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Essay: Cities in Africa

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  • Subject area(s): Geography essays
  • Reading time: 3 minutes
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  • Published: 22 October 2015*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 833 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 4 (approx)

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Cities in Africa unfold as stories of relentless human population growth, dismal failure of colonial and postcolonial rule, and newness of place. These are stories usually with the aim of ameliorating poverty, empowering the poor, rescuing the environment and growing local economies. At the same time, assumptions are in-built about the nature of the city, its people, cultures and possible futures. The inconceivable scale of need and protection for the majority in most African cities is overwhelming. From development work to institutional reform to local statecraft, assumptions are geared towards capturing the flux of everyday life, or more specifically the dialectic of urban changes and continuities. Outside of these efforts, so the story goes, many residents turn to informal logics and solutions for the most elemental facets of city life.

Indeed, rapid change is upon Africa. It has the highest rate of urbanisation compared to any other region. In this contemporary globalising era, mobility is our given leitmotif, with references to the continuous circulation of goods, services, ideas, technologies, imaginaries and money. The reverberations of colonial and rural histories in the processes of city-making ensure that most urban residents are entangled in relationships of movement, as protagonists in migratory journeys, or as economic or social funders of the journeys of others. The idea, then, that African cities are in constant states of fluctuation, or emphasised as liminal and unstable spaces seem appropriate. But for all the stress on flux, suitably categorised as emergent urbanisms, what accounts for the persistence of things, like the material and social drivers of inequality, or the banality of everyday life in the city. Crucially, African cities are uniquely marked by disjunctive flows and circuits, but in ways that amplify both the intensity of mobility, and its shadow, fixity.

If such cities cannot simply be about runaway urbanisation but the friction between movement and inertia, it is also helpful to restructure the boundaries of our language and abandon simplistic oppositions between formal and informal, which remain particularly unhelpful. The notion of informal, as I recognise it, is less about the absence of a formal condition, but is the popular and real city. A sense that life here is as ordinary and extraordinary as life anywhere else. It is less a question of choice than of circumstance but as new kinds of social movements refine their social technologies, combined with the benefits of inexpensive digital technologies mediated by mobile telephony, this kind of city is at once dynamic, homegrown, contested and migrating.

Can such conditions of African cities provide an alternative lens on the dialectic of mobility? How do structures of perception and action emerge in conditions marked by an absence of public infrastructures and services and definite meanings attached to place? Where do the movements, circulations and negotiations, however tiresome, go to or connect within the city? There is an ironic acknowledgement that so much mobility is interrupted by infrastructural failure and mechanical disrepair. The paradox of possibility and necessity of movement is circumscribed by all manner of boundaries: barriers, obstacles, fixtures, detours, dead-ends and disappointments. These boundaries impact on all classes and social groups, and moreover, play out in the imaginaries of individuals. Nevertheless, at the same time there are residents in these cities who also find use and value in even the most abandoned (wasted) infrastructures. How, then, can the concept of mobility be recast in this contemporary moment?

This essay attempts to think differently about the relational scales between fixity and fluidity in space. I envisage this friction as a circuit board that is wired across a symbolic space (regional circuits), a collective space (city currents), and an intimate space (street conductors). Each distinctive but interconnected dimension (divided into three corresponding chapters) is concerned with the challenge of understanding how certain continuities appear and are reproduced in concert with rapid urban changes. This work is grounded in the South African city, Durban, but it also tracks the theoretical ideas from the African region as part of a larger discourse on urban transitions and southern urbanism.

My first-hand material on Durban in South Africa is drawn from a visit in August 2014. It serves as a situated experience and, field-site, for methods of critical observation and an underpinning of attitudes developed here. On the ground I was, undeniably, attracted to the possibilities of mobility without much concern for the inevitabilities of immobility. Nonetheless, many of my field-notes remain pertinent to this essay. I was interested in movement, performance, permeability, perforation, incompleteness, security, insecurity and the transgression of urban spaces. The twist (or realisation) in this story is my rearticulated observing of the city. I look, now, for the circuit as well as the breaks in the circuit. Fundamentally, it has enabled me to eke out potential ways to act as a designer and architect, and a grounded approach towards the practice of urban change. I am also aware that this essay is at a point of further instigation to debate and research, and therefore partial, and necessarily incomplete.

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