Friday, 24 March 2017

Globalisation and Dislocation: The Marginal, Youthful Majorities of Urban Africa

Urban growth has exploded in African cities. While the national levels of urbanisation in Africa are relatively low in comparison to the rest of the world, city growth rates in Africa are the highest in the world. The vast majority of African cities are characterised by poverty, inequality and extensive slums and informal settlements which sprawl outward from the inner cities to the peripheries. These ‘peripheral’ low income and informal settlements, as well as inner city slums, host the marginalised majorities of African cities. On average, 62 per cent of Africans live in slums. According to the Global Urban Indicators Database[i], in East, Central and West Africa, urban slum populations can be well over 80 per cent. In Southern Africa it is generally lower - at around 20-30 per cent in the case of South African cities, but with the exception of the urban populations of both Angola and Mozambique which are constituted of around 80 per cent slums.

The rapid growth of African cities is by and large occurring in slums and informal settlements, as African cities are inadequately prepared for what this African wave of urbanisation has ‘landed’ upon its urban shores. It is a movement of gargantuan proportions; a tsunami of people who seek out urban life in order to escape conflict and natural disasters such as floods and drought,  as well as people seeking out opportunities for employment, trade, skills development and improved access to services. As deeply fraught with problems as African cities are, they offer disproportionately better levels of access to services than most rural municipalities are capable of. Moreover, the city hosts potentials that give hope to Africans. In the cities opportunities exist purely because of their high urban populations; a large market exists and these needs have to be met, whether it involves the provision of produce, goods or services. There is always a niche to fill in the city.

UN-Habitat’s “State of the World Cities Report 2010/11: The Urban Divide”, drew attention to the global prevalence of the ‘urban divide’ within cities; whether ethnic, religious, wealth and class driven, or otherwise, the fragmentation of urban society and increased potential for conflict and contestation – both overt and covert – results in the urban socio-political fabric. The vastly sprawled cities of Africa are fuelled by informal expansion of slums and informal settlements towards the peripheries; as they absorb the lion’s share of the growth of these cities.

The large majority of urban Africans are employed in the informal sector, and acquire land and housing through informal and customary arrangements, often settling on land that is uninhabitable; in low lying coastal, estuarine and wetland systems for example; which are vulnerable to flooding from riparian systems (examples of this can be found in Central Africa, where the vast majority of cities are located within the flood plains of the vast river systems such as the Congo River that dominate the regions geography). Moreover, low-lying coastal settlements are particularly vulnerable to storm surges, coastal erosion and sea-level rise. In West Africa, it has been estimated that up to 75 000 people may perish in a single storm surge event in densely populated coastal informal settlements. If one considers the effects of the recent ‘super-storm’ on New York – a city that has arguably one of the best disaster preparedness and response capabilities – the gravity of the vulnerability of these dislocated  and marginal urban settlements becomes apparent.

Yet these ‘forgotten zones’ have severe and entrenched social vulnerabilities, which although not as evident and direct as natural disasters, constitute a deeper malignance; a turbulence that ignored, is likely to grow and build amongst the populous youth of the continent, until it erupts into social disorder, or finds focus and becomes a driving force for change. There is nothing romantic about the conditions under which the peripherals and the marginal’s live. They are cut off from opportunities to grow and develop at the same pace as the urban elites and they do not participate in the world of the wealthy and globalised except as labourers and menial workers. The peripheral slums and informal settlements of African cities often host the most turbulent and potentially destructive elements of African urban society, as they exist largely outside of formal systems of urban management and governance, often developing their own systems of regulation and control. Consequently, they are referred to as “autonomous zones”; self governing zones that are constituted by customary, consensus and ad-hoc arrangements over self-governance. They can also be highly organised, and well-regulated, in cooperation with local authorities in the city, and can vary considerably in age of settlement (such as the oldest ‘musseques’ in Luanda).

Informality does not automatically mean disorder; informal systems largely ensure the day to day survival of African urban societies, and they must be credited in that sense. However, where the rules break down, the outcomes can be devastating. This is especially the case when urban youth disengage entirely from traditional and cultural identities, and develop complex multi-layered identities that assimilate trans-national identities – whether religious, as in the case of transnational Christianity and Islam, or as manifested in the clothing, music and values of youth gangs in Africa. All over Africa, youth gangs display a keenness for Western values and clothing, adopting old-school gangster hip-hop as a proxy ‘voice’ for their social condition and most often the music of rap artists such as Tupac Shakur;  whose articulation of the social condition of marginalised urban dwellers in the United States of America has found global appeal in ghettoes all over the world; from the USA to Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia and the Far East. To youthful RUF rebels in Sierra Leone, Tupac’s influence took on cult-like proportions, who scrawled lyrics across their vehicles and donned Tupac paraphernalia before going into battle, and blaring his music during breaks in the fighting[ii].

This transnational adoption of artistic expression and cultural narratives is not new in Africa. African jazz of the 1950s was already appropriating and remaking American sub-culture, and especially into African urban contexts. A glance through drum magazine hints at this past in the South African ghettoes of Sophiatown; which was well known for both its nightlife and its American styled gangsters. What is new, however, is that while there is still an appropriation of Western sub-culture at work in the popular culture of African urban youth, there is also a significant dislocation unfolding; resulting from the breakdown of long-standing community, extended family and nuclear family structures that has accompanied the rapid growth of cities in Africa.

In a sense, there is a vacuum of values, and it is being filled with what the youth can grasp hold and make sense of in a rapidly changing global world, and a stagnant local condition. That is, they are making it up as they go along, and are not nearly as coordinated and organised, in a broader sense, to find appropriate representation within governance; either at municipal, city or national levels. They are cut off, and make up their own reality in the absence of any avenues for growth within the city. They cease to be participants in the city proper, and lapse into self-generated modes of survival and self-governance. Where conflict and war has ravaged African countries, they have often ravaged the youth with them. Child soldiers, in particular, are indoctrinated into destructive and anti-social modes of behaviour, often from a young age. Re-entering post conflict society is very difficult for them, whether as children or adults, and they are rendered fundamentally marginal as a result.

The malaise and decay of the marginal can take on particularly disturbing forms where the African ‘youth bulge’ proliferates. In Central Africa, around 40 per cent of the population are under the age of 15, while only about three per cent of the population are over the age of 65. With majority populations under the age of 35, and the proliferation of youth unemployment and lack of access to opportunities, youth are left with two choices; either to migrate, or to embed oneself within their dysfunctional socio-economic contexts and eke out a living from opportunities that are opened up through multi-layered networks of kinship, community, religious networks and so forth; in order to access opportunities in the informal sector. Partial employment, partial skills development and partial survival are the outcomes of existing within informal systems, where exploitation is rife, and where international criminal networks have taken hold in order to facilitate the trafficking of human beings, drugs, contraband and so forth. Curiously, the Somali extremist group “El-Shabaab” translates into “the boys”, indicating the youthful nature of this identity transition and generational break from previous generations and traditional (often ethnic) identities.

Urban development responses in Africa largely do not cater for the marginal ‘majorities’. They cater for the wealthy urban dwellers, who increasingly hive themselves off from the realities of their cities within gentrified enclaves that emulate the ‘world class cities’ to which their occupants aspire. However, that aspiration is not limited to the wealth. As De Boeck points out in “The Modern Titanic: Urban Planning and Everyday Life in Kinshasa” even the displaced and marginal poor aspire to the grand visions of urban life that are enjoyed in ‘world class’ cities in the developed world. The aspiration is to be ‘just like them’. 

Yet the transition towards this new urban African reality is fraught with fragmented and often dysfunctional movements within the process of urbanisation that is unfolding in African cities. The skewed and exclusive growth and development patterns that are unfolding within African cities are producing, on its fringes; a marginal majority that remains largely ignored and un-included in the ‘great period of African economic growth’ that is unfolding in spite of the financial crisis. Perhaps, their centrality will ultimately come to the centre of life in urban Africa, one way or another, and broader social change will come about, but until then, the majority remain behind a looking glass, for the privileged to peer at and consider for a while, until its discomfort, it’s jilting, forces it back out of view, and into invisibility, scattered on the peripheries.

***Note: This piece was originally written in December 2012, was lost and consequently recovered. Nonetheless it remains a relevant perspective.


[i] Global Urban Indicators (GUI) (2009). Global Urban Indicators – Selected Statistics: Monitoring the Habitat Agenda and the Millennium Development Goals, Global Urban Observatory, November 2009.
[ii] Source: Sommers, M. (2003). “Urbanization, War and Africa’s Youth at Risk. Towards Understanding and Addressing Future Challenges”, Basic Education and Policy Support (BEPS), United States Agency for International Development.

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