Africa's cities, crying out for re-imagination

11 August 2014 | Story by Newsroom

Africa is second only to Asia in its number of city dwellers, and its cities are growing at an unprecedented rate. Yet understanding of African cities is lagging behind their development. Locally, it's a massive challenge to build a knowledge base that will support the building of more equitable African cities, making them liveable, accessible, and sustainable for all.

Last week, during the budget debates, Human Settlements minister Lindiwe Sisulu admitted that the delivery of housing in all South African provinces was a massive problem, and that it had "dropped drastically". As Rebecca Davis wrote, "The problem, in crude terms, is that too many people are moving to South African cities, and there isn't enough land available for them. '˜We are ill-equipped to deal with this rate of urbanisation", Sisulu said, though she promised 1,5 million homes over the next five years.'"

But, say some academics, migration is not the primary problem. Cities are actually expanding from within - and even without the influence of migration, the rate of urbanisation across the whole of Africa is posing a significant challenge to policy-makers, governments and researchers alike. And it's not only a South African problem. Urbanisation in Africa is one of the fastest-growing fields of study, and stakeholders are working overtime to try to build a critical mass of workable knowledge to combat inequality in the continent's cities.

Stereotyping would have you believe that Africa is a mass of undeveloped land where poverty rules and rural area upon rural area is crying out for development. But the reality is something quite different. At present, the African continent is 40 percent urbanised. There are currently 414 million urban dwellers - and only Asia has more city-based people. The continent's largest cities all have populations of over a million people.

Moreover, the continent is developing at an unprecedented rate: the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) predicts that Africa will be 50 percent urban by 2030 and 60 percent urban by 2050.

The implications for both city dwellers and policy makers are staggering. In the words of South African Research Chair in Urban Policy, Professor Edgar Pieterse, "The mind boggles, and it's impossible to wrap one's head around what that might mean in terms of the speed at which you build cities and the speed at which you need to provide services, what that could possibly mean for governance, how citizenship is instituted, and the overlay of that; the tumult of the post-colonial era in the last fifty years, and what that has meant for the economic insertion of these countries into the global economy."

Urban population growth in Africa is taking place at such a rate that - if there is not an adequate understanding of the situation, and if solutions are not developed quickly - the continent is heading towards a crisis of poverty, inequality and lack of resources for its city people.

To put the current situation in perspective, the middle-class population across Africa's cities is expected to double by 2050, and the population of informal dwellers to treble. Only three percent of urban dwellers are eligible for a mortgage, and only 28 percent have '˜stable' jobs (including minimum wage employees). Sixty-three percent are in '˜vulnerable' jobs, i.e. sources of income they could lose at any time. The implication is therefore that urban planners have to build infrastructure that is desperately needed, but that might fall apart at any time because tax bases might not be maintained.

In a nutshell, the number of urban dwellers is increasing dramatically, and economic development is not always keeping up. In many cases, there is in fact economic stagnation and contraction, yet city populations continue to expand and there are increasing demands on resources and increasing expectations of economic opportunity.

While migration is a factor in the growth of African cities, it is not the primary factor - and more than one scholar has pointed out that migration is not in fact as dramatic an influence as has been previously believed, so attempts to stem the tide of migration are not addressing the problem. The University of Bristol's Dr Sean Fox, for example, and UCT's Edgar Pieterse both argue that cities are actually expanding from within, owing to a decrease in mortality rates and an increase in fertility.

Rural development can actually increase, rather than decrease, the movement towards cities: people who migrate to cities tend to be young, healthy, aspirational; so improving conditions rurally and providing hope and education are likely, in fact, to give more individuals the impetus to move rather than stay where they are.

The fact therefore remains that cities are growing, and growing exponentially. They are growing due to migration, and they are growing from within, which they would do even without the influence of migration.

Furthermore, Africa has been identified globally as a potential growth market, which is encouraging the pattern of development even further - however, because cities are growing so rapidly, often they - and their structures - are not fully understood. In this environment, it is becoming crucial to build a knowledge base that interrogates the patterns, structures and likely outcomes of Africa's new urban centres.

Professor Sue Parnell of the African Centre for Cities (ACC) points out that there is a critical lack of understanding of African economics. "We don't understand the informal sector, so we stereotype," she says. "We don't understand Africa's urban labour market very well." There is also a tendency to inflate increases in wealth, because it is coming off such a low base, and there is a lack of knowledge about where to invest, she says.

In this respect, however, corporates understand what academics have missed: the numbers, although they may be inaccurate, are "sufficiently large to be important", and the economic future is - as Parnell puts it - "opportunely urban". The challenge is to understand how to leverage that.

VIDEO: Professor Susan Parnell discusses Africa's Urban Revolution at the African Research Institute in London

The solution, believes Pieterse, is a paradigm shift to a truly democratic urban environment, where people's needs inform engineering plans instead of the other way around. But that's easier said than done.

One of the major challenges facing African urbanisation today is an anti-urban bias, believes Parnell. "The population may be 50/50, but 90 percent of the funding will go to rural development," she says. "This speaks of a definite anti-urban bias." This, too, means that poverty and inequality in cities are real, significant problems. However, she points out, there are also other factors at play, such as a belief that there is more internal expertise on agriculture, for example; or there may be political factors - such as a desire among donors not to create more economic competition by developing African urban interests. However, she points out, through the painstaking work of scholars and academics, attitudes and thought patterns are slowly changing.

