22 June, 2012

Governing Africa's Cities

by Hussein Solomon

The phenomenal growth of urbanization and the concomitant re-emergence of the city-state constitute a severe challenge to urban governance. Kevin Davie has recently pointed out that even by the most conservative estimates China will have 130 cities with more than one million inhabitants by 2025 – this is more than the United States and Europe combined. Of these, 90 are expected to have more than five million people, while 8 will have more than 10 million. In similar fashion, to ease urban “congestion”, Egypt is building 65 new cities.

The impact of urbanization will be particularly felt on the African state given its fragility. Africa’s urban population stood at a mere 15 percent in 1960. It then rose to 35 percent in 2006 and is expected to reach a staggering 60 percent by 2020. Unfortunately for many of these migrants from rural areas the promise of the bright lights of the city and the expectation of a higher standard of living is not met and sprawling informal settlements characterised by poor housing and even poorer infrastructure or “slums” is the result. Indeed, Sub-Saharan Africa has the dubious reputation of having the highest prevalence of slums of any region in the world. Small wonder then that Franklin Obeng-Odoom observed that the “...movement to cities in Africa is a journey from rural poverty to urban misery”.

Given the youthful profile of Africa’s population unmet expectations, frustration and urban misery might well result in urban and political violence. Consider here the fact that these very same dynamics propelled young Arabs on the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi. Small wonder then that from 2009, 77 percent of African governments tried to stem the tide of urbanization. In its most extreme form this was reflected in Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina (“remove the filth”) where the military was used to clear out squatter settlements and “restore order”. Of course, the fact that these informal settlements also happened to be the strongholds of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) also entered into their calculations. Such efforts to stem the tide of urbanization however are bound to fail for three inter-related reasons. First, African governments do not have the necessary financial resources to invest sufficiently in rural areas to make staying there an attractive option to would-be migrants. Second, they do not have the capabilities to physically stem the urbanization tide. Consider here the disastrous example of influx control in apartheid South Africa. Third and most importantly is the fact that the tide of demographics is against them. Given Africa’s youthful profile, the continent’s population is expected to continue to grow rapidly. By 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will live in Africa.

If one cannot stem the tide of urbanization, how then do we manage it? Some principles need to be laid out. First, local government functionaries need to be chosen on the basis of their professionalism and their competence. They cannot be appointed on the basis of their political connections. Second and a concomitant of the first our approach to urban governance cannot be dictated by ideological considerations, pragmatism, economic efficiency and social inclusion must govern our approach to governing Africa’s cities. In the interests of inclusion city councils need to form strategic alliances with non-state actors: both non-governmental organizations and the business community sharing the same geographic space. In this way all stakeholders buy into the vision for that municipality. In the process, democracy is deepened.

Governing Africa’s cities should have special resonance to South Africans for three reasons. First, 68.5 percent of South Africans are urbanized. Second, local government remains the Achilles’ heel of governance in South Africa. Third and more importantly, is the restive nature of our cities seen in the violent and recurrent service delivery protests every week in some part of our country.


  1. While I agree with your recommendations (while being sceptical about the possibilities of their implementation), I would like to correct the oft-repeated assertion that Operation Murambatsvina was anything to do with clearing out squatter settlements or restoring order: while primarily (and not incidentally as you infer) intended to further impoverish urban dwellers and thus reduce their capacity to engage in oppositional politics, the physical structures that were destroyed were by no means slums but were substantial constructions representing a massive investment by people in housing stock after colonial-era restrictions were relaxed (although not repealed) by a zanu-pf administration in 1996. As the chair of the Combined Harare Residents Association at the time, I was intimately involved with responses to the assault as well as carrying out evaluations of the extent and cost of the 'operation' and can assure you that it resulted in the creation of real slums (eg at supposed temporary resettlement or holding camps like Hopley and Caledonia Farms) that still exist 7 years later.

  2. Thank you for this comment, Mr. Davies. I think many would be interested in further insights based on your first-hand experience of this case, or the current state of affairs in Zimbabwe. Would you be interested in writing a blog entry for this blog?