The Global Urbanist

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The mega-regions of Africa in global perspective: an interview with Edgar Pieterse

On the occasion of the World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro, Kerwin Datu speaks with Professor Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, on retheorising the African city, the politics of Africa's mega-regions, and the myths that constrain urban policy on the continent.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Abidjan, Cairo, Addis Ababa, Accra, Nairobi, Maputo, Lagos, Johannesburg

Topics: National governance, Youth and education, Architecture and urban design, The global urban agenda, Development, Citizenship and migration

Kerwin Datu: This is a question to loosen up our thinking: If you take off your urbanist's hat and think simply as a person or as an African if you wish, what do you think are the big steps that Africa needs to take as a whole? By this I mean, what do you say to your mates when you're down at the pub?

Edgar Pieterse: I suppose three things: better leaders; get rid of the current bunch or at least get them to feel a lot more accountable to their electorate. Sort out public transport. And sort out early childhood development, pre-primary school infrastructure because it doesn't happen in most places, and without it a lot that we try to do in developmental terms becomes very hard. A lot has been messed up quite badly because we don't have the infrastructure to really engage young minds in their formative years between two and five.

Apart from the obvious things like water and sanitation, those are for me the three biggest steps we could take to dramatically improve things.

KD: Early childhood development is not something we often hear much about. How high on the agenda is it amongst African leaders at the moment?

EP: It's not anywhere. What is on the agenda is primary school enrolment because it's a Millennium Development Goal, and there has been a lot of effort to get girls into primary school, which is a good thing and an important advance. In terms of shifting the truncated opportunities for young people in Africa, we have to intervene early. It's not my area of direct engagement either but I don't come across anything that indicates it's on the agenda at all.

KD: Could the MDGs have included it as well?

EP: I think it would have been good to at least put it on the agenda; the MDGs could have helped by making it a thematic that governments need to report on.

KD: Yesterday [during the ACC event African Urban Futures] you mentioned trying to "retheorise the nature of African cities". You also stressed the word "applied" — applied research — in your opening statements. If it's applied research, then what kinds of theories are we talking about? What kinds of new theories do African cities need? And if it's more about policy than theory, then what role do purely theoretical models have to play in creating policy for cities right now?

EP: We're working off such a low base in terms of our knowledge about African cities, we need to be working on multiple tracks at the same time, then see how and on what occasions we can intersect these tracks. But these tracks also need to be separate for good reasons.

We do need better, more focused, sharper applied research that brings together both technical innovation with a really grounded understanding about everyday practices of the urban poor whom the applied innovations would be for.

It is a myth to think you can innovate in a technical urban development field in Africa without a direct engagement with the people who are meant to benefit from it.

So, yes, it's about technical and scientific breakthroughs, but it is also about an approach to that kind of research that is embedded in communities, and I think that we still have a long way to go.

Then there's a separate issue that a lot of the technical work has a series of assumptions about what a good or a functioning or a productive African city looks like, and those are embedded in a number of theoretical ideas about urban life, about what cities are, what they are for.

You have to have a theoretical canon of ideas about urban life that emerges from the real African city, as opposed to a series of assumptions about urbanism that comes from Western theory — that which emerged through the industrial revolution and really came into its own in the early part of the twentieth century in relation to Paris and London and so on. Those theories are so deeply embedded in assumptions about what a city is, how it should work and what it's for, that most of the applied fields take that for granted.

So the idea of fresh theoretical work is to really bring those assumptions into the light, show them up to be assumptions, to not necessarily be universal, and show that we can begin to imagine the urban and urban life in completely different terms.

But that has to be in a way a pure thought experiment. You can't be too obsessed with having to be relevant or applied because then you lose the necessary philosophical purity that's required to produce new theory.

However if it remains only theory and isn't at some point an articulation of the imperatives of everyday life, then that will impoverish the theoretical ideas. So it's not a mechanical thing that you need new theory and then you can do more applied things, it's a much more dynamic simultaneous thing, where the connections between applied and theoretical aren't always obvious but where, by moving across these different knowledge projects you can begin to see connections, and that for me is an approach that is required that I don't really see in evidence in many African universities.

KD: When I thought about this question I thought of Southeast Asia which is what I know the most, and Terry McGee's idea about "desakota" [conurbations comprising densely populated rural interstices in rice-growing regions] which became a larger idea about mega-regions, thus a theoretical model that's produced policies and economic outcomes.

