International Development Planning Review

Viewpoint Theorisations of African cities need to be careful of jumping onto the ‘urban band wagon’

International Development Planning Review (2021), 43, (3), 279–287.

Abstract

The observation that cities are growing rapidly especially in the African continent is well acknowledged around the world. Indeed, ‘an urban-centric discourse’ has emerged to assert that the future is ‘urban’ as more people are moving to live in cities (UN, 2018). While the issue of growth cannot be challenged, one needs to look at the dangers of this discourse in African cities. The dynamics of urban growth in African cities are more complex and different from industrialised Europe from which this discourse is modelled. Hence, the patterns of contemporary urban growth and economic transformation in Africa might well undermine assumed urban-centric theoretical associations.

Viewpoint Theorisations of African cities need to be careful of jumping onto the ‘urban band wagon’

Abstract

The observation that cities are growing rapidly especially in the African continent is well acknowledged around the world. Indeed, ‘an urban-centric discourse’ has emerged to assert that the future is ‘urban’ as more people are moving to live in cities (UN, 2018). While the issue of growth cannot be challenged, one needs to look at the dangers of this discourse in African cities. The dynamics of urban growth in African cities are more complex and different from industrialised Europe from which this discourse is modelled. Hence, the patterns of contemporary urban growth and economic transformation in Africa might well undermine assumed urban-centric theoretical associations.

The observation that cities are growing rapidly especially in the African continent is well acknowledged around the world. It is estimated that three million people around the world are moving to cities every week (UN-Habitat, 2009). This is predicted to lead to 70 per cent of the global population living in cities by 2050 making it cities that will define the social, economic, cultural and ecological quality of human life in the twenty-first century (Provoost, 2016). Africa’s urban population is expected to more than triple over forty years, from 395 million in 2010 to 1.339 billion in 2050, corresponding to 21 per cent of the world’s projected urban population (UN, 2014). Invariably, many policy reports produced, especially by academics and international agencies, have used these statistics as a basis for justifying the central importance of an urban agenda. Indeed, cities are viewed as engines of economic growth (World Bank, 1991) and as ‘the new and distinct sites of sustainable development’ (Parnell, 2016, 537).

Through this, an urban-centric discourse has emerged to assert that the future is ‘urban’ as more people are moving to live in cities (UN, 2018). This discourse projects the ‘urban’ as the new functional grammar for development. It emphasises the lexicon of ‘rapid urban growth’ and presents cities as ‘the optimal pathway for ensuring sustainable development’ (Parnell, 2016, 537). Barnett and Parnell (2016) argue that such an urban-centric discourse has recently been entrenched, especially through the rollout of mainstream global urban policy frameworks such as those associated with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the New Urban Agenda (NUA) (Habitat III) presented in Quito in 2016, in the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (IPCC) and in a host of national and local policy innovations designed to implement or respond to the latter (Barnett and Parnell, 2016; Parnell, 2016).

The main contemporary contributor to the ‘urban age thesis’ is built around the discourse of planetary urbanisation (Brenner and Schmid, 2011) which draws on the theory of Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre (2003) proposed the provocative hypothesis that the world was becoming completely urbanised, and that urbanisation instead of industrialisation would become the driver of future capitalist accumulation. This argument has legitimised a set of policies derived primarily from mature capitalist nations that are argued to be a template for those in the global South (Soederberg and Walks, 2018). Subsequently, many African cities have jumped onto the ‘urban’ bandwagon since the 1990s by adopting various urban policies such as city improvement districts, urban precincts, special economic zones, city development strategies, etc. These are sponsored or funded by institutions such as the World Bank, Cities Alliance and by agencies based in Europe that prescribe the use of neoliberal market policies as stimulators of urban economic growth (Parnell and Robinson, 2006).

