As the city of Cape Town opens an academic center for the study of the United States, its leaders see Atlanta as a visionary partner on one of the key issues facing the country today: race relations.
Visiting Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s office Friday to sign a letter of intent to foster city-level collaboration, Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille thanked Atlanta for its role in the civil rights movement, which she said provided an example for South Africa’s struggle for freedom from apartheid.
“We must never stop thanking you for that,” Ms. de Lille said.
Even as they boost their status as innovation and design hubs, recruiting big companies and fostering startup communities, the mayors said they must keep social inclusion and shared opportunity front of mind.
Ms. de Lille said it “can never be acceptable” to leave large segments of the population behind as cities pursue growth, adding that even the way cities are planned will have to change to meet new societal needs.
Mr. Reed pointed out that Atlanta boasts third largest black middle class in the country, and that the city has a chance to work on factors contributing to inequality that are “almost irreversible” in other American cities. Inclusion is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also becoming a real issue of legitimacy and stability for city leaders around the world who are now learning how disenfranchisement can stoke extremism and social unrest, he said.
“Equity is the new black,” Mr. Reed said, asserting that city leaders who don’t prioritize the issue will be ousted by voters. “Where you have poverty quarantined or cordoned off, you’re making a mistake. It’s no longer in your moral interest to have shared prosperity. It is in the financial interest of the city.”
As police shootings in the U.S. bring race relations to the fore in national debates, Ms. de Lille said Americans should take solace in the fact that racism is a worldwide issue. Her fast-growing South African city has its own lessons to contribute to the global conversation.
“You don’t have to be a black to fight against racism, you don’t need to be gay to fight homophobes, and you don’t have to be a woman to fight for gender equality,” she said, noting that Cape Town is also working with the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro on race issues. “I’ve launched a campaign in the city of Cape Town to mobilize the majority of people who are not racist. You’ve got a minority that are racist, and the message we are sending out very strongly is to say that we as the majority will not allow the minority of racists to speak for us.”
Mr. Reed said his appreciation for Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy was crystallized on his first visit to the African continent. The trip was led by Andrew Young, the civil rights leader, former Atlanta mayor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has been a mentor to Mr. Reed.
Mr. Reed said he had one regret: That he didn’t make it to Cape Town. And his fellow travelers who did rubbed it in by sending pictures of what’s known as one of the world’s most beautiful cities while he was heading to the airport to fly home.
“I have a mission to finish the second leg of the trip,” he said to laughter from the small crowd assembled in his ceremonial office.
Ms. de Lille said she would like to make that journey easier by talking with Delta Air Lines Inc. about renewing a nonstop flight to the city. Delta currently operates a daily nonstop flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, one of the longest in the world.
The cities signed an agreement to share knowledge on issues like urban agriculture, encourage exchanges of performers like jazz artists and work together on issues like climate change.
Both cities are part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative.
Learn more about the flurry of South African events in Atlanta over the next few weeks here.