EP: I have very little doubt that good theory that matures, fairly quickly demonstrates policy application. but I think we don't get to good theory by trying to answer policy questions. So for me, when I talk about urban theory what I'm talking about is, can we get to the specificity of how the urban gets imagined and lived by the majority of Africans.

KD: Do you have any specific example?

EP: The work of AbdouMaliq Simone comes closest to capturing some of that — that in the very act of survival, in the absence of a range of urban infrastructures, people create a series of networks, relationships and ways of navigating the city that we don't have a language for.

If we can get a fine-grained understanding of how people in real terms in actual places navigate and practice the city in usually contradictory ways, which doens't coincide with any neat labels or categories, then we can begin to produce a new language, necessarily theoretical, which can get us closer to understanding what is really going on.

This is both in terms of phenomenology — how the city is lived and experienced, and creating a language for that — but also the nature of space and how space works in African cities. I think that will give us clues about what the right questions are in the more applied research.

It works the other way around as well. For example a colleague of mine has just finished a big project where they mapped the formal and informal sanitation system in Nairobi, explicitly to inform a new waste strategy.

But by getting an understanding of how the informal side actually works, they had to resort to ideas from complexity theories to capture the intensity of relationships.

That's his theoretical choice which is absolutely fine, but the point is it can work both ways. You can get interesting theoretical propositions from trying to make sense of very empirical things.

KD: Yesterday David Simon [Professor in Development Geography, Royal Holloway] mentioned a couple of African mega-regions, Maputo-Gauteng and Lagos-Accra-Abidjan, and perhaps we can also talk about Nairobi-Addis Ababa. As economic regions that outstrip some of the countries they pass through or that will increasingly do so, do these mega-regions play a role in African politics generally, that is, the relations between nations?

EP: This is the big political economy issue to watch over the next ten-to-fifteen years, especially in a context where the regional bodies like ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] and SADC [Southern African Development Community] are just pretty useless.

They make all kinds of agreements but they just can't pull anything through, because they're too caught up in the politics of nation-states. Mugabe in the Southern African region is a good case. Everything is always in stalemate; there are only very modest incremental movements.

But the investment imperatives around these regions — money, power, prestige — will really raise the pressure on national and regional bodies to find a political mechanism to facilitate investment coordination at these regional scales. And when that happens you'll very quickly get into the dilemma of political coordination. So quasi-regional governance mechanisms is going to be the big search over the next ten years.

Gauteng is probably the most advanced in that regard, having set up the think tank the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, to begin to understand this policy problematic, to collect the data at the regional scale, and to influence long term infrastructure planning at that scale. But they've got no political support; they fall between the provincial government and the metropolitan authorities and they're looked at with quite a bit of suspicion by the national state.

But because there are so many other imperatives for getting things right at that scale, since these will be the main economic hubs of the continent, and the main gateways in terms of global economic processes, there will have to be some political response to coordinate at this scale.

So I think it's going to be very contested, because even in South Africa, we've got a long tradition of decentralised government, municipal government and so on, people don't like this idea, they really find it …

KD: You're talking about populations or political leaders?

EP: No, the political leaders. I'm talking about establishing the political frameworks to facilitate governance on the most important issues at these scales. I think it's going to be an amazingly dynamic space and I think it's going to be driven by the metropolitan and city governments, although where it's going to go and what the outcomes will be I have no idea.

The Cairo region is also very interesting because they're quite far advanced in some regional planning frameworks, from driving long term infrastructure investment coordination to issues like economic zones. The Gauteng and the Cairo cases are more advanced than the West African ones. I can't speculate what the political expression of these regions will be, and it's not taken seriously at the moment, but it will become very important.

KD: Mega-regions in Asia have a role to play in the international political economy already, China's regions especially but also the regions of India which play a role in global enterprise and innovation. Are any of the African mega-regions playing a role internationally at the moment? And if they aren't, is that an admission that they're not effectual regions?

EP: Well I wouldn't say in the African case that they are effectual regions. We're seeing the emergence of this discourse and this debate but it has some ways to go before it will have any kind of policy or political traction and there certainly aren't enough mechanisms in place to facilitate sufficient coordination between the local actors in these regions so as to articulate themselves at a global or any other scale. But it will come, it's a matter of time.

In the Cape Town region, they've been participating actively in a global body that looks at low carbon regions in the world; they're drawing down global thinking on issues like regional policy and environmental sustainability. I think you wil see more of that.

