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The spatial pattern of population, and the concomitant spatial arrangement of human settlement, constitute the most essential geographical expression for the distribution which provides human geography with its starting point. This distribution both reflects and influences a nation's social, economic and political organisation. It defines to some extent the problems a society faces in attempting to guide the pace and direction of change, and fundamentally influences the opportunities for and constraints on future development (Rondinelli and Ruddle 1978). Small wonder, then, that most governments have attempted to modify or mould the distribution of population and settlement to a greater or lesser degree.
Past South African governments have been no exception with population policies during the apartheid era geared to maximising the proportion of the black population living in Bantustans located on the periphery of the national space-economy. South Africa's first democratically elected government of 1994 has inherited an urban system which reflects the country's history of colonisation, white settlement and apartheid policies. With the removal of restrictive legislation and more permissive urban planning, changes in both the volume and spatial patterns of urbanisation are to be expected. Urban-rural disparities in incomes, actual or perceived job prospects and service provision are likely to fuel migration flows. Given the already high concentration of population in metropolitan areas, especially Gauteng, together with high levels of unemployment (Rogerson 1995) and large housing backlogs (Lupton and Murphy 1995), the desirability and possible form of a national urbanisation strategy must clearly be considered. The government's white paper on urban development (Government of South Africa 1995a) largely fails to address this issue. It categorises South African urban settlements into a four-level hierarchy with dividing points at populations of 100,000, 500,000, and 2,000,000, following classification used by the United Nations in the developing world.1 This crude classification conceals more than it reveals, leading to the assertion in the white paper that South Africa's urban hierarchy is ‘not an unbalanced one, with the relative sizes of urban settlements from the largest to smallest corresponding with international norms’ (Government of South Africa 1995a: 17). However a recent analysis of the urban hierarchy suggests otherwise (Lemon and Cook 1994), as will be seen below. The white paper also takes no account of the very considerable variations in the nature of the existing hierarchy.