Urban studies in Africa have come a long way in the last half-century. Speaking on the final day of an international urban conference hosted by the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), pioneering US-born urban researcher AbdouMaliq Simone drew on his early experiences to emphasise the gains of this fledgling field of study.
“When I took I my first official job in an African city, in Abidjan in 1976, there was little urban research anywhere, let alone any urban focus, policy or programmatic intervention [by] bureaucrats and even academics,” stated Simone.
Currently a research professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany, Simone was addressing a mixed audience of city officials, housing activists, engineers, architects, researchers, policymakers and artists from 26 countries attending the conference,
“Africans were largely deemed biologically and culturally incapable of worth,” stated Simone, adding that African cities were viewed as sites of disaster and insufficiency. “Doing urban research required extending oneself to different kinds of actors as an investigator, including preachers and hustlers and bureaucrats and market vendors. It was really difficult work.”
Simone’s 2004 book, For the City Yet to Come, a series of case studies of urban risk and hustle in Dakar, Douala, Jeddah and peri-urban Pretoria, was influential in shifting the focus of urban studies on the African continent. Along with Teresa Caldeira’s 2000 book, City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo, it defined the themes of what is now loosely referred to as “southern urbanism”.
“Ten years ago we were struggling to legitimate the need to generate theories from the south,” said Caldeira, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, during a roundtable with Simone, Alcinda Honwana and Jennifer Robinson. “The success of this project is that we are here [in Cape Town].”
Caldeira, however, cautioned researchers against complacency.
After detailing the various terms used to reflect the southern turn in urban research, among them “southern urbanism” and “urbanism of the south,” she stated: “I’d like us to not settle easily on these terms and use our critical skills to consider them. I get anxious with the use of some ideas we use, especially southern urbanism in the singular. It is clear that cities in the south cannot be associated with one unitary form of urbanism. We need to explore multiplicities instead of constructing a singular idea. Are we dealing with southern urbanisms or urbanisms of the south?”
Caldeira further spoke of the need to create “new research open to new standpoints. We need to create institutional ideas but also find networks to circulate our ideas. We need to archive the ideas we create and make them available to researchers in the global south.”
Picking up on Caldeira’s statements in a later comment from the floor, a Johannesburg city official highlighted the need for researchers to translate their research into explicable resources.
“It is imperative that we learn to speak more confidently about the critical work that we do in a propositional way,” conceded admitted Jennifer Robinson, a Durban-trained urban geographer now at University College London. “Of course, the propositional side is tied to power. It is tied to who will listen to what policy. It is a challenge.”
Alcinda Honwana, a Mozambique-born development advisor to the United Nations and anthropologist whose research focuses on youth, agreed.
“How do we translate what we do into practice?” she wondered. “On the one hand it is about the kinds of questions we ask in our research, how we look at our own environments, who we listen to, and how we try to read what’s going on.” But, added Honwana, making research legible also involved navigating the complexities of political power.
“There is a tendency among political practitioners to find solutions that will fit all,” said Honwana. “Research however shows that it is important to go deep, and look at the specific as well.”
Also commenting from the floor, a visiting Nigerian researcher noted that the identities of the participants in the conference’s five keynote addresses and 16 roundtable sessions did not reflect the full diversity of the African continent.
“The challenge of the next decade is who leads the conversation on southern urbanism,” admitted Robinson. “The problem is a lot of people are not part of this conversation.” Robinson however cautioned researchers against temerity.
ACC’s urban conference was organised to celebrate the institution’s tenth anniversary. Its 70 breakaway panels offered emerging scholars looking to make their mark a platform to float new ideas and research. Notwithstanding a bias towards South Africa, there were papers on facets of urban life in Accra, Addis Ababa, Lagos, Luanda, Nairobi and Port Harcourt.
Henrik Ernstson, a researcher at ACC, considered at the imperial echoes in Africa’s current crop of large-scale infrastructure projects in Angola and Kenya. His paper focussed on a new Chinese-funded railway project in Kenya that piggybacked on infrastructure introduced by colonial Britain.
Alex Wafer, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, spoke about his work in Kya Sand, a fire-plagued informal settlement northwest of Johannesburg. “Africa is disproportionately subject to fire, partly a result of water scarcity,” stated Wafer, who further emphasized the need to consider fire and water as materialities pertinent to the study of slum settlements.
In their joint presentation Kathleen Stokes and Nate Millington, from the University of Manchester and UCT respectively, looked at the uneven outcomes of waste management and recycling in South Africa.
“As long as recycling is seen as a private-sector initiative inequality will be built into the system,” said Stokes. “The state subsidies don’t flow down to the poor who are involved as collectors in the system.”
Chloe Buire, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, presented a comparative study of youth aspiration in Angola and South Africa that distinguished “active” and “activist” citizenship. She compared the productive life of not-for-profit organisation in Cape Town founded on the thinking of political scientist and nonviolence theorist Gene Sharp with the imprisonment of Luanda youths who had gathered to read Sharp’s work.
ACC deputy director Andrew Tucker presented a paper looking at how sexual minority rights are being negotiated across the African continent. In South Africa minority rights are constitutionally protected, a top-down approach to enshrining entitlements that is grounded in a western genealogy of human rights.
His talk was presented in the context of rampant homophobia and discrimination across the continent and focussed on how sexual citizenship is provisionally negotiated in African cities.
Sexual minorities, elaborated Tucker, are not enlisting the state but engaging in a form of “urban hustle” that involves negotiating power at a local level – with community leaders, police, health officials and criminal bosses.
“We need to find new ways of understanding how these ideas of urban hustling can effect social change,” said Tucker.
With its many focuses and sites of enquiry, new urban research on the African continent is reframing how everyday life on the continent is understood and theorised. It gains, while tangible when using Simone’s historical yardstick, are not unqualified.
Speaking at the opening of the conference, Vanessa Watson, a founder and executive member of the ACC, said southern urbanism was still a new discipline “scrambling at the edge of northern hegemony”.
Speaking in the rhythmic cadences of an urban preacher during the conference’s closing session, Simone underscored a stark fact defining the research field: “Everyday life is a material challenge for the majority of residents in many parts of the world.” He said researchers needed to pay “close attention” to how people endure.
He invoked the legacy of Stokely Carmichael, a Trinidadian-born activist and prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, before posing a set of questions central to practice of southern urban studies today: “How did we come this far? How have we endured? What have we done with that endurance?”
The conference offered a forum for asking such questions. But, reminded Simone, the broader discipline of urban studies in Africa and other southern territories was cognitively or epistemically an outward looking practice.
“We need to extend ourselves out to appreciate what it is that we have, and how we have come so far,” he said.