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

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
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.
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.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid