The changing and challenging face of African capital cities

(21 October 2012, Johannesburg­) – The challenge posed to capital cities is clear: Given a small and sometimes shrinking municipal fiscal base, and existing service backlog, how is it possible to fashion viable urban policies and delivery for a growing number of new urban residents? That is according to Professor Simon Bekker, co-editor with Göran Therborn, both sociologists, of Capital Cities in Africa: Power and Powerlessness (HSRC Press) published in 2011. He said: “The outcome is also well known: Established residents, and newly arrived, attempt to provide those public and private goods they need … on their own without state support or knowledge.” Bekker was speaking at a related roundtable discussion on 12 October, hosted by German research foundation Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Johannesburg. He was joined by guest speakers Professor Aly Karam and Dr Margot Rubin, both of University of the Witwatersrand.

Capital Cities in Africa traces with separately authored chapters how the power vested in nine sub-Saharan African cities has evolved from different colonial backgrounds, starting at the point of national political emancipation and set against an explosive surge of urbanisation and associated crises. Capital cities as sites of nation-building literally and symbolically convey ideology. But this is subject to ructions and such shifts in political sociology are reflected in a layering that the editors term “urban geology”. Bekker said the book was therefore partly concerned with “power over” ­­– using the nation state, symbols, and finances at a national level in a capital city to impose, impress and try to get leadership. He added: “But we argue ‘power over’ is not the same thing as ‘power to’ … it’s not the same thing as power to be able to implement, it’s not the same thing as power to be able to deliver, it’s not the same thing as power to be able to regulate conflict.”

This is largely related to the powerlessness of city government to redress delivery promises set against dynamics like in-migration. Such shifts were also reflected in the way cities see themselves and posed further challenges to their spatial fragmentation. “There is a real challenge to urban governments regarding the loyalties and identities of meaning people draw from their locality or suburb (rather than city) … and an historical building up of what it means to live in a city,” he added.

Bekker said that in the literature there are two competing and divergent approaches to urban sub-Saharan Africa. The one by Afro-pessimists characterises African cities as poverty-stricken. The other imagines these urban places as centres of economic opportunity and “sizzling deals” or real business opportunities. “We try to navigate a road between these two approaches­­ – not because we have drawn the big picture … Our argument essentially is that there are real differences between the trajectories of different capital cities in sub-Saharan Africa and to generalise is a very high-risk business.”

There has never been an uncontested singular capital in South Africa, according to Professor Alan Mabin of University of the Witwatersrand, and his chapter “South African Capital Cities” engages with issues that arise from this multiplicity. (Cape Town is usually named legislative capital, Pretoria as executive, Bloemfontein as judicial, and more recently Johannesburg has the Constitutional Court.) On the importance of place that capital cities underscore, he writes: “I imagine that if all capital functions moved to Johannesburg from Pretoria, the nature of government might change owing to the changed range of social interactions in which political actors engaged.”

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Kim Gurney is a freelance journalist with over a decade’s experience including News Editor of a weekly at Financial Times Business and stringer for Newsweek International’s Africa bureau. She is also a visual artist and independent curator, most recently facilitating an exhibition that spanned art, media and law. Kim is affiliated as Research Associate to African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town, engaged primarily in research on public space/ public art, and Research Associate to Research Centre, Visual Identities in Art and Design at University of Johannesburg.

She is currently researching for ACC on Spines as part of a broader research project between ACC and Goethe-Institut Johannesburg. She lives and works in Johannesburg.


This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project



image credit: SkyscraperCity



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