Africa’s urban revolution is at the epicentre of the so-called ‘rise of the continent’. Yet, the prospect of a doubling of the urban population in just one generation, the explosion of a youthful demographic confronted with the absence of decent work and omnipresent consumer cultures, represent spectres beyond serious political or policy contemplation. Consequently, political fantasies abound that Africa’s ‘time that has come’ can be optimised without confronting the brutal and confusing realities of largely unmanaged processes of urbanisation in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Political denial finds uncanny support in limited critical work on the changing natures of African urbanisms.

Over the course of the past five years, renowned urbanist and academic Professor Edgar Pieterse has maintained two tracks of collaborative enquiry into the nature, dynamics and theoretical import of Africa’s profound urban transition. The first focuses on the empirical dimensions of the urban transition and what it might mean for a variety of urban policy domains, ranging from infrastructure, to food security, post-conflict imperatives and mobility. The second track is more experimental and adaptive: convening a diverse range of artists, architects, planners, geographers, literary scholars and urbanists to explore the phenomenology of everyday urbanism in a variety of African urban contexts.

In this lecture, Africa’s Urban Revolution: Epistemic Adventures, he will explore the threads that connect these two lines of work, cueing his current research to establish an epistemic frame that can anchor the heterodox and radical knowledges and practices that will have to be conjured to puncture prevailing fantasies, and install alternative perspectives that are simultaneously more empirically grounded and imaginatively transformative.

Edgar Pieterse was awarded the South African Research Chair in Urban Policy in 2007, and is the Director of the African Centre for Cities, UCT. As an urbanist, he is deeply fascinated by the drama of cities everywhere and at different moments in time, including the future, the past and science fiction invocations. Simultaneously, he endeavours to remain grounded in the tough and messy realities of cities—invariably always on the move—working with materialist and aesthetic optics. His own work focuses on two South African cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town, but he also tracks the fortunes of African cities as part of larger discourses on sustainable urban transitions and southern urbanism. Read more