.

“We can make sure that those buildings are structurally sound, fire-safe, properly connected to the sewer grid and so on. There are things that we can do without having to build houses, but that can deliver affordable housing much faster.”


No residential occupant in South Africa can be removed from any structure, formal or informal, without an eviction order issued by the high court. In the case of vulnerable people, the court requires alternative accommodation in the vicinity (about 5km) of where the person currently stays and meets a level of dignity, which the city is appealing against in the Supreme Court. 

Cape Town has mostly dealt with homelessness as a law enforcement issue, but it involves social development, health and other sectors. Hill-Lewis said that since last year, the city has sent social workers to assess homeless people’s circumstances comprehensively, to determine why they are living on the street and what their mental condition is.

Some have been referred to treatment facilities and others have been placed in public work programmes.

“We’ve helped over 800 people get ID books just so that they can access the Sassa grant. It’s a suite of care interventions. But the understanding has always been firm: If that help is consistently refused, then we have to go to court.

“We also, by the way, spent R155-million last year on providing alternative accommodation, but I would much rather spend that money on housing for people who have been on the waiting list for 20 or 30 years.”

By attending to these, and other issues, he said he believes the local government can give residents a real sense of optimism about the city and that it can set an example to others in South Africa – one that it is possible to replicate elsewhere.

“Here, we can send out an alternative message.” BM/DM

Author: editor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *