While institutional change generally happens incrementally over long periods of time, there are times of rapid transition characterised by an unusual fluidity in the organisation and processes of government. In the recent past, large parts of the world have experienced sweeping political and/or economic changes, including shifts away from various forms of colonial and socialist rule.
Almost all the literature on ‘transitions’ has focussed on change at the national level with very little indicating what happens at the subnational scales. In this contribution, I explore the changes which have occurred in the governance of large and complex urban agglomerations (referred to below as city-regions) during periods of significant national transition. There is, of course, a large literature on city-regions but the overwhelming bulk of this work draws on cases in countries where political and economic systems have been fairly stable over an extended period.
The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) offers an opportune framing for case work, as all countries in this geopolitical cluster have experienced far-reaching changes in the fundamentals of their economic and/or political systems since the 1980s. In all cases, too, the transitions have either been away from (different forms of) socialism or from variants of colonial rule.
In this contribution I start with a brief account of the literatures on transitions, and on post-colonialism/post-socialism, before introducing the challenge of the city-region. I then describe the national transitions in each of the BRICS before discussing the changing landscape of city-region governance. I conclude with a reflection on how national transitions are experienced sub-nationally, showing also how a study of transitions may enrich the literatures on the governance of city-regions.
This contribution is part of a wider project on the processes of governance across city-regions in the BRICS that has involved in situ fieldwork including contextual immersion and in-depth interviews. The purpose of this paper is to provide a synoptic view of changes in the governance of city-regions within the framing of national political and economic transitions. In this sense it is a review article that brings together wider literatures on transitions, post-colonialism and post-socialism with more specific literatures on city-region governance and on the particularities of national and sub-national contexts.
There is an established literature on regime transition, which began in the 1980s as a hopeful response to processes of democratisation across many parts of the world,
including in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa. The seminal work in the field was the 1986 Transitions from Authoritarian Rule by G. O’Donnell & P. Schmitter (1986). The work did indeed acknowledge the uncertainty and fragility of transitions, but it was nevertheless criticised for an underlying assumption of a linear process towards the consolidation of an idealised conception of Western liberal democracy (Biekart 2015). G. O’ Donnell was however to later emphasise the open-ended nature of the transition process and the likelihood of hybrid outcomes (O’Donnell 2002). Writers following on from G. O’Donnell et al have, increasingly, drawn on empirical work to emphasise the complexity, contingency, contextuality and unpredictability of transitions, and also the complex mix of continuities and ruptures in these processes (e.g., Bratton & Van de Walle 1994; Hagopien 1996; Joseph 1997; Tsai 2007).
Similarly, scholarly work on ‘post-colonialism’ and ‘post-socialism’ has complicated the narrative, challenging simplistic conceptions of linear transitions and binary-type distinctions between the ‘before’ and the ‘after’. While the term ‘post’ may imply a temporality – a ‘coming after’ – the literatures actually show a complex interplay of past and present. Post-colonial writing is especially diverse and inter-disciplinary, reflecting multiple dimensions and consequences of the historical engagement between the colonizer and the colonised (famously, e.g., Spivak 1988; Chakrabarty 1992; Bhabha 1994). Post-socialist study is more recent but it too has moved to an understanding of the entangled past and present (e.g., Wu 2003; Stanilov 2007; Golupchikov & Phelps 2011).
Although the literatures emphasise the open-endedness of transitions, the disruptions caused by the transitions have clearly had immensely significant consequences across multiple facets of human life and organisation. Although post-colonial and post-socialist literatures, have engaged, sometimes ethnographically, with details of cultural change at the sub-national level, the transition literatures have focussed overwhelmingly on the national scale. There is very little work on sub-national governance and institutions under processes of political or economic transition. In this paper I focus on the city-region as an intervening scale between the national and the local but, as sub-national transitions are embedded in national processes, I begin below with a brief account of the national.