Ancillary, the prominent reference to the ‘global city’ since the 1990s in many national urban policies in Africa (see Watson, 2009; Bekker and Fourchard, 2013) has become a means of situating African cities within the context of an increasingly global system. As cities in general become viewed ‘as new and distinct sites of sustainable development’ (Parnell, 2016, 537), new grandiose projects have become the leading focus of government planning which relies overly on such visions as high-tech hubs, luxury housing developments, ultramodern retail facilities and other new privatised spaces for Africa’s emerging elites and middle class (Grant, 2015). Accordingly, many African cities have adopted approaches that are often geared toward the construction of smart cities, creative cities, sustainable cities and eco-cities in line with the thesis of the global city. In recent years, the urban-centric discourse together with the global city aspirations have witnessed the emergence of new cities in the continent such as Eko Atlantic, Nigeria; Konza Techno City, Kenya; Kigali City, Rwanda; Tatu City, Kenya; and Modderfontein, South Africa (van Noorloos and Kloosterboer, 2018).

In many instances, these developments occur without disrupting the current hegemonic formation of neoliberalised and financialised accumulation by dispossession (Sheppard et al., 2013; Soederberg and Walks, 2018). Although their promotional material promises glossy, aspirational spaces to live, work and play, this is wedded to ideals of market stability and neoliberal governance that are inimical to the affirmation of livelihood for the poor. In this journal, Baek (2019) observes that the benefits of rapid growth have not been evenly and broadly shared in the continent. While the urban discourse resonates with global cities of the north ‘built on higher levels of industrialisation’ (Schindler, 2017), much of the urban whims, mosaic, patchwork, heterogeneity, fluidity and transitory configurations of African cities is amiss in the conceptualisation of these approaches.

For one, the ‘urban’ in African cities is more complex and is motivated by different factors of fluidity (Simone, 2004). The ‘urban’ is not exclusively confined within the ‘urban sphere’ because the widely acclaimed rapid urbanisation does not totally uproot people out of so-called rural areas in many African countries (Potts, 2012). Labour migration, flows of information, and services such as education and healthcare all motivate people to keep one foot in the rural economy and the other in the urban economy. Many studies on rural-urban migration (Potts, 2013; 2015), remittance economy (De Haas, 2012; Mendola, 2012) and burial studies (Geschiere and Nyamnjoh, 2001; Mendola, 2012) indicate the dual/multiple rootedness of urban residents in migrant cities such as Johannesburg, Lusaka, Mbabane, and Das es Salaam. One of the simplistic indicators for multiple places of belonging in Johannesburg is demonstrated during the prominent holidays such as Good Friday or Christmas as huge numbers of people visit rural areas. The overwhelming narrative is that people possess multiple places of belonging (Simone, 2004). They are in transition with various multi-dimensional, multi-cultural and multi-locational identities and places of belonging. Home is not single rooted but located in a pluralistic world with multiple possibilities for finding belonging - a hybrid sense of belonging.

African countries therefore need to be cautious of jumping onto the ‘urban’ bandwagon. Firstly, African countries need to recognise that although there is rapid urban change, many of them are still largely rural. The fact of the matter is that even by 2050, only 55 per cent of the population in the continent (outside South Africa) will be in urban areas (UN-Habitat, 2011). This growth suggests that a considerable proportion of the population will still be in so-called rural areas. This puts into question any wholesale ‘urban’ approach in much of the emerging development strategies in the continent. This suggests that African cities should be advocating for a rural-urban balanced approach. This approach ensures equal, integrated and inclusive development of both urban and rural areas. An integrated, holistic and collaborative process encompasses a consideration of different interactions between the rural and urban domains. The current danger is that the rhetoric of the urban agenda seems to close the space for a balanced approach as the dominance of the ‘urban’ discourse is rendering the mention of the ‘rural’ a ‘swear word’ among policymakers and academics in the continent.

Although, the NUA highlights the importance of the rural-urban continuum (Habitat III, 2016, §26, §72, §82, §95), there is a retreat to an ‘urban focus’ which nourishes the traditional notion of modernity and urbanistic particularism especially at the backdrop of a dominant Eurocentric urban epistemology in the continent (Watson, 2009). The challenge here is that the ‘urban’ is conceptualised more ostensibly in physical terms. As least, the assertion in the wide-ranging text is anchored on urban physics justified through prescient population numbers. Cities are conceptualised as discrete locations and this projects a node-centric approach to the understanding of urban development. Within this understanding, it is not far-fetched to recognise a risk that leaders of some African states will use the category of the ‘urban’ through the node-centric approach as an instrument for controlling resources and development in general. Many of the areas that are rapidly growing might not be declared ‘urban’ in order to withhold resources and control party politics. For example, Sihlongonyane and Simelane (2017) demonstrate a case of Moneni in Manzini city of Eswatini where the local chief impeded efforts to incorporate a peri-urban area into the city in order to secure his base for power and economic support. Similar political dynamics have been evident in the demarcation of municipal boundaries in South Africa (see SALGA, 2016) and around the continent, especially where there are border disputes (see Sone, 2017).

Secondly, the ‘urban focus’ with its node-centric approach seems to undermine the non-physical elements of connections to rural areas through beliefs, values, power, fantasies and visions of life. The node-centric approach assumes a disjuncture in the governance of people between rural and urban areas ignoring the strings of connections of the so-called ‘urban’ residents to rural areas. This was recently demonstrated in South Africa whereby the Bishop of the Zionist Christian Church situated in a rural area in the Limpopo Province urged all 16 million of its members and sympathisers (largely in urban areas) not to buy the Sunday World, Sowetan, Sunday Times and other newspapers owned by Tiso Blackstar because the media group has made it its mission to defame, ridicule and make a mockery of the church and its head Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane (Motau, 2017). This signifies how forms of authority in rural areas can undercut urban governance. However, most importantly, this signifies the connectedness of the rural and the urban, beyond urban zones of population concentration. This also suggests that the balance of evidence for the case of the ‘urban focus’ will need further inspection in many African countries and avoid its totalising influence.

Traditional chiefs in particular have been ignored and/or undermined due to the city-centric discourse of so-called modern municipal institutions of urban governance. For example, the Municipal Structures Act, No. 117 of 1998 of South Africa clearly ‘stipulates a clear role for municipal officials, but fails to provide a suitable role for traditional leaders’ (Bikam and Chakwizira, 2014, 144). Invariably, chiefs who are undoubtedly crucial in the facilitation of urban development in African cities (Keulder, 1998) are viewed as informal or marginalised in the prevailing legislation. They are criticised for being instruments of disruption for local development while municipal councillors are criticised for meddling into their customary rights of government. This conflict is one of the most dominant in the continent and remains unresolved (see Sithole and Mbele, 2008). For this reason, many cities e.g. Kampala, Kumasi, Maseru and Mbabane amongst others are surrounded by land under ‘rural’ traditional authority that cannot physically expand, economically grow, or be governed democratically because of the long standing impasse between so-called modern municipal government versus traditional authority (see Sihlongonyane and Simelane, 2017). There is a need therefore to recognise that this conflict is neither an ‘urban’ nor ‘rural’ issue but a human development one. Privileging the urban sphere over the other is unproductive and likely to be arbitrary and regressive.

Thirdly, many of the so-called slum and informal houses grow in peri-urban areas in the continent. Most of them occur in areas where statutory and customary laws co-exist whereby both formal and informal land market transactions are equally important (Tacoli, 2002). Many of these operate outside systems of state order. It is a different ‘worlding’ - unstable, precarious, indeterminate and always full of possibilities (Simone, 2001, 23). The complexity of these settlements is compounded by layers of colonial and postcolonial legal matters; conflict between norms and regulations of traditional authority vs municipal authority; tension between international human rights conventions and national practical realities; as well as individual rights vs communal rights. Although many of them are linked or form extensions of recognised urban areas, their mosaic and patchwork compound the meaning of the ‘urban’.

