News / Africa

Reporter's Notebook: Of Towns and Megacities

FILE - Johannesburg is emerging as one of the continent's first
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

Lion Cecil's Killing Sparks 'Canned Hunting' Debate in S. Africa

Conservationists believe incident, which triggered worldwide outrage, will reshape debate about practice in which hunters are allowed to target animals bred for hunting More

Environmentalists Issue Warning on Mekong Biodiversity

Scientists say decades of economic development, hydropower-dam construction, lax law enforcement and trafficking have taken their toll More

US Urges Taliban to Stay With Afghan Peace Talks

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs