Central Business District, Johannesburg, South Africa


This research report reviews and analyses South Africa’s planning and urban development policy documents for the last twenty years, identifying the key ideas and policies that have shaped the delivery of public services, paying particular attention to education and healthcare.

This report also presents city profiles for two of South Africa’s most populous cities: Johannesburg and Cape Town.

This report is written by University of the Witwatersrand and Human Sciences Research Council

Key messages

Two-thirds of South Africa’s population live in urban areas. This is one of the highest proportions in Africa, reflecting the long history of mining and industrialisation. The pace of urban growth has fallen in recent years, which makes it more manageable, but urbanisation has always been highly contentious and posed dilemmas for successive governments.

Today, South Africa’s cities are among the most unequal and visibly divided in the world, with some of the most affluent and liveable neighbourhoods alongside some of the most squalid, unhealthy and dangerous.

Continuing anti-urban sentiment across government and society has also obliged many people to live in informal settlements and backyard shacks, and to retain a foothold in both urban and rural locations, thereby living a double life of circular migration.

Local authorities in Cape Town and Johannesburg have made many plans to create more compact, sustainable and integrated cities, but they have had little impact on structural problems of chronic poverty and socio-spatial inequality.

  • Johannesburg is South Africa’s largest and fastest-growing city, with high levels of domestic and foreign in-migration. It is marked by extreme social and spatial inequalities. The spatial mismatch between housing and job opportunities is a serious challenge, with the largest and highest density townships located on the urban periphery.
  • Cape Town is South Africa’s second most populous city after Johannesburg. It is also marked by extreme social and spatial inequalities.