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

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Judge Declares Washington DC Ban on Public Handguns Unconstitutional

Ruling overturns capital city's prohibition on carrying guns in pubic More

Pricey Hepatitis C Drug Draws Criticism

Activists are using the International AIDS Conference to criticize drug companies for charging high prices for life-saving therapies More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid