New African urbanisms: a view from Luanda

Twenty years ago, Western scholars declared African cities to be in crisis. [1] Years of rapid unplanned urban growth under conditions of economic crisis had taken their toll and observers warned that without ‘good governance’ these cities would be lost beyond repair.

Post-war urban development in Luanda as described by the South African anthropologist Claudia Gastrow in a series of articles published by Urban Africa (see links to articles in references below) is illustrative of a new kind of governance that has recently emerged in a world order that is marked by the rise of powers from the South. Countries such as Brazil and India have established a new model of governance which is largely state–led (as opposed to market-led) and seeks to achieve rapid economic growth as well as poverty reduction by combining neo-liberal economic policies with social development programmes and privatization with service delivery.

Largely urban based, this model in turn produces what Margot Rubin calls in the context of Johannesburg ‘paradoxical’ cities. In such cities, ‘glittering luxury’ co-exists with ‘dire poverty’ as business centers, skyscrapers and gated communities are surrounded by informal markets and settlements. While the state actively seeks to drive urban development, for instance through (re)housing programmes, its limited capacity makes it ‘consistently absent’ at the same time, making it both ‘overly controlling and virtually non-existent’ at once.

While most of the literature on cities in the South emphasizes their undesirability and the absence of the state, Rubin bases her analysis on an emergent literature that recognizes the ‘fragmented and contradictory’ nature of the state and the opportunities this opens up for residents to ‘mine’ the city’s resources. This body of work then sheds light on the ways in which city dwellers manage to capitalize on the state’s efforts to reshape the urban space.

Following this line of thinking, this commentary seeks to draw attention to the need to extend the study of these new, multiple, sometimes contradictory, but ever changing urbanisms to (the rest of) the African continent, by taking the example of Luanda.

The rise of urban developmentalism in Africa

After years of absence after the height of post-independence state interventionism, developmentalism is making a comeback in Africa. Over the past decade, African countries have started to pursue developmental strategies with the assistance of emerging partners from the South, keen to share their model of development in exchange for access to natural resources, consumer markets and political support. In view of Africa’s rapid urbanization and fuelled by a persistent urban bias, many developmental interventions have been concentrated in cities. As a result, African cities in upcoming countries such as Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda as well as resource rich countries such as Angola, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are currently experiencing increasing state investments in urban infrastructures, services and housing. In addition, urban renewal projects are underway in all of these countries involving the construction of entire new cities. [2]

Whilst it can be questioned whether the investments made in such projects are sufficient or adequate in meeting the needs of African city dwellers, they give rise to an interesting debate about the model of development that is currently emerging in Africa and the kind of urbanisms it produces. How does the African state seek to reshape the city? What role do foreign partners play in this regard? Moreover, in what ways is urban renewal changing the lives of city dwellers?

A view from Luanda

In discussing the redevelopment of the northern part of Luanda, a project designed by a Singaporean consultancy firm involving the rehousing of over 3 million people (out of an estimated total of 7 million city dwellers) from self-built, mostly single story houses into new apartment blocks [3], Gastrow rightly asserts that Luanda’s redevelopment raises questions about the meaning of “the urban” in contemporary Africa.

In the case of Angola, the state has become increasingly involved in building the city as part of a major post-war reconstruction scheme. Financed, executed and inspired by the economic success of countries such as China and Brazil, post-war reconstruction is aimed at rehabilitating, modernizing and formalizing the country’s infrastructures and services. One of the main pillars of post-war reconstruction has been state-led housing development, which can currently be divided into two main types of housing. The first type consists of social housing projects in which houses are built and given free of charge to compensate people for the demolition of their houses by the state, either because these houses are located in areas deemed unsafe for living or, and increasingly so, because they are located in areas destined for urban redevelopment. The second type consists of new urban centres or satellite cities that are intended to cater for the city’s middle class population and sold for subsidized prices by the state.

Gastrow raises various critiques of this model of housing development. Based on her research, she argues that in promoting formal housing development, the Angolan state is introducing new notions of ‘real urban living’ which clash with people’s own notions of the ‘urban’, based on practices developed during years of city life. Further tensions arise when state-led housing development, whilst accompanied by a rights-based discourse that stresses the universal right to decent housing, ends up violating this same right through the large-scale demolitions that are needed to make space for housing projects. In addition, she cites criticisms of this model of housing development as being exclusionary, allocating one type of housing to the poor and separately accommodating those better off.

