Review: ‘Politics and Policies. Governing cities in Africa.’

Editor(s) Simon Bekker and Laurent Fourchard
Publisher HSRC Press
Year 2013

Approaches to the study of cities in post-colonial Africa have evolved over the years, reflecting global trends in development thinking in which the state’s role has changed from an interventionist planner to an enabling manager of development. Since the 1990s, the failure of many African states to manage rapid urbanization has resulted, crudely put, in one body of literature that demonizes African cities whilst another one idealizes them.

This book makes an important contribution to the study of African cities as it seeks to move away from this dichotomy by introducing a continuous political dimension to the study of urban issues. According to its editors, approaches to the study of African cities as either dysfunctional and poverty-stricken or as centers of economic opportunity ‘tend to focus on macroeconomic trends and play down the role of power and politics at city level, and both tend to employ only superficially three important common-wisdom notions, namely urban governance, urban identities and urban informality’ (p. 2). By politicizing  and analyzing urban issues at different scales in different African cities, the editors seek to problematize these three notions while ‘revealing the micro realities and conflicts that characterize the everyday lives of residents, officials and local leaders’ (pp. 2-3). In doing so, they equally seek to promote a shift away from a-historical approaches to the study of African cities that focus exclusively on the ‘local’, by adopting a historically grounded and comparative research approach.

In order to fulfill these objectives, the book brings together case studies from 18 cities all over the continent, covering French, English as well as Portuguese speaking countries, written by a team of researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds, although the editors acknowledge that due to reasons of funding the number of researchers from African countries other than South Africa was small. The book is organized in two parts which are both preceded by an introduction from the editors. A list of city profiles that precedes the general introduction to the book further helps to contextualize the findings of each chapter by providing relevant background information to the cities that are discussed in the case studies.

The chapters that make up the first part of the book are organized under the title ‘party politics and the politics of identity’. This part of the book departs from the assumption that the study of party politics and the various ways in which groupings of urban residents construct collective identities in the urban political arena is pertinent to an understanding of urban politics. In the first thought-provoking chapter of part one, new ways of thinking about the relationship between party competition and urban governability are proposed, based on empirical examples from six large metropolitan areas: Cape Town, Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, Lagos, Maputo and Nairobi. The next chapter sheds light on the ways in which the construction of identities by the late colonial governments in Dakar, Nairobi and Conakry affected the implementation and outcomes of urban planning and housing projects. The following chapter shows how identities can equally be constructed from below, by looking at how minority identities are claimed, appropriated and internalized in the cities of Cotonou, Kano, Lomé and Maputo. This way the authors show how complex identity has become in contemporary African urban societies.

Compared to the first part, the second part of the book is more developed theoretically, as it focuses specifically on the interrogation of the notion of informality and its use in the literature on African cities. Grouped under the title ‘urban public policies: problematizing informality’, the first chapter of this part of the book draws on the analysis of informal settlements in the cities of Luanda, Maputo, Cape Town, Ekurhuleni and Johannesburg in order to argue that informal settlements should be seen as dynamic responses to certain failures of formal processes which differ from place to place and from time to time, thereby challenging universal definitions of informality.

By examining the politics of solid-waste management in Accra, Addis Ababa, Maputo and Ouagadougou the next chapter further challenges the distinction between the ‘formal’ and the ‘informal’ by shedding light on the ways in which the informal sector is involved in waste management in these cities. In doing so, the authors open up ways to think about the inclusion of informal actors in the implementation of public policies in urban Africa. The following chapter analyzes attempts to formalize street trading in the cities of Abidjan, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Lomé and Nairobi to draw attention to the parallels that exist between the ways in which post-colonial governments in Africa deal with informality in the city compared to their colonial predecessors. According to the authors of this chapter, their similarities have resulted in the emergence of a neo-colonial spatial order, although this takes place in a different, globalized and neo-liberal context. The authors of the last chapter of part two of the book prefer to distinguish between ‘state’ versus ‘non-state’ instead of ‘formal’ versus ‘informal’ in order to make sense of the multiple practices of policing in urban Nigeria and South Africa. These practices involve community and private sector actors that emerge either in the absence of the state or through state privatization projects. In doing so, the authors challenge perceptions of the state as the sole holder of the use of force and provider of security while providing insight into the complexity of state and non-state relations.

While a final overall conclusion could have helped to bring together and re-affirm the contributors’ claims, this book successfully shows how critical, comparative and grounded empirical research at the city level allows us to gain necessary insight into the complex daily realities of urban Africa. In doing so, it represents an example of a productive avenue towards the development of novel theoretical approaches and concepts to the study of governance in contemporary African cities.


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.

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