Urban lecture series: How can we transcend slum urbanism in Africa?

Edgar Pieterse in this lecture argues that data about economic incorporation into the labour market and living conditions demonstrate that the majority of African urban dwellers live in conditions of vulnerability, and that economic insecurity reinforces slum living and makes it difficult for states to access sufficient tax revenues to address a variety of urban pressures. Pieterse poses the question: “if we acknowledge this tough reality, how can we formulate policy agendas that can break this cycle of exclusion and injustice?” The lecture provides a macro framework to develop alternative modalities of urban management and governance rooted in ethical values and practical experiences.

Pieterse puts forward the concept of the underlying logics of slum urbanism, which in turn manifests in an overall urban form that can be characterized as ‘extreme splintered urbanism’—a pattern of urban development that manifests in sharp urban divides, the privatization of key urban services and infrastructure linked to large-scale slum neglect over long periods of time. In response the concept of Urban Operating Systems is introduced to identify the macro entry points for transforming urban systems over 2-3 decades. The operating systems are: infrastructure, economy, land markets and the governance. Alternative approaches to each are identified as a provocation for further research and praxis.

Propositions for addressing the issue:

Probable statistical trends with regard to work and living conditions indicate that the majority of urban dwellers in Africa will find themselves in conditions of insecurity and informality.

These trends create a negative spiral that perpetuates slum urbanism.

The cumulative impacts of slum urbanism is the production of a polycrisis as various pressures—water, electricity, waste, ecosystem degradation, land scarcity, democratic deficits, and so on—reinforce and exacerbate each other.

Urban governments in coalition with various actors need to get ahead of these trends and produce long-range strategic frameworks that can systematically shift the underlying logics of the urban system.

The Urban Operating Systems framework provide an accessible and comprehensive lens to do so.

Associated material:

Recent Publications:

 Rogue Urbanism

Africa’s Urban Revolution

Other links:

Cityscapes Digital

Urban SDG


Edgar Pieterse is holder of the South African Research Chair in Urban Policy. He is founding director the African Centre for Cities (ACC) and is professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics, both at the University of Cape Town. His research stems from the borderzone between geography, planning and cultural studies with a strong orientation towards political philosophy. He is consulting editor for Cityscapes—an international magazine on urbanism in the global South. His most recent co-edited books are: Africa’s Urban Revolution (Zed, 2014); Rogue Urbanism: Emergent African Cities (Jacana, 2013); African Cities Reader II: Mobility & Fixtures (Chimurenga, 2011). At present he is leading a policy process to formulate the “Integrated Urban Development Framework” for South Africa.


Publication Type lecture
Publisher UN Habitat
Year 2014
Author(s) Edgar Pieterse, University of Cape Town
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One Response to “Urban lecture series: How can we transcend slum urbanism in Africa?”

  1. Ofentse Mokwena

    The agenda for systemic sustainability is the most potent point of departure in response to an emerging emergency. I am deeply impressed with the lecture. It intimates the potential for low carbon living and low carbon industrial reform for African places, firms and people. This is done by leaning toward a spatial economic form of sustainable governance, rather than simply placed/articulated suitable infrastructure; economic systems and land-use. Further, I believe that living conditions, and the cultures thereof, have reached worsening states of emergency. The most suitable response as presented is a systemic one: wherein like a seed the only intervention necessary– after the basics– is water, fluidity, thus access and mobility. From a transport economic perspective, this lecture mutates the informal sector into a formidable opportunity to realise and actualise life changing forms of movement in goods, people, ideas and access over space. I am definitely tabling this inspiring lecture to open any discussion on the new mobility agenda to positively reform slumurbanism within its intricate informalities.


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