The 30th and 31st of May saw mayors, developers, investors and other luminaries convene in Lagos for the two-day conference 'Future Cities: managing Africa's urban transformation', organised by The Economist.
Like many conferences, the event was best understood as a marketplace, with mayors of the likes of Lagos, Cape Town and Harare spruiking the investment opportunities available in their cities, and the private sector participants doing their best to present themselves as understanding and trustworthy partners. Many presentations were addressed not to the room of attentive and engaged listeners, but to the private negotiations to be held in the weeks and months to come, where foreshores will be sold off, utilities privatised, and whole new cities established, far from the eyes of the one constituency grossly underrepresented, the existing citizenries of urban Africa.
Building the new, ignoring the old
To be fair, some mayors could do far more than dress up existing shortfalls as future opportunities. Patricia De Lille, Executive Mayor of Cape Town, could speak of the expansion of the bus system, the new express bus lanes into the Mitchell's Plain and Khayelitsha settlements, integrated transport ticketing, the broadband rollout, and the reorganisation of the city's bureaucracy to tackle economic and social development simultaneously.
Many presentations were addressed not to the room of attentive and engaged listeners, but to the private negotiations to be held in the weeks and months to come, where foreshores will be sold off, utilities privatised, and whole new cities established, far from the eyes of the one constituency grossly underrepresented, the existing citizenries of urban Africa.
And Lagos State's Executive Governor, Babatunde Fashola, could talk of the investments being made by the city's seven new bus concessionaires, the effort being applied to commercialise water transport, and the attempts to introduce polycentricity into the city's planning, and systematic feedback collection into its governance.
One thing Fashola has been selling throughout his two terms is the use of public-private partnerships, though this was where some of the buyers were less than enthusiastic. Kola Karim of ShoreLine Energy International proposed that while the government framework for PPPs was well established, 'the problem is the people refuse to pay', making utility investors and operators like his company wary of many African consumer markets. Google's Ory Okolloh countered that users are willing to pay for utilities (in her case data) when they perceive the value in it. However because of the long term investment horizon associated with such infrastructure, Karim believed 'the government is always going to be the arbiter.' But was this anything more than a euphemism for making the taxpayer shoulder the risk?
More optimistic was David Frame, Managing Director of Eko Atlantic, a land reclamation project that will add a full nine square kilometres — 15 per cent of the area of Manhattan — and 250,000 residents to the wealthy districts of Victoria Island and Lekki on the southern coastal edge of Lagos. His claims for 'massive consumer demand' seem to be justified given that the first of three phases of land release to developers has sold out, though the prices for the greenfield sites seem unusually low by international standards. While physically the scale of ambition on display here is quite simply unparalleled on the continent, the modest financial targets suggest something of a lost revenue opportunity for Lagos State, causing one to wonder what this monstrous act of real estate speculation will do for the other 18 million people of the Lagos region.
A key part of the rationale for such projects was explained by Arnold Meyer, head of real estate Africa for the Renaissance Group, an investor in similar albeit smaller projects including Tatu City in Nairobi, Roma Park in Lusaka, and King City in Takoradi, Ghana. Existing cities are too messy, the ownership of land too uncertain: 'in Nairobi you'd spend two to three years working out whether what you have is a clean title or whether there are two or three other copies out there. The more we looked at Nairobi, the more it became clear that trying to reengineer the city would still leave it congested. What it needed was a satellite city, like Sandton in Johannesburg, Canary Wharf in London.'
By making it possible for a developer to carve up a new piece of land rather than assemble a site from existing small lots, 'you've taken two to three years out of the development timeframe'. He speaks with praise for the concept of the private municipality, where private tenants can create bylaws governing the entire urban development just as residents do on a smaller scale within a homeowners' association.
No laughing matter
All very good for the developer and its tenants, but is there no one to take an interest in the existing city and its citizens? Step up Parks Tau, Executive Mayor of Johannesburg, who, when posed the same mindless question the host put to all mayors — 'can you name the one big challenge, the one big opportunity … ' — immediately spoke of the divisive issue of land use and security of tenure in informal settlements, in which one in three South Africans reside, insisting that these be resolved as a priority rather than treated as a booby trap to avoid.
We are against slum clearance. We are against those that are coming with their bulldozers. Any country, any city engaged in destroying the assets of the poor people, we're going to ... put you on the bad list of those that are making the poor more poor.
Tau's comments had less in common with the concerns of the foregoing speakers than with firebrands like journalist Robert Neuwirth and UN-HABITAT's Alioune Badiane, whosse passionate presentations seemed to be tolerated in silence by most of the front row, though much enjoyed by the floor.
Neuwirth's well-rehearsed argument is that the informal sector must be understood as a normal and natural part of the wider urban economy, and that governments should collaborate with informal operators to improve their performance rather than seek to eradicate them. 'In Africa, it's the informal businesses that are the job generators; the formal businesses, while hugely important, are not generating jobs in the same numbers.'
He cited the example of Lagos' okada (motorcycle taxis) who all began wearing helmets within days of the regulation being introduced. For Neuwirth this proves that regulators and operators can work together in ways that are not destructive to industry and individual enterprise.
Neuwirth's statements were so diplomatically put that they risked resonating with Fashola's own comments, which followed immediately after. While 'the entrepreneurial ability of negociants is not up for debate,' the Governor asked, 'is it being used in the most effective way? Is it organised as to be efficient and productive?' Pertinent questions by themselves, but in reality Fashola has proven more ready to demolish informal trading areas seen as 'inefficient' than to collaborate with them to improve their productivity.
Surprisingly for an international bureaucrat, Alioune Badiane, Director of UN-HABITAT's Project Office, was far less diplomatic about it. 'UN-HABITAT is not against squatting. We are against slum clearance. We are against those that are coming with their bulldozers. I know that in this very country is a very bad policy of destroying assets. This is something that we are very against. And any country, any city engaged in destroying the assets of the poor people, we're going to blackmail you through our mechanisms — the United Nations general assembly and the voting mechanisms — we put you on the bad list of those that are making the poor more poor.'
It was a stroke of comic genius to put the self-important Mayor of Harare Muchadeyi Masunda on the stage with Badiane, and to allow them to volley back and forth on completely unrelated topics. Interleaved with Badiane's moral conviction was Masunda's shameless hawking of the housebuilding opportunities in the Zimbabwean capital, backed up with the assertion that, because he is also the Chairman of almost every local construction and materials company that would stand to benefit from a housing boom, he is ideally placed to facilitate the entry of foreign investment into the city's housing market.
To him goes the most insincere statement of the two days, that 'we don't have slums in Harare, thank God'. Indeed they don't, but only because in 2005 (well before Masunda's term) President Mugabe instigated the infamous Operation Murambatsvina, which oversaw the comprehensive demolition of every informal structure in the city.
And that is not awarded lightly, given Masunda's other tilt for the prize with the gem that Harare did not deserve its position as the Economist Intelligence Unit's world's least liveable city because 'four or five former ambassadors have decided to retire in Harare,' living 'a very comfortable life — the mansions that they occupy have a tennis court, a swimming pool — these are almost obligatory.' Clearly a tilt for the investor crowd, not a jot of awareness of the lives of ordinary Africans.
Masunda was right about one thing though, which is that cities cannot be judged at a distance. Only by visiting, spending time in a city, can anyone — a journalist, a policymaker, an investor — evaluate the strengths and the vulnerabilities of most African cities, and the commonality and diversity of problems and opportunities that exist, here as in other continents.