Scholarship is also doing its bit in carving out a spot for Africa in what Parnell calls the "international imagination" where, she believes, Africa has traditionally been sorely underrepresented. "But," she says, "we need lots of people to be foot soldiers." There is simply a lack of understanding of Africa currently: there is a lack of understanding of Africa's urban history - "we need detailed, comprehensive histories," says Parnell - and there is even a lack of basic information such as maps, street numbers, growth rates. Most importantly, says Parnell, we need this data for individual cities, because Africa is not a country: "We need to be careful that we don't generalise about '˜the African city'."

On that subject, one of the major generalisations that have to be overcome is the belief that '˜the African city' is a '˜slum city'. "It is a stereotype," says Parnell, "and an unhelpful designation." Yes, there is poverty; and most Africans, she points out, do not have a mortgage, but many are in fact building themselves up slowly; there is a youth bulge, and rapid development. "We may look back on this time very differently in decades to come," believes Parnell.

However, she warns that the crucial time is now: without access to basic services and unless it is ensured that individuals' building methods on their homes enable upgrading, waste removal and sanitation for public health purposes, then slums will develop over time. Again she points out the need for engagement with a suitable knowledge base, in order to ensure that livable cities are being constructed over time. "To assume planners can do everything on their own is deeply problematic," she says.

Furthermore, there is a critical need to engage African cities with the global challenges of climate and environmental change. Urban areas are where people are most dependent on, for example, dammed water; and disease profiles in cities are shifting because of temperature change - these are but two examples of the profound influence of environmental factors on African cities.

More dimensions of African city living have been identified by Caroline Kihato, a scholar and social scientist. As Senior Research Fellow at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand, she has identified a number of ways to work within the social and political structures of African cities to make these cities work more comfortably, and equally, for all.

Inclusivity, she says, is a major factor that has to be considered - and it is essential to "make do with what we have". The challenge, of course, is to make this workable for all: an example of this kind of challenge is Cape Town's Green Point Common or the Promenade, for instance, which are fantastic urban spaces but fail at being democratic, since they are largely inaccessible to a large percentage of the population, owing to distance and transport limitations.

However, the idea of working within existing structures remains sound. It applies, especially, to the social structures that are in place in cities - it is necessary to recognise that introducing new formal structures will not necessarily override the social or traditional structures that already exist.

"People have multiple allegiances," she says. "For example, in some communities religion is very powerful, and people would pay their pastor far rather than they would pay rates. In this scenario, the state cannot manage everything - it is essential to include community leaders." Furthermore, there are leadership structures within communities that influence migration patterns or settlement patterns: indunas in hostels, for example, frequently decide who lives in the cities and who does not.

Ultimately, there are multiple and conflicting regimes of authority in cities, which have a massive impact on the business of policymaking - and make it very difficult to determine who is in charge. As Kihato puts it, "How do you make policies that work if you are not the only gang in town?"

A further complication that Kihato raises is that of polylocality. There are many '˜circular migrants' in cities: those who extract what they need from the city economically, but invest elsewhere; or to put it another way, they inhabit the city for working purposes but live, or set root, somewhere else - developing a split identity. This, Kihato points out, naturally has implications on housing policy and the broader economy. How are city planners and policy makers to tackle this when it is not a pattern that is yet fully understood?

The answer - once again - lies in developing a deeper understanding of these fast-developing patterns. There is little time to be lost in getting to grips with Africa's urbanisation process, particularly in breaking through stereotypes and developing a high standard of scholarship in this rapidly developing field.

And develop it must. "There is not enough potential in rural development," says Parnell. "There is a lightness and optimism associated with the urban future, and I subscribe to that."

Professor Gordon Pirie, Deputy Director of UCT's African Centre for Cities (ACC), hopes for massive systemic reform when it comes to making cities livable for all. He believes it is through accepting widespread agency that the inequality gap can be tackled - and acceptable urban dwellings and facilities can be made.

"It is not just a case of bypassing, but also of reforming the state to ensure an appropriate legal regime that has legitimacy when it is enforced," says Pirie. "Across Africa there is an urgent need to empower residents and NGOs themselves to take charge '“ not just of building, upgrading, or formalising the informal '“ but of processes that can help to create change.

"Citizens can be empowered to make representations, to debate and challenge City Hall, to monitor inactivity, servicing and billing. Recourse to privatisation is not an option for poor people in cities.

"The ACC's purpose is to get people thinking imaginatively and progressively about cities," says Pirie. "Often, African cities are seen as just too bewildering."

At the recent Cape Town launch of Africa's Urban Revolution, edited by Parnell and Pieterse (Zed Books), Pieterse pointed out that one of the key drivers behind the book was the sense that policymakers and political leaders were not willing to engage with substantive and qualitative aspects of the change taking place across Africa - and that the ACC felt the need to convene some of the key voices that needed to be heard. "We have access to an incredible array of scholars," he pointed out, adding that transport, climate change and food security were all issues that needed to be analysed in more depth - and which were tackled in the book as a starting point.

"The book offers some perspective as to where the debates and research are at in this all-important and rapidly developing field," he said. "This is not the end of the story - it is very much the beginning."

Creating livable cities, after all, does not just rest on creating infrastructure that is accessible to all, but also on ensuring that all have their basic rights met and have the dignity of having enough to eat.

As Parnell and Pieterse put it in Africa's Urban Revolution, "[I]ncreasing levels of urbanisation are probably inevitable and must be confronted". There is no escaping the reality of Africa's rapidly growing cities, or the fact that development is not always occurring at the same rate. To prevent gross inequalities from being perpetuated, it is critical to have scholars, practitioners and the public working together to re-imagine the construction - and ongoing development - of Africa's cities.

Written by Marelise van der Merwe. Photo by Greg Marinovich. Original article posted in the Daily Maverick.

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