City Diplomacy Papers Vol. 2

The South African Cities Network (SACN) International Relations (IR) Forum is a joint initiative of the SACN and eight of the largest cities in South Africa. Its primary purpose is to engage in and develop a collective city agenda that clearly positions South African cities within global and national contexts and debates. The research, engagement and learning coming out of the IR Forum are meant to assist cities in implementing international and national urban policy frameworks by aligning their respective city strategies.


Internationally, there has been a growing recognition of the important role that city diplomacy plays in the development of nation-states. To be effective, city diplomacy must first and foremost serve the core purpose and objective of local government, i.e., to improve the lives of citizens. Although still a developing practice, city diplomacy generally involves activities such as building city networks, sharing experiences and best practices through dialogue and learning exchanges, cooperating among international private and public organisations, and creating networks of mayors and local government bodies. As currently practised, city diplomacy manifests in several key dimensions, including (but not limited to) development, economy, climate change/resilience initiatives, and sports, arts and culture. City diplomacy should not be seen as competing and/or undermining the national government’s diplomacy but rather as a complementary effort to further enhance South Africa’s diplomacy, global image and influence. As city diplomacy continues to grow and mature, it will no doubt alter established diplomatic processes, and so the goal should be to understand and harness its power to promote South Africa’s interests actively on the global stage.


The objective of this working paper series is to inform and encourage city stakeholders to engage critically and practically on the meaning of city diplomacy and to translate this understanding into practice. The papers are intended to outline and capture a set of perspectives that will form the basis for robust engagement and debate about the state of city diplomacy in South Africa, and how it can be enhanced and leveraged to advance the global interests of South African citizens, more so given the devastating impact of COVID-19.


The papers are aimed at city practitioners engaged in international relations; local governments; local city leaders, including city mayors, councillors and managers; provincial governments and bodies; national governments, including the departments of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, international relations and cooperation, trade and industry, environment, forestry and fisheries, human settlements and transport; research and academia; and business and civil society (especially organisations advocating for the recognition of the expanding role of cities in international relations).


This second volume contains papers that look at city diplomacy through the lens of national diplomacy, the implementation of effective city-to-city cooperation and learning, city diplomacy and climate change, and city diplomacy and data-driven development.


Overview of the papers


City diplomacy is not a new concept, but cities are playing a more substantial role in international diplomacy because of rapid urbanisation, global migration and climate change. This has led to foreign diplomatic missions focusing on cities and supporting local initiatives and projects that can be implemented in a visible and tangible manner. In their paper, “City Diplomacy through the Lens of National Diplomacy: Tactics and experiments”, Rashiq Fataar and Helene Botha examine city diplomacy and its tools through four foreign diplomatic missions in South Africa: Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and France. They find that trade and investment are increasingly a focus of city diplomacy, as cities such as Johannesburg, Tshwane and Cape Town have become economic powers in their own right and offer opportunities for trade partnerships. They also find that foreign missions are supporting urban sustainability projects, as cities now play a crucial role in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The paper provides ideas for leveraging city diplomacy and calls on cities to take advantage of the opportunities that are available to support sustainable and inclusive urban development.


One opportunity is for greater cooperation among cities, which is expanded upon in the paper by the Urban Futures Centre, “A Guide to Implementing City-to-City Cooperation & Learning in South Africa”. This paper offers a hands-on guide for local government practitioners who are grappling with urban challenges and are seeking tools to engage with other cities that may have found solutions to similar challenges. It proposes a three-phase framework for guiding city-to-city cooperation and ten critical success factors for city-to-city learning. The authors argue that cities need to be bold and experimental, incorporate an appetite for risk-taking and innovation into their organisational culture, and take advantage of the national and international learning resources that are available.


An area where South African cities can learn (and are learning) from each other and their international counterparts is climate change mitigation and adaptation. Safiyyah Aboo’s paper, “City Diplomacy and Climate Change”, provides an overview of South Africa’s international commitments, national policies and strategies, and local plans related to climate change. It shares the progress made by some of South Africa’s metros, which are active in international networks, such as the C40 Cities, and have developed Climate Action Plans (CAPs). Their experience provides other cities with a useful learning tool for developing mitigation and adaptation plans and for accessing funding (directly or by leveraging the national government’s access to international funders) in order to develop sustainable and resilient cities.


Development processes and practices are increasingly driven by data, and cities are where data-driven policies and operations could have the greatest developmental impact. The final paper by Malindi Neluheni, David Monyae and Sizo Nkala, “City Diplomacy and Smart Cities: Exploiting data for development”, discusses the approach to data-driven development and smart cities in South Africa and the challenges facing cities. It looks at the state and evolution of data governance globally, as well as the global governance issues that cities will need to deal with. The paper identifies the requirements for successful city diplomacy and the strategic stakeholders with whom cities could engage, as they seek to create smart urban systems to serve their residents.