News / Africa

Reporter's Notebook: Of Towns and Megacities

FILE - Johannesburg is emerging as one of the continent's first "mega-cities"- bringing both opportunities and challenges as South Africa extends its dominance northwards.
FILE - Johannesburg is emerging as one of the continent's first "mega-cities"- bringing both opportunities and challenges as South Africa extends its dominance northwards.
Anita Powell
I started out covering city government in three of the fastest-growing towns in Texas, just north of Austin. It lasted three years and was truly an education in American democracy.
 
But there was a time in my life when I rejoiced that I would never again have to read City Council agendas; would never need to sit through five-hour Council meetings; would never again have to care about the planning and zoning commission or municipal credit ratings.
 
I realized that on my first day accompanying U.S. troops on patrol north of Baghdad. We were trying to visit the mayor, actually, but a roadside bomb stopped us short. As we sweated in our Humvees while waiting for the bomb squad, I had two thoughts. One: This would never happen in central Texas, and two: this sucks, but at least I no longer have go to City Council meetings!

Because the truth is, although I would swear to be a fan of democracy in action, city government is truly the front line of democracy. And like the actual front line, it is grueling -- and mostly very boring.
 
This devotion to municipal minutiae may be why Toronto’s outsize crack-smoking mayor remains popular despite, well, his admission that he smoked crack cocaine. Mayor Rob Ford is a dedicated public servant -- or so says his Twitter feed -- and makes a point of visiting every constituent who complains about a leaky sewer or a pothole.
 
This, said Virgil James of the city of Johannesburg, is the day-to-day reality of running a city. It’s often less about grand ideas than it is about sewers and sidewalks.
 
“It becomes at the end of the day, somewhat mundane, in that you have to please rate-payers. They are critical because they keep the city running. And all the issues that have been discussed here become issues that are basic service delivery issues,” said James.
 
I found myself thinking about this as I girded myself for an annual summit of big-city mayors in Johannesburg.
 
It was a lot fancier than a City Council meeting in my old stomping grounds of Leander, Texas. But for some reason, it made me feel slightly… homesick. So I called Leander’s former mayor, John Cowman. Needless to say, he was surprised to hear from me after a decade. And he then surprised me by readily offering advice for mayors of cities many times Leander’s size.
 
“It all boils down to one thing: education. It is the bottom line. You need an educated populace. You need to empower them through education. Be it South Africa, apartheid, whatever, you keep the people uneducated because they were feared if they got smart. Well, if you educate folks, this world will be better, and that would be my message to the mayors,” said Cowman.
 
My first city council meeting in Leander was more than 10 years ago. Leander’s population then was just under 14,000. Since then, it that has more than doubled, making this bedroom community outside of Austin one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States.
 
Growth was not easy. Cowman was a divisive mayor, and when Council meetings weren’t brutal, they were boring. I didn’t realize at the time that I was witnessing something special.
 
Or, as Cowman claims, that I was part of it.
 
“Everything you do learn, really starts at the local level, Anita, and you’re living proof of it. We went through the war together, and see, that’s why I love you for that, it’s like, wow. You reported things in our area that were occurring and so you were part of the team. And that’s they way we all viewed things. And yeah, there were some times I was like, ‘That darn Anita Powell,’ or ‘I’m afraid of her.’ But, look where we ended up,” said Cowman.
 
When I moved to Africa in 2007, I thought the rural areas held the secrets to this riveting continent. Rural areas are often hardest hit by the conflict, pestilence and famines that made Africa famous.
 
But I think I was wrong. New York’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, pointed out how fast cities on the continent are growing, and how they will shape Africa’s future.
 
“In 2011, there were 52 African cities with a population higher than 1 million people. By 2016, in only two years, there will be around 65. And that’s a good thing. Cities provide economic and a chance for a better life and they are helping drive the rapid expansion of this continent’s middle class. Cities also drive technological innovation, and they’re the places where bright ideas find capital and talent that they need to become reality an improve lives,” said Bloomberg.
 
I’m now aware that way back in Leander, I was already on the front line. Because the story of city government is really that of people’s hopes, fears and homes.
 
We saw the critical role that African cities like Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli played in overturning entrenched leaders. We’re seeing similar unrest in Luanda, in Kampala, and in Johannesburg, as city-dwellers stand up for their rights and young new residents are streaming in. I think Africa’s emerging narrative could very well become cities.
 
But please, please, no more City Council meetings. You can’t make me go back to that war zone.

You May Like

New England Bears Brunt of US Blizzard

Boston, surrounding region grapple with as much as 3 feet of snow, coastal flooding; leaders in New York, spared most severe weather, criticized for being overly cautious More

China Lifts Lid on Sale of Fake Goods Online

A recent survey found nearly 60 percent of a random sample of items bought from Taobao were fake More

Upward Aims to Create Old-girls Network in Silicon Valley

Lisa Lambert, an executive with Intel Corp.'s venture-capital unit, responds to the gender-disparity debate by creating a new social organization More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Spacei
X
Rosanne Skirble
January 27, 2015 5:05 PM
The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video Saved By a Mistake - an Auschwitz Survivor's Story

Dagmar Lieblova was 14 when she arrived at Auschwitz in December 1943, along with her entire Czech Jewish family. All of them were to die there, but she was able to leave after several months due to a bureaucratic mix-up which saved her life. Now 85, with three children and six grandchildren, she says she has a feeling of victory. This report by Ahmad Wadiei and Farin Assemi, of RFE/RL's Radio Farda is narrated by RFE’s Raymond Furlong.
Video

Video Weekly Protests in Korea Keep Japanese WWII Atrocities Alive

Every week in Seoul protesters gather in front of the Japanese Embassy to demand an apology and reparations from Tokyo for the thousands of South Korean women who were forced into prostitution during World War II. Although this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, these protestors have helped keep the issue of comfort women alive and made it difficult for Japan to move beyond its past wartime atrocities. VOA's Brian Padden reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Exercise: New Prescription for Parkinsons Disease

Exercise could be the new prescription for Parkinson's Disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. More than six million people worldwide suffer from Parkinsons and they're traditionally treated with medication and surgery. Shelley Schlender has more.
Video

Video Brussels Shaken as New Greek Leader Challenges Europe’s Austerity Drive

Greece’s youngest-ever prime minister, 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras, was sworn in Monday after his victorious far-left Syriza party entered a coalition with far right rivals. Tsipras says he will restore dignity to Greece by ending spending cuts. So begins a new chapter for the country at the epicenter of Europe’s economic crisis - a change that has sent tremors across the continent, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Oil Price Drop Troubles Texas Producers

As oil prices have fallen over the past several months, drilling operations have slowed in some parts of the United States - including Texas, the state that surpasses all others in energy production. The Lone Star State’s energy output has been boosted in recent years by development of resources trapped deep below ground in the Eagle Ford shale deposit, which stretches across south central Texas. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Karnes City, Texas, the drop in oil prices has created concerns,
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid