Reflections on African cities: lessons from the SA Geographer’s conference

At the first Urban Geography session at the Society for South African Geographers conference, held last week, three fascinating papers addressed new forms of urban governance.

Two authors, Di Scott and Sue Parnell (where Chris Albertyn and Jo Beall were co-authors) looked at Durban in different ways while Evance Mwathunga reflected on Lilongwe.

In the case of Lilongwe, Mwathunga looked at the role of Doba Dobas, brokers of land deals, and their interface with government officials, employing spatial planning-type approaches to entrench and ultimately legitimise these plans. In practice, planners have to reconcile the contradictions between the visions of the formal state planners and those who experience the city in their everyday life, argued Mwathunga.

Scott drew on Soja’s notion of postmodernisation to investigate Durban’s transition from a modernist apartheid city to a post-apartheid city. Scott challenged the Northern understanding of the contemporary city by investigating the deconstruction and re-construction of the city of Durban in the context of rapid urbanisation, growing informality, increasing climate related risks and water scarcity. She argued that Durban reflects how the changes materialising in urban spaces reflect elements of a postmetropolis.

Parnell’s investigation into Durban also considered the spatial shifts taking place but sought rather to reflect on the emergent interface between traditional and modern settlement management systems.

Parnell highlighted how management changes are being renegotiated and mediated, while cautioning against claims that this reflects a uniquely African city dynamic. She argued that conventional city regional literature and new city regional ideas have glossed over the complexity of finding resolutions to resolve tensions between communities, urban managers, elected officials and traditional rural elites. These negotiations are essential in rapidly expanding African cities.

All three presentations highlighted changes in governance structures and processes that reflected new forms of city management and different voices and actors in the planning processes.

In the day’s final presentation, Gustav Visser argued that new attention was required in urban research. Visser argued that larger African cities and particularly the large South African metropolitan areas dominate research.

Urban geographers needed to actively enquire into what Visser referred to as “off the map spaces”. These enquiries were not limited to smaller towns and cities but also the “not-so-poor”, stressing a theoretical obligation to investigate beyond just the urban poor. Visser concluded by arguing that unless researchers consider these other urban dwellers there is little hope in developing theory explaining much of Southern urbanism.

Collectively these papers all shed light on new areas for research, new forms of emerging governance, and new opportunities in the Southern urbanism project. More importantly, the papers all reflected a recognition of distinct African urban trends, which speak volumes about the emerging dynamics of African cities.

The tools used to investigate these at times nuanced but at other times, “in your face” dynamics presents a necessity to consider new ways of understanding the intersections between what Parnell referred to as the interface between traditional and modernist management approaches. Context informs the traditional approaches and this adds a further layering to the emergent research needs.

Gareth Haysom is a researcher with the African Food Security Urban Network, a programme within the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Gareth is primarily interested in how residents of African cities engage with the food system and the associated opportunities and challenges.


Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply