The Geopolitics of Urbanisation in Africa

Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda is city planner and researcher focusing on African cities. He is a senior research associate at the African Urban Institute and author of the book, Dystopian Cities.

Editor’s Note: This Viewpoint has excerpts from the book, Dystopian Cities: How the Tyranny of Specialists Destroy African Cities, by Archimedes Muzenda republished with the permission of the publishers.

African Urbanism.., Southern Urbanism.., Slum urbanism! In the 21st century, Africa is on the spotlight of the global urbanisation discourse. It is the fastest urbanizing continent in the 21st century—being a latecomer to the urbanisation party. Not so long ago it was so difficult to get the global urban community to talk about Africa on the discussion table. The attention that Africa is getting on urban development is a huge stride, but, there is a problem, it is a spotlight of exceptionality.

Urbanisation in Africa is popularised as an exception—it is urbanisation without economic growth, it is a ‘planet of slums,’ urbanisation riddled with crime, violence and corruption. Looking at these phenomena compared to the modern cities in the global west, Africa is an exception, definitely. Because 21st century is an era of many changes: global financial system, consciousness of climate change, technological innovation. Suffice to say it is an era of megacities. But these are not the exceptions attached to African cities. One group of exceptions has roots in orientalism, the western revisionist portrayal of the East and the South as inferior regions. The second group of exceptions is that of postmodernism that seek to debunk the western narrative as the metanarrative on urbanisation. 

International scholars who discovered of late the urbanization of Africa are the major proponents of exception of orientalism on African urbanisation. When they look at the slums, the level of extreme poverty, crime, violence, the rampant corruption in African institutions they see an urban apocalypse. To them Africa’s case (and broadly the global south) is the exception that no other region has gone through. It is no surprise the view portrays inferiority of the continent as it fits into the frame of orientalism that has existed in urban studies for centuries. The orientalism is so ingrained that it has become the status quo. In universities where urban practitioners are trained, the history of town planning always begin with Greece—Greek town planning, Roman town planning moving on to British planning. The actual roots of planning, Mesopotamia in Western Asia are mostly out of the picture. The exceptions that are so popularised about urbanisation in Africa are not exceptions really when we look at the comprehensive history of urbanization from Europe to North America. Each country went through the very same challenges and some even worse than what Africa is facing. Be it the extreme poverty, slum dwelling, crime and violence of 19th century Paris and London or the rampant corruption of New York which in late 19th century was regarded most corrupt and most inefficient. In the book, Dystopian Cities, I give a detailed debunk of these exceptions attached to Africa’s urbanization. But the orientalist urban scholars are not alone.

Urban studies scholars in the global south are determined to counter the orientalism discourse imposed by Orientalist scholars on African urbanisation. They derive from the notion that the grand narrative of western society as the universal source of knowledge on urban development need to be challenged, replaced and even reversed. It is a postmodern approach of dismissing metanarrative and upholding plurality. So new theories have come up, theories of African urbanism, of Southern urbanism.

While the scholars derive their theories from the supposed exceptions, they argue for the need to rethink the concept of ‘cityness,’ in the lenses of the global south. Sometimes arguing that the future of cities is now projected in the global south and western societies has to learn from the south. In this effort urban studies scholars who argue for this are well intentioned in fighting the marginalization of Africa in the global urban development discourse.  Just as the orientalist view of urbanisation in Africa, theories derived from the exceptions attached to urbanization in Africa also create problems.

Because equating urbanisation of Africa to that of the 19th century Europe and North America is considered linear, we shove the urbanisation history of the two continents under the rugs, history so important for the global south to learn from. But because African policymakers are now surrounded by such an approach of disregarding broader urbanisation history, they now want to create cities that look like that of Europe and North America overnight. Existing cities are being envisioned as “world-class cities,” new towns are being built in Africa from ground up to climax with so much rush. The tendency to romanticize slums as permanent condition is also pushing urban policymakers to get rid of the pains of urbanization, to create a cosmetic look that fits the “world-class city” narrative. This is a practice devoid of the traditional evolution of cities that Western world went through because the evolution is not talked about comprehensively. The exceptions have created an anti-urban sentiments among policymakers and even town planners across Africa. In the early 2000s, African leaders believed, actually, that the next revolution in Africa would be agricultural, not urbanisation. Even now, there are so many town planners across the African continent who believe that the urban problems in Africa can be solved by developing rural areas, decentralising people to “growth poles” a policy that was once popular after independence which failed dismally.

The exceptionality has gone so bad that now there is so much talk about urban primacy and how unique it is for developing countries. It is an argument that disregard the fact that most countries in the west also experienced urban primacy in their rapid urbanization years. It ought to be a natural process of urban evolution as countries benefit economically from agglomeration of big cities. But because of that regard of urban primacy as a developing country phenomenon from the 20th century, African countries are on a dangerous drive to decentralize their big cities. It is now not surprising to hear policymakers proposing to decentralize a city with a population even less than two million people. It is a trajectory that puts urbanization in Africa on the path to failure.

But unlike politicians or technocrats who if they misstep on their policies or their practice they can be out of their jobs, the force behind the exceptions attached to Africa’s urbanisation, that of urban studies scholarship is different. The scholars seldom become vanguards of the consequences of such propositions. Sometimes same scholars might even criticize the outcomes of their propositions unknowingly. This is the case with the new town movement across Africa to which so many urban studies scholars criticize, yet the movement derive from the exceptionality of Africa purported by the same scholarship.

In the whole geopolitics of urbanization with orientalists and postmodernist views of urbanization in Africa, the future of African cities is in the rationalisation of the polarised propositions. It is in the wholesome approach to urban development beyond ideological warfare. Because a continued disregard of comprehensive history in favour of advancing an ideology is also creating a new generation even more unaware of the past for them to understand the present rationally. It is creating a generation of practitioners accustomed to a single ideological lens that it will not dare to apply rationality or even to question the ideology of training. Because in all the exceptions driving the geopolitics of urbanization in Africa, history, comprehensive world urban history says otherwise.

As we study the urbanization in Africa and largely the global south, we ought to remember, the early observation of Patrick Geddes back in the 19th century, “Slum, semi-slum, super-slum, to this has come the evolution of cities.” Because by popularising the exceptionality that is not, we push Africa’s urbanisation in the wrong direction—off the cliff, really.

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