The challenges of rapid urbanisation in large parts of Africa are beyond the capacity of local government to manage. The paper explores the arguments for a national urban policy to complement local strategies, reflecting the unique power of the central state and the special circumstances of cities. With appropriate support, urbanisation could become a more positive force for economic and human development. Recent experience in South Africa illustrates some of the difficulties and possibilities for agreeing a systematic approach to planning and managing urban growth and transformation. Key stakeholders in the policy process have focused on urban poverty as an immediate priority and broadened the traditional economic argument for nations targeting cities to spell out a long-term environmental and economic development agenda.