Yet, in her article on the social housing project Zango, Gastrow admits that in practice the Angolan state may be less in charge of urban development than it seems. Located in the south-eastern periphery of Luanda’s city centre, Zango has been the first social housing project to be built since the end of the Angolan civil war and it currently houses an estimated 200, 000 people. Widely criticized by domestic as well as international observers who compared the first relocations to the project in 2001 to apartheid practices and Zango’s houses to those built by the Portuguese for the ‘indigenous’ population in colonial times [4] it currently seems to be one of the fastest growing areas in the city.

My own research on Zango indicates that people are moving to the project from all parts of the city, which resonates with Rubin’s counter-claims of Johannesburg as an undesirable city. Thus, just as Johannesburg is not the deceiving and marginal place in which everyone ‘wants to be elsewhere’, Zango is not the peripheral place that critics point it out to be. As Gastrow notes, for many Zango is indeed ‘a desirable option’.  People are attracted to the area for a variety of reasons. For some, Zango represents a calm and ‘urbanized’ or planned place, with a minimum level of basic services, as opposed to the city’s informal settlements that most residents of Luanda inhabit. Others are attracted by
the prospect of acquiring a house of their own, as opposed to the rental houses in which many luandenses live. This has given rise to a lively real estate market in Zango, even though direct beneficiaries have not received any formal title deeds for their houses and officially are not allowed to sell, rent out, or use their houses for any other purpose than residency.

Indeed, houses in Zango far from represent what the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto would have called, ‘dead capital’. [5] On the contrary, for those involved in Zango’s informal real estate market, both directly through the sale, purchase or rental of state-built houses or indirectly through the sale, purchase and rental of shacks in areas targeted for redevelopment, or in the myriad of private businesses that have sprung up in Zango to meet the needs of its new residents, the project represents an important source of income.

The result is what Gastrow calls an ‘odd mix of uniformity and personalisation’ as the project still maintains its original basic lay-out of rows after rows of single story houses (for South Africans these are recognizable as RDP houses), each quarter painted in a different colour, which stretch out for miles along Zango’s main road. Yet, when taking a closer look one sees that all houses are different, depending on the modifications made to them by their inhabitants. Many people have set up shop in their houses, turning them into anything from a private school or crèche to a beauty parlour, pharmacy or restaurant. Others have remodelled their houses to the extent that they barely resemble their original state. These actions, while vigorously denounced by state officials as unlawful profiteering of the public good and questioned by Gastrow herself as a solution to ‘the supposed problem of urban informality’, have turned Zango into something ‘more than a rehousing area’ and perhaps much more of a city than any of the new Chinese-built cities in Luanda in the years after Zango’s creation.

Indeed, in her article “China and the expansion of Luanda”, Gastrow discusses the side effects of the entry of Chinese enterprises into Angola under government contracts for reconstruction as having contributed to the increasing availability of cheap construction material and the impact this has had on the expansion of the informal city in Luanda. Thus, instead of formalizing the city, as intended with Chinese-built housing projects, the entry of the Chinese may instead have accelerated the city’s informal growth.

New urbanisms

By pointing to the ways in which the Angolan state is both able and unable to reshape the city, Gastrow touches on its paradoxical nature, a tension which is further elaborated by Rubin in the context of Johannesburg. Their work confirms the fruitfulness of an approach to the study of cities in Africa that recognizes the emergence of new, multiple, sometimes contradictory, and ever changing urbanisms that arise in the space between state intervention and its limitations, between intentions and outcomes, between discourses and practices, and between the state and its subjects.

This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series.

Sylvia Croese holds a PhD in Sociology from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, where she is currently a post-doctoral research fellow. She has written and conducted extensive research in and on Angola as a researcher and consultant and has an interest in issues related to China-Africa relations, housing and urban development, local governance and electoral politics.

Read Claudia Gastrow’s series on Luanda:

African architectures: Cazenga and urban redevelopment 

Fighting for citizens’ rights: an interview with SOS Habitat 

Concrete politics 

Zango – plans unravel

China and the expansion of Luanda

Image credit: Cindy ZM (Flickr)


[1] Stren, Richard and White, Rodney, eds. 1989. African cities in crisis: managing rapid urban growth. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

[2] Recently plans have also been announced for the construction of new capital cities in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea, see Zimbabwe to relocate capital city to Mugabe’s home town (17 November 2012) and Equatorial Guinea: Obiang’s future capital, Oyala (17 December 2012).

[3] See the Facebook page of the Technical Office for the Urban Redevelopment of Cazenga and Sambizanga for Luanda Norte,

[4] Croese. 2013. Post-war state-led development at work in Angola. The Zango housing project in Luanda as a case study. Unpublished PhD thesis. Stellenbosch: Stellenbosch University.

[5] Hernando de Soto. 2000. The mystery of capital: why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. New York: Basic Books.


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