The transition from socialism in Russia is iconic because of its radical impact on geo-politics globally, and the dramatic and sudden nature of the change. In the 1990s there were clear expectations that Russia was on the path to liberal capitalism and parliamentary democracy, but the transition process has taken unexpected turns, defying simplistic categorisation. A post-socialist literature has offered a more complex and situated view of the transition (e.g., Gel’man 2015) showing how recent turns are, in fact, the outcome of the form that the earlier transition took (Gel’man 2015). The quasi-authoritarianism of present-day Russia is not a perversion or reversal of a ‘natural process’ but is rather the contingent outcome of a transition engineered by elites that civil society stunted and unable to contain the ambitions of a national elite that became increasingly assertive after 2000 (Hahn 2002).
China offers a very different case. Here the political elites maintained a discursive continuity with socialism while engineering profound discontinuities in practice. The Communist Party of China (CPC) maintains its monopoly on political power but economic practices have radically altered, although not in a way that fits easily into an ideal-type transition to a market economy. Deng’s creed of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, which emerged through an incremental and exploratory process, defies simple categorisation, and does not fit easily into the descriptions of Western scholarship. J. Peck & J. Zhang (2013: 367,375) refer to at last 17 characterisation of the Chinese polity, ranging from ‘tendentially neoliberal’ to ‘socialist-developmentalist’. They conclude that that “the Chinese case is ‘just too different’ to be shoehorned into extant state-theoretic categories” (Peck & Zhang 2013: 375).
India represents an apparent cross-over between post-colonialism and post-socialism. India’s formal break with colonialism goes back to 1947 although, of course, the legacy of British rule persists in multiple ways (Banerjee & Lakshmi 2005). The post-socialist transition is more recent going back to the economic liberalisation of the early 1990s. India’s socialism was of course of a less extreme than state socialism in the Soviet Union, with the post-colonial elites having been influenced by the gradualist and democratic approach of the British Fabian Society, but the deregulation of the economy in 1991 was nevertheless a shockwave with far-reaching implications for society and spatial organisation (Mukherji 2009). In stark contrast to Russia, the transformation in economic policy did not involve a change in political system. It was a case of the dominant Congress Party ‘changing its mind’, although with a shift in the power of different elites within the existing bureaucracy (Sengupta 2008).
Colonial rule in Brazil formally ended in 1822, but old structures remained and there were profound continuities between colonial and postcolonial practices. J. Adelman (1999) refers to the historical power of ‘persistence’ in Latin American history. The nature of Brazil’s post-colonial state was the outcome of an uneasy compromise between the modernising national elite and conservative regional oligarchs (Hagopien 1996). Although federal government allowed for the accommodation of the otherwise disruptive oligarchs, the balance of power among the elites has shifted periodically, and Brazil’s governance arrangements have vacillated between greater central powers and more subnational authority, and also between democracy and autocracy. The most recent transition was away from military rule towards a democratised federation. The transition began messily in the late years of military rule, but was more-or-less consolidated with the new national constitution of 1988.
Like Brazil, South Africa was also a case of white settler colonialism. The white population gained effective autonomy from the colonial power by the late 1920s but it resisted incorporation of the black majority into the political system, also implementing a ruthless policy of racial segregation known as apartheid. There was a transition from apartheid to non-racial democracy in the 1990s, following a deadlock between the white government and the black-led opposition. However, the negotiated nature of the transition, and the elite pacts it involved, has produced a complex mix of ruptures and continuities (see Marais 2001).
The implications for local government of these transitions are extremely varied. V. Gel’man (2015), for example, explains how the reforms in Russia in 1995 appeared to radically strengthen the position of local government but that the underlying structures of power had not significantly shifted. In the 1990s, the empowerment of local government was a useful offset for national elites to the power of the regional barons, but once this threat was neutralised, the autonomy and power of local government was again curtailed.
In China, the transition has been associated with the decentralisation of functions and fiscal power towards local and region government. However, this has happened within the context of sustained political and administrative authority in the centre, and a robust political and government hierarchy (Ho 2008; Wu 2015). In India, economic liberalisation came together with a proposed empowerment of local government through the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments of 1992. However, the embedded interests of national and state-level elites have largely blocked efforts to decentralise (Sivaramakrishnan 2013).
In Brazil the reaction to the centralising authoritarianism of the military regime produced a strong orientation towards local government and bottom-up democracy. The federal arrangements introduced in the 1988 constitution including considerable autonomy for local government, although, in effect, Brazil’s fragmented local government must continually negotiate their interests with those of the other levels of the federation (Selcher 1989). In South Africa, the national transition came together with a far-reaching democratisation and structural transformation of local government. Like Brazil, the powers of local government were constitutionally entrenched but, unlike Brazil, there was a clamour was for consolidated local government that would allow for a meaningful redistribution of resources across previously racialized space. Emerging from South Africa’s transition, for example, was single-tier metropolitan authorities (Pillay, Tomlinson & du Toit 2006).
City region governance
It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore the complex literatures and debates on city regions that have emerged since Neil Brenner wrote of the re-scaling of territory in 1999, and Allen Scott produced his edited volume on Global City-Regions in 2001. Very briefly, the literature has mainly turned around a debate between a ‘competitive city regionalism’ in which the rise of the city region is linked to the requirement of global capitalism (e.g., Scott 2001) and a non-functionalist view of the city region as a political construction and a contingent outcome of many interacting interests and pressures (e.g., Ward & Jonas 2004). Recent contributions, however, have moved beyond polarized positions, calling for a careful accretion of actual evidence for the rise and meaning of city regions (Harrison 2010; Addie & Keil 2015).
While the idea and practice of the city-region varies significantly across context, the cross-contextual concern is with the scale and complexity of governance in large-scale urban agglomerations that extend across jurisdictional boundaries. Governance imperatives that involve the territoriality of a city-region include: coordination of large infrastructure networks such as water supply and transport; internalizing environmental externalities and spillovers; resource sharing and redistribution; inter-agency visioning and planning; and, the promoting of economic growth and competitiveness. W. Salet, A. Thornley & A. Kreukels (2003) refer to the task of city-region governance as one of ‘organizing connectivity’.
The way in which governance is organized to address these imperatives does however vary significantly. It ranges from informal interactions and emergent practices involving multiple agents to formalized institutional reforms imposed by higher levels of government (Kooiman 2008). The section below explores the practices across the BRICS, emphasizing the shifts which have occurred as a consequence of national transitions.
The Russian Federation
Moscow and Saint Petersburg were historically large cities governed together with their surrounding regions (Oblasts) within the interconnected but hierarchical structures of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Admittedly, however, the integration was imperfect with T. Colton (1995: 475) reminding us that ‘Moscow’s rulers were not keen to take on the problems of the larger city region’. The City of Moscow, for example, polluted the waterways of the Oblast with its waste, without apparent concern (Filtzer 2006). In the case of Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) the mechanisms of linkage were seemingly better. The First Secretary of the CPSU for the Leningrad Oblast also served as First Secretary to the City of Leningrad, and as late as 1985 there was a joint Master Plan for the development of the City and the Oblast (Liminov 2013).
The collapse of the CPSU meant the sudden dismantling of coordinating structures but there was a moment of institutional opportunity. Gavriil Popov, the Mayor of Moscow during the tumultuous changes of the early 1990s, championed the idea of a ‘Unified Capital Region of Moscow’. He won President Yeltsin over and, in April 1991, Russia’s Supreme Soviet instructed the City and the Oblast to poll their residents on this idea (Colton 1995). While the majority of resident balloted in the City supported the proposed amalgamation, the Oblast would not even put the matter to the vote, fearful of domination by the City. Soon, however, the City government calculated the actual costs of bringing the level the level of services in the Oblast on par with those in the City. Federal government did not pursue the matter as it realized the political risks of dealing with a powerful, amalgamated Greater Moscow (or, even, of a Greater Saint Petersburg) (Colton 1995).
The institutional divide between City and Oblast was entrenched by the late 1990s, just as the material need for coordinated governance expanded spectacularly. The dismantling of Soviet era planning controls, and the rapid shift towards private motor vehicles, accelerated the expansion of the urban agglomeration into the Oblast, intensifying the effects of poorly coordinated land-use planning, disjointed transportation networks, non-aligned bulk infrastructure networks, economic competition, and environmental spillovers (Golubchikov & Phelps 2011; Liminov 2013).
The relationship between City and Oblast administrations is complicated by a national tax regime which directs personal income tax to the territory in which residents work rather than live, disadvantaging the Oblasts from where growing numbers of people commute daily into the City. It is also complicated by continual annexation of Oblast territory by city government; most recently a mass-scale annexation by the City of Moscow to construct a ‘New Moscow’. Meaningful collaboration is inhibited by resentment and fear from the Oblast administrations, and a reluctance to share resources by the City. In the case of Saint Petersburg there is intense competition between the City and Oblasts over large-scale investments in industry, transport infrastructure, and the infrastructure required for the oil and gas sector (Golubchikov 2010).
The consequences of disjointed government have been increasingly apparent. Gridlocks within the transport system in the two major city-regions increasingly affected national economic prospects, and the functioning of federal government offices which are concentrated in Moscow City. In November 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev demanded coordinated action in transport between the City of Moscow and Moscow Oblast and in February 2011, Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, issued an Order for ‘the establishment of a Coordination Council for Transport for Moscow and the Moscow Oblast’ (Government of the Russian Federation 2011). A similar process followed in Saint Petersburg.
The establishment of these joint structures has had apparent success with the construction in Moscow of a circular light rail, integrated into other transportation networks. As a result consideration is now being given to extending the model to other sectors although most forms of city-region governance remain periodic and ad hoc.
China’s complex, prolonged transition from Maoist rule has unleashed an urbanization process that has been unprecedented in global history. In the 35 years between 1980 and 2015, China’s cities have accommodated an additional 590 million people, with the rise of three mega cities along the east coast – the Yangtze River Delta (YRD), Pearl River Delta (PRD), and the National Capital Region (also known as Jing-Jin-Ji). This growth was the combination of a number of processes and reforms in the post-Maoist era including the establishment of Special Economic Zones in support of mass-scale export-led industrialisation, the liberalisation of migration controls, the creation of a land rental market, and the commodification of housing (Ren 2013).
Despite its incremental nature, the transition has produced a profound material transformation, and this has required a reconsideration of governance practices which have evolved through a nearly two thousand year history. Before the reforms, China was only around 17 percent urbanised, and while there were fairly large cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, they were managed within existing municipal boundaries. The rapid evolution of mega city regions where the urban footprint crosses multiple municipal and provincial boundaries has compelled a modification of Chinese vertically-oriented governance system with more attention to horizontal relationships.
While China maintains a nationally coherent governmental system, with a capacity to enforce common policies, there are significant regional differences in context and practice. The YRD is the most mature of the city-regions with a highly interlinked network of cities, crossing the boundaries of four jurisdictions with provincial level status (Wu 2009). Although there was a short-lived attempt in the early 1980s to create a common economic zone across the YRD, it was the region-based initiative in 2004 to bring the Mayors of the cities in the YRD together on an annual basis, which catalysed a process of gradually deepening integration (Zhang & Fu 2009; Ding & Li 2015). While the Annual Meeting of Mayors dealt initially with quite simple matters of coordination such as joint tourism routes and infrastructure planning, it now deals with more vexing questions such as social protection and industrial upgrading (Na 2014). This annual event, supported by coordination offices within each city, represents the success of regional initiative and emergent practices, but it does function within the overall structure of China’s governmental hierarchy, and is guided by a master plan for the region prepared by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).
The PRD or Greater Bay Area (if Hong Kong and Macau are included) is a city-region that has emerged with extraordinary speed over the course of the Reform Era. Mechanisms of collaborative governance have not evolved to the same extent as in the YRD, with competition between the rapidly growing cities still a dominant mode of engagement. The PRD does however have the advantage of falling within the domain of a single province (Guangdong) which has assisted infrastructural integration, for example. The Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau add considerable complexity within the wider Greater Bay Area. While national government sees the city-region as a matrix within which these territories can be integrated, there is ongoing concern within Hong Kong over the political motivation in mainland China for promoting mechanisms of city-region planning and governance. Nevertheless, there is deepening collaboration between Hong Kong and neighbouring Shenzhen, in particular (Yang & Li 2013).
The National Capital Region (NCR) in the north of China is weakly integrated in economic terms. Surrounding the mega cities of Beijing and Tianjin is a vast underdeveloped territory in Hebei province which is considered to form part of the city-region. While the construction of city-region governance in the YRD had elements of bottom-up and emergent practice, in the case of the NCR it has been highly orchestrated from above, reflecting the desire of national elites for a national capital city that projects the power of the central state.
Although academics and policy think tanks have mooted the idea of an NCR for some time, the initiative gained political resonance with the rise of Xi Jingping through the party hierarchy (Cartier 2015). In 2014, President Xi announced that the development of the NCR (or the Jing-Jin-Ji) would be a national priority. His vision was of a capital city that projects the power of a globally assertive China. It would be decongested by decanting functions extraneous to its role as a national capital into the surrounding region (Yaqing 2014). In 2015, President Xi ordered the relocation of all municipal government offices out of the centre of Beijing to a sub-centre east of the city, and in 2017, Xi announced that a new city, with an anticipated population of 2.5 million people, would be created at Xiong’an, 100 kilometres to the south of Beijing. The processes of regional development were to be carefully planned and coordinated centrally by the NDRC.
The NDRC, through China’s Five Year Plans, has also promoted an idea of city clusters (initially called ‘economic circles’) across China. The incorporation of the city cluster within the 11th Five Year Plan (FYP) (2006–2010) grabbed international attention, with the mistaken assumption that this was China’s plan for mega-scale city development. In reality, the city cluster constructs a territory into which the population and economic activities of the core city may be decentralised. The city cluster is arguably a means through which to resolve a tension that has arisen during the transition process. On the one hand they represent an official understanding of the role of large urban agglomerations in driving continued economic growth but, on the other hand, they indicate a continued fear of the political and environmental consequence of mega city development. As J. Wallace (2014:6) argues, ‘the Chinese regime has managed its urbanization to reduce the chances of threats emanating from cities’. The city cluster provides an expansive territory for continued urban-led economic expansion but also a space for distributing growth from large cities to small- and medium-sized cities.
India’s post-colonial federation was set up under the guidance of the arch-modernizer and secular socialist, Jawaharlal Nehru. For Nehru, the villages of India were the repositories of ‘backward sentiments’ such as linguistic, religious, caste and ethnic prejudice, and so the federation he constructed divided power between the national- and state-level, with local government remaining weak and fragmented.
While provision was made for metropolitan planning from the late 1960s, the planning powers were jealously held by state government, with the Metropolitan Development Agency (MDA) an extension of state authority rather than an associational arrangement involving local government (Shaw & Satish 2007). However, by the 1980s discourse was shifting, driven by both a reaction to centralizing powers of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Rule in the 1970s and the advocacy of global agencies such as the World Bank. The economic liberalisation in the early 1990s was part of a package consistent with accepted (neo-liberal) global discourse which also included decentralisation (Banerjee-Guha 2009).
The 74th Constitutional Amendment of 1992 required, amongst many other measures to empower municipal government, the establishment of Metropolitan Planning Committees (MPCs) which were to draw at least two-thirds of their membership from local corporations. From the beginning there was resistance from the states. In cases MPCs were actually established, but they were allocated a complex set of minor responsibilities, bogging them down in irrelevant detail (Sivaramakrishnan 2013).
While metropolitan governance largely remains the domain of state government in the large agglomerations of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, the National Capital Region, or Greater Delhi, has taken a somewhat different trajectory. Here, India’s central government has retained its control over planning and land development through the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) which reports to a National Minister rather than to the elected (quasi-state) Government of the National Territory of Delhi (NCT of Delhi) (Nath 1988).
More than this, national government has long supported the idea of a National Capital Region into which the frenetic activity of Delhi could be decentralised. The idea of the NCR is the continuation of a colonial mission to decongest old Delhi, but also reflects the desire of the post-colonial elite to create a national capital that would showcase India’s modernity. The concept was first articulated by India’s Minister of Health in a foreword to the 1956 Interim Master Plan for Delhi, but took decades to be realised as a result of resistance from state governments (Nath 1988).
Finally, in 1985, a watered-down version of city-region governance was established with the launch of the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB). The Board was chaired by a National Minister (and, sometimes, by the Prime Minister) and included senior politicians and officials of the four state governments within the region (Banerjee 1996). However, resistance to the perceived intrusion of national government in state planning affairs continued and the NCRPB was never properly capacitated.
The liberalisation of India’s economy in the early 1990s (the ‘post-socialist transition’) further weakened the prospects for co-ordinated regional development. The flows of real estate and other investment capital that followed liberalisation was directed by market choice into Delhi proper, and into an inner ring of new cities around Delhi (e.g., Gurgaon) rather than into the remote outer ring of counter-magnet settlement prioritised in the NCRPB’s regional plan (Jain & Siedentop 2014). Increasingly, the NCRPB has become a structure that channels development financing to projects within individual states rather than one which attempts to planning and co-ordinate for a cross-boundary city-region.
Brazil’s transition away from the authoritarian rule of a military government did not involve a reformulation of the economic system (as was the case in the previous three examples). It did however involve a remaking of the political system. There was not only a return to the federalism negotiated by the national and regional elites in the late nineteenth century, but also the construction of an unusually decentralised form of federalism. Unlike other federal set ups where national and state/provincial governments form the units of the federation, Brazil included municipalities. The emphasis on local power, democracy and autonomy is the reaction to a history of technocratic and authoritarian rule.
This has had significant consequences for attempts to set up some form of metropolitan (or city-region) type governance. It was in fact the military dictatorship which introduced structures for metropolitan governance in 1973 as an anticipated technical fix to the challenge of managing Brazil’s rapid urbanisation. Metropolitan structures didn’t replace local authorities but provided a means for joint planning, and for channelling funding through federal agencies such as the National Housing Bank. Whatever the merits of this system, the idea of metropolitan governance became associated in the public mind with autocratic and centralising forms of government.
When the national constitution was written in 1988, there was no appetite for metropolitan government. In fact, in the decade that followed, more than 1000 new municipalities were created within an already fragmented system of local government. Also, Brazil’s celebrated Statute of the Cities, 2001, gave no attention to the governance of metropolitan- or city-regions.
Gradually, the limits of ultra-localism became apparent. In the 1990s, Brazil’s municipalities became embroiled in ‘fiscal wars’ as they tried to outcompete each other for external investment. There was also the growing challenge of sustaining critical infrastructure such as water supply which required some form of region-wide collaboration. The 39 municipalities in Greater Sao Paulo, for example, failed to produce a coherent system of public transportation. The municipalities of Greater Rio de Janeiro battled to coordinate the provision of the infrastructure necessary for the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. L. Ribeiro & O. Santos Junior (2010) argued that the dysfunctionality of Brazil’s metropolitan cities have much to do with ‘incompleteness’ on the federal project, and the inability of the political elite to ‘[mobilize] mobilizing themselves around an institution-building project that takes advantage of the productive forces and the potential concentrated in the Brazilian complex, rich and diversified metropolitan system’.
There were however emergent local responses to the need for better coordination. By 2001 almost one-half of Brazil’s 5506 municipalities were involved in some form of inter-municipal collaboration, although this was largely limited to sectors such as health services, primary education and waste management. In the ABC Region of Greater Sao Paulo, however, a more comprehensive and inter-sectoral approach to municipal collaboration evolved; initially in response to an economic crisis in this predominantly manufacturing cluster. This practice of collaboration evolved more formally into the ABC Inter Municipal Consortium provided the crucial inspiration for enabling legislation for inter-municipal consortia introduced nationally by the Workers’ Party government in 2005. Nevertheless, even the ABC initiative was a very partial response to the overall challenges of metropolitan governance as it was confined to six municipalities, a small segment of the greater urban agglomeration, excluding the crucially important core municipality.