Arguably, the complex dynamics of these ‘peri-urban’ settlements seem invested with meanings and significations at odds with the current nomenclature of vocabulary we have in urban studies. Therefore, the current Eurocentric/normative urban classifications are poorly suited to accurately describe these growth phenomena in the developing world. This puts the ‘urban focus’ of the NUA in question and it suggests that the metaphor of the ‘urban’ does not capture the full spectrum of landscapes in the African continent. This suggests that there is a need for a new vocabulary to engage these areas before they can be initiated into the current orthodox urban agenda. Schmid et al. (2018, 20) in their exploration of urbanisation processes in general have also asserted that ‘[n]ew concepts and terms are urgently required that would help, both analytically and cartographically, to decipher the differentiated and rapidly mutating landscapes of urbanisation that are being produced today’. Henceforth, this viewpoint argues that ‘[w]e need new names’ to engage the reality of landscapes in Africa and these calls for more local research. In order to probe a more inclusive research agenda which makes African urban research legible and influential internationally, Parnell and Pieterse (2015, 36) argue that this ‘necessitates a repositioning of conventional modes of research to achieve intellectual and political traction in what are typical African research conditions - where human needs are great, information is poor, conditions of governance are complex and the reality is changeable’.

Lastly, Lerner and Eaking (2011, 312) observe that ‘urban and rural spaces have traditionally been conceptualised in dichotomous terms on the basis of an assumed clear distinction between ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ land uses and livelihoods’ in the developing world. For many African countries, urban and rural planning policies remain mutually exclusive. Indeed, many of the planning laws and bylaws in African countries (which are colonial) do not recognise African indigenous spaces such as communal land, shrine spaces and ritual spaces amongst others. A South African Cities Network study on legislation, for example, reflects that the town-planning (or zoning) and ‘the Ordinance-based systems are patently not suitable to manage many of the planning challenges facing the country, such as informal settlement upgrading, managing land use in areas under African Customary Law and in the integration of apartheid race zones’ (Abrahams and Berrisford, 2012, 24). Even the new legislation known as Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act, 16 of 2013 (SPLUMA) signed by the President of the Republic on 5 August 2013 is ‘thwarted by the same cultural narrowness that is indifferent to the use of African metaphors’ (Sihlongonyane, 2015, 91). This approach has shown a blatant lack of relational thinking and has displayed a development approach that is oblivious to the effect of the spatial turn (the rise of postterritorial forms of organisation). Largely, this has rendered urban planning a failure in the facilitation of integrated development between urban and peri-urban areas in many African countries.

Paula Meth (2020, 141) in this journal points out that this dichotomous approach has frequently been employed ‘to justify urban planning changes within planning and housing policy’ and views this as a ‘pejorative framing’. Over the decades, this dichotomous approach has undermined the effort to plan for translocal challenges such as pollution, conservation and diseases such as HIV, especially in an environmental where people live between the urban and the rural. Guneralp et al. (2018) for example point out that ‘[u]rban areas growing both in population and in land cover, pose threats to the integrity of the continent’s ecosystems and biodiversity’ and threatens agricultural production in rural areas. For this reason, planning for issues affecting rural-urban dynamics such as transport, climate change, infrastructure and informality have largely remained at the margins of the urban-centric world-view (Tacoli, 2003). The urban-centric approach to planning in African countries has also thoroughly negated the fact that cities and rural areas are enmeshed in global processes over which they have little control as they are exposed to transnational flows of one kind or another (Amin, 2011). In so doing, planners have shunned engaging the mutual constitution between the rural and urban, blurring the entanglement, interaction, continuity of the relations, connections and dynamics.

