Cities on the global stage: The rise of urban diplomacy, think Cape Town and Ukraine – Terrence Corrigan

The article below discusses the increasing role of cities in global affairs and diplomacy. It highlights the significance of cities historically placed as centres of production, innovation, and exchange. The article notes that as national borders fray for economic purposes, cities have become important nodes in modern high-tech supply chains. The article also notes that cities are engaging in their own diplomacy, and are taking on explicitly political and ideological identities, sometimes in opposition to their national counterparts. The article cites the example of Cape Town, South Africa, and its symbolic stance in solidarity with Ukraine, which has been picked up in global platforms.

Thinking global, and acting local

By Terence Corrigan*

A small but intriguing detail in South Africa’s approach to Russia’s war on Ukraine has been playing itself out in Cape Town. As preparations were underway for the highly controversial naval exercise between South Africa, Russia and China, the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov arrived in Cape Town. Announcing this on Twitter, the local Russian Consulate posted a picture of the vessel, saying that the ‘Mother city’ was ‘hosting it’.  Geordin Hill-Lewis, Cape Town’s mayor from the Democratic Alliance (DA), shot back: ‘We are not hosting this warship, nor is it welcome in the Mother City. Cape Town will not be complicit in Russia’s evil war. @PresidencyZA must answer for his complicity. #RWSGFY #VoetsekRussianWarship.’

Elsewhere, the mayor declared: ‘All freedom-loving people around the world should rightly be outraged at the South African government’s indefensible position and the moral position in this conflict. So, while the Russian ship is here and has been allowed here by the national state, it is certainly not welcome in the Mother City.’

This is not the only time Cape Town’s administration has taken a stance on the matter. Notably last year, the City Hall was lit up with the colours of the Ukrainian flag. Mayor Hill-Lewis also called on the government to impound a superyacht – The Nord – which belonged to an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In none of this was Cape Town’s stand – rather ‘official’ Cape Town, the government of the city – substantively effective. Ships still docked, and the stance of the South African government remained as it had been. (If anything, it has become more actively pro-Russian.) As a municipality in South Africa’s system of government, it has little obvious role in foreign affairs, and as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesman sniffed during the exchange over The Nord, ‘Municipal governments have no legal control over the country’s borders.’

Symbolic though Cape Town’s stances on the matter are, they are not without meaning. Cape Town has a distinct identity, more so than any other city in South Africa. It is an important commercial hub, and it attracts tourists to experience its unique charms and beauties in a way that none of its peers in the country do.

Moreover, its performance in governance makes it stand it apart from other cities. Cape Town has its problems, no doubt – smart observers take a keen interest in denouncing it as a deeply ‘problematic’ space – but it seems to function; something which is increasingly not being said about many of the country’s other cities, in either political or administrative terms. Richard Calland – author, academic and no great praise-singer of the Democratic Alliance – wrote back in 2013: ‘You hear people, ANC people, saying, sometimes with gritted teeth or a wry shake of the head: ‘I have to admit, when I come to Cape Town, I see a well-run city’ … or words to that effect.’ 

The point is that in a country marked by decline and mediocrity (if indeed such a standard is even attained), success stories can exercise an outsized influence. The Mother City expressing its solidarity with Ukraine is something that has been picked up in global platforms. It will have been seen by people for whom Cape Town is their essential portal into South Africa. And for those in the country bemused by or angered at the approach of the country’s government, the stance taken by Cape Town perhaps offers an honorable counterpoint.

South Africans are accustomed to seeing politics in national terms, and foreign policy particularly in those terms. Yet what Cape Town is doing is actually quite firmly within the mainstream of modern politics.

Read more: Investors may be put off by South Africa’s friendly relations with Russia – Foreign policy analyst and journalist Peter Fabricius


Cities have historically been centres of production, innovation and exchange. From their earliest origins, they were sites where goods and services could be aggregated – something we’d call markets. This made economic efficiencies possible, and allowed for people to specialise in their respective trades. Cities provided a forum for political power to be exercised, for scholars and artists and jurists to ply their crafts. It was in them that innovation and new ideas – often for good, sometimes for ill – would be nurtured.

Indeed, cities would often form distinct political units of their own. Some of the oldest known polities in the world were the Sumerian city states, at sites such as Ur, Lagash and Uruk. The biblical account of the Battle of Jericho – its historicity aside – records an assault on a city state, of which several existed in this part of the world. They were a feature of the Mayan civilisation. In medieval Europe, cities typically held identities of their own, with particular forms of government set apart from the feudal order.  (A German saying, ‘Stadtluft macht frei’  ̶  city air liberates – referred to a principle that a serf escaping to a city for a year and a day was no longer bound to his or her feudal obligations.)

The consolidation of cities into larger national units partly obscured the specific (and independent) political roles played by cities – these being largely assumed by national governments – though cities became increasingly important as economic and social hubs. It was in cities that the industrial revolution took place in 19th-century Europe and North America, and in cities that East Asia’s remarkable take-off happened in the 20th.

In recent years, the importance of cities in their own right has garnered renewed attention. In large part, this is explained by the fraying of national borders for economic purposes – call this globalisation. Cities as diverse as Dallas in the US and Bangalore in India have been able to position themselves as key nodes of modern high-tech supply chains. 

Moreover, there is a recognition that the choices to be made to meet contemporary challenges, even global ones, cannot be made without due understanding of local conditions. It’s for this reason that city administrations have been incorporated into international work on climate change.    

Even more than this, cities are engaging in their own diplomacy. This actually has a fairly long pedigree, although it is arguably coming increasingly to the fore as cities recognise that their own prospects depend on their competitiveness in their own right, and not merely as a vaguely differentiated subdivision of a larger country.  

Nor is this just a matter of ‘twinning’ agreements, economic promotion and brand management, important though those are. As part of an assertion of their identities, cities are taking on explicitly political and ideological identities, sometimes in opposition to their national counterparts.

This was very noticeable in the United States during President Donald Trump’s incumbency. Many cities announced an intention to retain environmental goals that his administration was turning away from. More directly ideological and confrontational was the declaration by some cities to be ‘sanctuaries’ for people in the country unlawfully. This is not to take a position on the advisability or otherwise of this stance – it has proven highly controversial, and its application open to accusations of hypocrisy – but to draw attention to the scope of the roles that cities are assuming for themselves.

To recall the remark that municipalities dispose of ‘no legal control over the country’s borders’ is perhaps also to misunderstand the practical influence that they wield.

Read more: Jay Naidoo: Suppression of freedom of speech – a path to tyranny. It injures and kills.

Not only cities…

Indeed, it’s worth making the point that while cities exercise a particularly important place in modern politics and governance, similar logic may be applied to sub-national entities more broadly. Once again, the US illustrates this, largely by virtue of the highly devolved nature of its governance system. Challenges to central authority – rhetorical, in policy or before the courts – are frequent.

South Africa’s circumstances are, of course, not directly comparable to the US, or for that matter to anywhere else. Nevertheless, there are valuable takeaways.

One obvious lesson is that the choices and actions made at sub-national level matter. They matter deeply. Much of the dissatisfaction that ordinary people feel at the state of the country and their day-to-day lives owes less to the lingering odour of the Zuma administration or the forever-in-the-future orientation of President Ramaphosa’s than to the incapacity and malfeasance taking place in the nearest municipal offices. A good deal more can be attributed to the failings of provincial administrations.

An enormous amount of valuable progress can be made where people live and interact, if the governance at that level can be sorted out. This is something that Cape Town seems to have managed. The situation in Johannesburg or Ekurhuleni, to say nothing of Mangaung, is by contrast not encouraging.

A second lesson is that a city, a town or a province has an inherent presence that even the most overbearing government cannot wish away. Cape Town is where it is and what it is. The President and his cabinet might seethe at the frosty reception given to their Russian allies, but there is not a great deal they can do about it.

A third is that the first two factors together mean that sub-national governments have a very robust foundation from which to push the policy and governance innovation envelopes. Speaking about the possibilities in electricity provision, Mayor Hill-Lewis said some time ago: ‘The door is now wide open. And the DA in Cape Town intends to kick down that door to demonstrate what a future without Eskom and ANC central control looks like.’

This is absolutely appropriate.  It will become a matter of growing urgency as the state of the country deteriorates, which is the most likely outlook for the near future. In fact, it is precisely these local level solutions that will provide the basis for resilience and recovery for South Africa in the years ahead. Devolution of power has never appealed to the ANC (although it did recognise the importance of strong, capable municipalities – which its brand of ideology and patronage politics ultimately destroyed).  As the reach and offerings of the central state recede, it will be up to the sub-national level and the private sector to step in. Devolution will happen by default, with little capacity or moral argument to stop it.

Professor Jonathan Jansen recently caused a stir by asking some contentious questions. One of these was whether life was better in a DA-led province. He couldn’t quite bring himself to approve of the DA as a party or of its ideological background. But he did acknowledge its successes in governance. Particularly noteworthy was this remark: ‘Change, I am discovering, will come neither from the top nor from below; it will come from the middle and that requires the kind of leadership of a Chris Pappas and Sandile Mnikathi in Umngeni or Gesie van Deventer and Jeremy Fasser in Stellenbosch. These South Africans, ideology apart, are working the streets, rebuilding after three decades of damage to small towns and large cities, and giving people a sense of what can be achieved if we truly put people first.’

Chris Pappas, incidentally, was recently profiled in The Economist, one of the most influential current affairs publications on the planet. Quite something for the mayor of a small, out-of-the-way municipality in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands.

Think global, act local – so goes the hackneyed activist cliché. Some years back, I co-wrote a piece on Africa’s cities, framed around the then-approaching local government elections. The headline was ‘Municipal elections: No longer the warm-up game’. This remains the case now. South Africa’s prospects are coming to hinge on whatever resilience can be built at this level. And as Mayor Hill-Lewis’s forays into foreign affairs show, this has implications far beyond the local and into the global.

Read more: South Africa: an irredeemable, ‘unreformable’ land? – Ivo Vegter

*Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.

Copyright of The Daily Friend 2023