Over the next decade, a handful of state governments introduced legislation for more systematic forms of metropolitan governance. The State of Minas Gerais democratised the structures of governance for Greater Belo Horizonte and produced a plan acclaimed for its participatory processes. In Grande Rio, major institutional investors, including the World Bank, were concerned at the fragmented governance in the region and urged the State government and leading municipalities to establish structures of coordination. In 2014 a Metropolitan Chamber for Governmental Integration was established by agreement between the State Governor the City Mayors, but progress was slowed by the persisting concerns of municipalities.
National government eventually intervened in 2015 with the passing of a Statute of the Metropolis. There is an element of path dependency as the basic architecture of the proposed system of governance was similar to the structures of 1973 but the role for municipal government is far greater, and there is also provision for the direct representation of civil society. Even so, there is sensitivity, with varying degrees of suspicion by local actors over the intentions of the legislation. There was is also some wariness from cash-strapped federal government over the expectation that the creation of metropolitan structure will come with special funding flows from federal government. Significantly, when President Dilma Rousseff signed the legislation into law she vetoed the section that linked the establishment of metropolitan government to a special federal fund. Success in implementing the Statute of the Metropolis is clearly not assured.
South Africa’s late and idiosyncratic transition to post-colonialism is associated with both the constitutional empowerment of local government and the rise of a discourse around metropolitan governance and city-regions (Pillay 2004; Greenberg 2010).
Historically, there were attempts to resolve the coordination problems of complex urban agglomerations such as the Witwatersrand (Greater Johannesburg) where multiple centres had developed around large mines. For example, the Rand Water Board was set up to jointly procure water in a water scarce region (Mabin 2013). By the 1980s, the apartheid regime was in trouble, and the reformers within the dominant elite were searching for ways of changing the system without losing white dominance. Among the proposals were ‘regionalist solutions’ which allowed some coordination of infrastructure system across boundaries while maintaining the basic architecture of racially separate local authorities. The multi-racial Regional Services Councils (RSCs), introduced in the late 1980s, allowed for this limited cross-over but was soon rejected as a form of neo-apartheid administration designed to patch-up growing contradictions in a crumbling system (Cameron 1993).
From the late 1980s there was a civic uprising with calls for racially integrated metropolitan cities (with the slogan ‘one city, one tax base) that would allow for redistribution of resources from historically wealthy white areas to historically marginalised black areas. While the transition in Brazil brought about empowered, but increasingly fragmented local government, in South Africa the demand from the streets was for integrated metropolitan government that would provide the territorial basis for redistribution.
The political landscape in South Africa changed in 1990 with the unbanning of the liberation movements and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, and in 1993 a forum was set up to negotiate the future of local government. In 2000, after a protracted transitional process, single-tier metropolitan government was introduced for South Africa’s large cities. In the case of Johannesburg, for example, a single metropolitan administration governed an area that was previously the domain of 15 separate racially-defined municipalities (black, white, coloured, Indian).
However, the introduction of metropolitan government did not resolve the question of ‘city-region governance’. In the critically important Gauteng region, South Africa’s economic heartland, three metropolitan struggled to coordinate meaningfully with each other, and with provincial and national government agencies, as required by the principle of ‘co-operative governance’ in South Africa’s new national constitution.
Interestingly, the Gauteng Provincial Administration was set up in 1994 with boundaries coinciding largely with the edges of the expanded urban agglomeration. Although the province performed region-wide functions in relation to health and education, other key functions were held at metropolitan or national level. It was in this context that a discourse around the Gauteng City-Region (GCR) emerged by around 2004 (Shilowa 2006). The idea was championed by the Provincial Premier, receiving reluctant support from the Metropolitan Mayors who feared that structures of coordination would intrude into their domain.
At first the discourse around the GCR drew on internationally circulating ideas of globally competitive city-regions but in the post-apartheid context this discourse jarred with political demands for redistribution and greater social equity, and so the idea was reframed over time to mean a space the actors of governance cooperate to achieve inclusive development. A Gauteng City Region Observatory (GCRO) was successfully established as a partnership between government and universities to provide the knowledge infrastructure to support governance at the scale of the city-region.
However, the GCR proved to be a complex matter in practice, given the different interests across scales and sectors of governments. For example, the spatial visions of provincial and metropolitan governments were contradictory (Ballard et al. 2017) while an attempt to set up a joint transportation authority was actively resisted by metropolitan government, and was eventually established in 2018 as a watered down compromise. In 2016 the African National Congress (ANC) which ruled at national and provincial level was defeated in two of Gauteng’s three metropolitan cities. The tensions that resulted across the spheres of government put talk of city-region governance onto the back burner.
The post-socialist, post-colonial and hybrid transition in the BRICS during the fairly recent past have been diverse and complex, with their outcomes still not clear. In all cases there has been a mix of continuity and rupture with the past implicated in changing forms in the present. Nevertheless, the transitions created degrees of fluidity, opening the way for changes across scales of government. The subnational implications of the changes have generally been given less attention than the national, with city-region governance, a layer which generally falls outside the established levels of a government hierarchy, still largely ignored.
The implications of transition at this scale are variant but significant. In the case of Russia, the transition meant the abrupt termination of party-based mechanisms of coordination. There was however a short window of possibility for new arrangements of coordination. However, when agents of government failed to take advantage of the possibilities, the territorial divides were entrenched. It was only when the effects of disjointed government threatened the interests of the national elite that an instruction was given to local actors to ensure coordinated action.
In China, the emergence of governance arrangements at the scale of the city-region has been both a response to the pragmatics of governing urban agglomerations that have mushroomed in size and sprawled across jurisdictional boundaries, and to the need to mediate tensions produced by the reform or transition process. Emerging forms of city-region governance are varied across China’s huge territory, ranging from tight central government control in the National Capital Region to the accommodation of more locally embedded processes in the Yangtze River Delta. Importantly though, city-region governance, is gradually modifying China’s historically entrenched vertically-oriented governance arrangement by encouraging new forms of horizontal collaboration.
India is the hybrid between post-socialist and post-colonial transitions but also a case where an economic transition did not involve a transformation of the governance system. Nevertheless, the decentralisation of governance was advanced as part of the broader package of economic liberalisation. While the economic reforms have had far-reaching impacts on India, decentralisation of governance is a largely failed project. Also, an attempt by national elites to create a governance structure for a National Capital Region has had only very limited impact as a result of resistance from other levels of government, and of economic liberalisation that have shifted attention from coordinated planning to project financing and management.
Brazil is an example of how a transition process may produce its own path dependencies that restrict future options for institutional reform. Here, a history of top down technocratic rule under the military dictatorship provoked a contra reaction. A near ideology of autonomous localism set in during the transition process which was to produce ongoing suspicion of coordinated action across a metropolitan- or city-region. Gradually, however, the exigencies of governance in mega agglomerations has moderated this reaction, and instruments for coordinated action have evolved through both emergent, bottom-up processes and more deliberate action from state and federal authorities.
Unlike Brazil, the transition provoked a demand for larger scale authorities that could manage redistributive processes across their territories. South Africa’s transition brought about the construction of integrated, single-tier metropolitan authorities although this was insufficient to resolve matters of coordination across large city-regions. The shift towards some form of city-region governance is incomplete due largely to the embedded interests across the levels of authority, and is currently stalled as a result of political divisions.
In summary, there is no common pattern in transition processes although there are helpful comparisons and helpful points of conversation. All the BRICS, for example, have experienced some degree of institutional opening as a result of transition but also a ‘hardening’ or ‘closure’, as interests across scales become embedded. Path dependencies are created in the transition process, with continued openness for experimentation and reform variant across contexts.
The case studies show that there is a link between national processes and happenings in the city-region, although it is not a simple replication of change down the territorial scale. It is not sufficient for a literature on city-regions to be drawn so considerably from cases where national systems have been stable over many decades. We must expand the geography of knowledge production to include the many parts of the world (including, but not only, the BRICS) where systems of governance and of the economy have experienced profound alterations.
The author acknowledges the support received from South Africa’s National Research Foundation through the South African Research Chairs Initiative, and also from the Gauteng City-Region Observatory.
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