Are South African Cities Getting Smarter?

Are South African Cities Getting Smarter?

by Jonathan Wilson
14 July 2020

After 116 days of national lockdown, South Africa has seen an unprecedented level of state coordination in addressing the crises. While our Cities have made significant changes to adapt to the new normal the pandemic has also exposed how the conversation between government and the people on the ground has regressed over the years. This has shone light on the glaring governance issues cities face and allowed government to reconsider the role smart city concepts can play in South African cities. Through various research outputs, engagements with urban stakeholders and careful interrogation of local government this article posits three learnings from the Covid-19 pandemic in which our cities can begin to use technology and innovation to implement ‘smarter’ modes of governance:

“Evidence-Based Decision-Making”

In co-ordinating a collaborative response from multiple inter-governmental departments, South Africa has shown its ability to operate with efficiency, clarity and agility in times of crisis. Key to this has been the use of data in the decision-making process in response to the virus. Since the first infection reported on the 5th March the Department of Health (DoH) has coordinated closely with the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) and other health experts. Through evidence derived from statistical modelling of the potential severity of the virus, the 15th of March saw the president declare a national state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act. As the state continues to champion the use of data cities themselves must begin to practice effective management of their own data and systems, distilling evidence-based practice as the foundational base point to which smart city developments can be leveraged.

“Citizen Engagement”

Key to reducing panic in times of crisis is regular engagement with citizens and the active sharing of reliable information. The DoH has shown effectiveness in providing daily updates of new reported cases, deaths and recoveries. Most effective however has been the use of technology in relaying information to the public. The DoH moved quickly to set up the Online Resource and News Portal providing vital information, governmental communications, case updates and calls to action with relevant contacts. As we see pockets of excellence emerging in certain cities (such as eThekwini’s EDGE platform) it is essential that cities place citizens especially the most vulnerable at the centre and go beyond purely information dissemination to active collaboration and participatory citizenship through the use of technological solutions.

“Open Data Analysis”

The opening up of case information has seen a response in data platforms that begin to analyse the severity of the disaster and actively inform citizens. Both the University of Pretoria and the Witwatersrand University have released digital dashboards that further unpack Covid-19 in South Africa across province, sex, age, transmission type, and mortality rate. These platforms however are limited to the availability of open data in which South Africa still has a long way to go. Our cities are struggling for information with data often stored at a national level. For this to change cities and governments must actively pursue an open data agenda. Not only will this increase cooperative governance and sharing between cities, provinces and national departments but it also increases transparency, accountability and communication with citizens.

Covid-19 has brought to light the misplaced vision we had of our cities and the value that smart approaches offer. The past three months have exposed technological deficiencies in our urban systems and highlighted areas where work is required to effectively respond to urban challenges. Yet it is clear the role smart governance, data and technology allows our government(s) to react with haste, act with agility and add a sense of ‘smart’ in meeting the needs of the Countries’ citizenry.


As cities continue to grapple with the challenges presented by Covid-19, engagements across different platforms has encouraged responses to the crisis that will positively impact the culture of data use and management for cities in the long term. The City of Johannesburg recently called for urban actors to propose innovative solutions for Covid-19 recovery through a Smart City Innovation Challenge. The South African Cities Network (SACN) has been working on a Smart Cities Paper Series on the theme Smart Governance in South African Cities which features 5 papers and 4 case studies that focus on the role of open data platforms in local municipalities, participatory citizenship and the roles of ethics in smart city development. Join the conversation on our social media platforms as we build up towards the launch of the paper series where you can engage on what role you believe smart cities should play in South Africa.

Jonathan Wilson is an Urban Development Professional, with experience in planning, data and design. He is the Data Project Manager at the South African Cities Network. To contact him email