Conclusion

Jumping onto the bandwagon in pursuit of the ‘urban’ for most African countries is therefore fraught with many challenges. Some of the challenges pertain to the urbanisation phenomenon in Africa being complex and bearing urban whims, mosaics and patchworks far beyond what the current vocabulary of urban studies can capture. Notably, the factors motivating the growth of urban areas in Africa (largely natural growth and migration) are different in many respects from those that have shaped cities in the developed world. Whilst cities in the developed world have grown in an industrialised fashion (Schindler, 2017), urban growth in African cities remains largely a source of fuel for concentration of people who are poor. In fact, the World Bank indicates that poverty is urbanising (World Bank, 2013).

Unemployment, poor infrastructure, poor health, poor governance and violence are pronounced. Often what we take as ‘urban’ is neither urban nor rural. It is a question of interpretation. This complexity suggests that a balanced perspective needs to be adopted to engage development in many African cities. Emphasis should be placed on examining the flows of people, goods, money and information between ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ areas, as well as the linkages that form between different economic sectors whether they are of rural or urban inspiration. An embrace of this urban discourse with blind optimism will therefore lead to problems in the African context, suggesting that the implementation imperative for the NUA in Africa will require a huge investment into research in order to understand African environments katika mazingira (in context). This has implications for opening up to new visions, new vocabularies and new ways of understanding the ‘urban’. It might as well include questioning/rejecting the current urban-centric discourse in a quest to redefine Africa’s own ‘urban’ futures.

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References

Abrahams, G. and Berrisford, S. (2012) Addressing the Crisis of Planning Law Reform in South Africa, Johannesburg, South African Cities Network. Google Scholar

Amin, A., (2011) ‘Urban planning in an uncertain world’, in G. Bridge and S. Watson (eds) The New Blackwell Companion to the City, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 631-642. Google Scholar

Baek, S. J. (2019) ‘Cooperating in Africa’s sustainable structural transformation: policymaking capacity and the role of emerging economies’, International Development Planning Review, 41(4), 419-434. Google Scholar

Barnett, C. and Parnell, S. (2016) ‘Ideas, implementation and indicators: epistemologies of the post-2015 urban agenda’, Environment & Urbanization, 28(1), 87-98. Google Scholar

Bekker, S. and Fourchard, L. (eds) (2013) Governing Cities in Africa: Politics and Policies, Cape Town, HSRC Press. Google Scholar

Bikam, P. and Chakwizira, J. (2014) ‘Involvement of traditional leadership in land use planning and development projects in South Africa: lessons for local government planners’, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 4(13), 142-152. Google Scholar

Brenner, N. and Schmid, C. (2011) ‘Planetary urbanization’, in M. Gandy (ed.), Urban Constellations, London, Jovis, 11-13. Google Scholar

De Haas, H. (2012) ‘The migration and development’, Pendulum: A Critical View on Research and Policy, 50(3), 8-25. Google Scholar

Geschiere, P. and Nyamnjoh, F. (2001) ‘Autochthony as an alternative to citizenship: new modes in the politics of belonging in postcolonial Africa’, in E. Kurimoto (ed.), Rewriting Africa: Toward Renaissance or Collapse? Osaka, The National Museum of Ethnology, 209-237. Google Scholar

Grant, R. (2015) ‘Sustainable African urban futures: stocktaking and critical reflection on proposed urban projects’, American Behavioural Scientist, 59(3), 294-310. Google Scholar

Guneralp, B., Lwasa, S., Masundire, H., Parnell, S. and Seto, K. C. (2018) ‘Urbanization in Africa: challenges and opportunities for conservation’, Environmental Research Letters, 13, 1-8. Google Scholar

Habitat III (2016) ‘United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urban development’, Quito, Ecuador, 17-20 October, http://habitat3.org/ (accessed 10 May 2020). Google Scholar

Keulder C (1998) Traditional Leaders and Local Government in Africa: Lessons for South Africa, Pretoria, HSRC. Google Scholar

Lefebvre, H. (2003[1970]) The Urban Revolution, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press. Google Scholar

Lerner, A. M. and Eaking, H. (2011) ‘An obsolete dichotomy? Rethinking the rural-urban interface in terms of food security and production in the global South’, The Geographical Journal, 177(4), 311-320. Google Scholar

Mendola, M. (2012) ‘Rural out-migration and economic development at origin: a review of the evidence’, Journal of International Development, 24(1), 102-122. Google Scholar

Meth, P. (2020) ‘“Marginalised formalisation”: an analysis of the in/formal binary through shifting policy and everyday experiences of “poor” housing in South Africa’, International Development Planning Review, 42(2), 119-164. Google Scholar

Motau, K. (2017) ‘ZCC calls on members to boycott Tiso Blackstar newspapers’, 17 September, The Citizen. Google Scholar

Parnell, S. (2016) ‘Defining a global urban development agenda’, World Development, 78, 529-540. Google Scholar

Parnell, S. and Pieterse, E. (2015) ‘Translational global praxis: rethinking methods and modes of African urban research’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(1), 236-246. Google Scholar

Parnell, S. and Robinson, J. (2006) ‘Development and urban policy: Johannesburg’s city development strategy’, Urban Studies, 43(2), 337-355. Google Scholar

Potts, D. H. (2012) Whatever Happened to Africa’s Rapid Urbanisation? London, Africa Research Institute. Google Scholar

Potts, D. (2013) ‘Rural-urban and urban-rural migration flows as indicators of economic opportunity in sub-Saharan Africa: what do the data tell us?’ (Migrating out of poverty research programme Working Paper), Brighton, University of Sussex. Google Scholar

Potts, D. (2015) ‘Urbanization in Africa’, in J. D. Wright (ed.), International Encyclopaedia of the Social & Behavioural Sciences, Oxford, Elsevier Science Ltd, 965-997. Google Scholar

Provoost, M. (2016) ‘The new urban agenda: the perspective of new towns’, International New Town Institute, http://www.newtowninstitute.org/spip.php?article1161 (accessed 20 September 2017). Google Scholar

SALGA (2016) ‘Consolidated report, special national assembly of 18-20 June 2016’, Boardwalk Hotel, Nelson Mandela Bay, Eastern Cape. Google Scholar

Schindler, S. (2017) ‘Towards a paradigm of Southern urbanism’, City, 21(1), 47-64. Google Scholar

Schmid, C., Karaman, O., Hanakata, N. C., Kallenberger, P., Kockelkorn, A., Sawyer, L., Streule, M. and Wong, K. P. (2018) ‘Towards a new vocabulary of urbanisation processes: a comparative approach’, Urban Studies, 55(1), 19-52. Google Scholar

Sheppard, E., Leitner, H. and Maringanti, A. (2013) ‘Provincializing global urbanism: a manifesto’, Urban Geography, 34(7), 893-900. Google Scholar

Sihlongonyane, M. F. (2015) ‘Empty signifiers of transformation in participatory planning and the marginalization of black people in South Africa’, Planning Practice & Research, 30(1), 83-100. Google Scholar

Sihlongonyane, M. F. and Simelane, H. (2017) ‘The impact of political dualism on urban governance in Swaziland: a case study of Moneni in the city of Manzini’, African Studies, 76(4), 508-529. Google Scholar

Simone, A. (2001) ‘On the worlding of African cities’, African Studies Review, 44(2), 15-41. Google Scholar

Simone, A., (2004) For the City Yet to Come: Changing Urban Life in Four African Cities, Durham, NC, Duke University Press. Google Scholar

Sithole, P. and Mbele, T. (2008) ‘Fifteen-year review on traditional leadership’ (Research Report), Pretoria, HSRC Press. Google Scholar

Soederberg, S. and Walks, A. (2018) ‘Producing and governing inequalities under planetary urbanization: from urban age to urban revolution’, Geoforum, 89, 107-113. Google Scholar

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Sihlongonyane, Mfaniseni Fana