Of course it will work both ways; these global bodies that bring city regions together will all be looking to get membership from Africa. I think there will be an increasing courting of these emerging African regions into these global forums.

KD: What about support from the international development establishment — Bretton Woods, USAID, etc.?

EP: They would support the city region stuff but in a very narrow way. For them it's really about the economic agglomeration argument; it's part of their infrastructure lending portfolios. They're going to ask, what's the regional significance of the loan we're going to give you, and so on. Would they make it a conditionality of these loans? I don't know, but I know they'll be punting this agenda a lot more.

The World Bank's report that came out last year [World Development Report 2009: reshaping economic geography) that highlighted urban issues also comes to this idea. UN-HABITAT is pushing it very aggressively. The OECD of course have been working on regional stuff for a while; they did the territorial review of the Cape Town region two years ago and they're busy doing one on Gauteng. So it's on the OECD's radar.

The momentum is certainly building, but I think that in the African case the politics around this is going to be a lot more messy than in other places and I'm not sure these agencies will have an appetite for that. They'll push at it, and they'll mainly make it a technical matter related to economic development policy and infrastructure investment, but they won't really go beyond that.

KD: Yesterday after you left [before the end of the event] there was a Zambian man who demanded to know at what point you draw the line around cities and say enough is enough, and prevent the growth of cities so that rural land is preserved, "so that Africans can go back to doing what Africans know best, which is farming" — livestock, pastures, grain crops. How would you respond to someone making that claim in your presence?

EP: … if I was still there? I would simply chuckle. No, the first thing I would say is that I completely understand and respect the sentiment, a hundred and ten percent, and I do think that a refocus on a rescaled agricultural strategy for Africa's completely relevant and appropriate and an important thing to do. But to suggest that somehow Africans are innately a farming people and this is what we should focus on I would take great issue with.

At a more pragmatic level I would point out that in terms of the structure of all economies, and where Africa is certainly heading, agriculture accounts for less and less of both GDP and labour absorption in all economies.

And given the political economy of the agricultural sector, totally dominated by multinationals, and on a capital intensive path, the prospect of labour intensive, low-tech, large scale smallholder farming is a romantic idea, because the vested interests in these areas will buy up the land, as they've already bought all the patents, and they will reorganise and organise those sectors to maximise profit in the crudest of ways, and that leaves very very little room for African governments to imagine and implement an agricultural strategy in the way that this person articulated. That's the hard political economy end of it.

The other end of it is that the evidence is now pretty clear that the way you make rural economies succeed both to diversify off an agricultural base into other sectors and to improve quality of life there is to facilitate the connections between urban and rural areas; having a territorial strategy that speaks to what you want your rural areas to do and what their functions are, what you want your urban areas to do and their functions, and how you will facilitate the connections between them.

For me, we're beyond the point of an urban and rural strategy, we're talking about a territorial spatial strategy that is about trying to understand what are the ways in which you optimise your territorial dynamic, with the assumption that demographic pressures will mean people move all the time, and if there's one thing we can essentialise about Africa it is that people have always moved, and that they will continue to always move over time.

So, for those reasons, I think that even though I can respect the sentiment of where the question is coming from, the pragmatics of it I think is misplaced.

Agriculture is a very good example where a regional policy is needed. You've got to think about increasing climate variability, what the possibilities and options for land use are, and that's got to be a conversation across water catchment areas, across all kinds of localised boundaries.

Some of the NEPAD [The New Partnership for Africa's Development] work in this area goes in that direction, but it's been tripped up around this whole second green revolution discourse, which I'm not sure is that helpful to really come to grips with what our rural land use strategy should be.

KD: You said [yesterday] that leaders are in denial. Are parts of the population in denial?

EP: No, I don't think so. To be fair I do think that there is a deep spiritual connection to the land and the idea of engaging directly with the land to produce something; I don't deny that as a cultural fact. But the point is I see that coexisting with a global urban sensibility as well, people have both urban consumer aspirations and practices and rural sensibilities.

When I talk about political denial it's more to say that governments portray this connection with the land as the sum total of African identities and economic aspirations and therefore you've gotta stem migration to cities, you've gotta put all your eggs into agricultural revitalisation policies, and you've gotta do your damnedest to make that work before we consider other things, and that is just wrong-headed.

I find it a deliberately manipulative argument, because these elites are already vested in these urban economies, and it serves their interests to say let's leave all of that alone and let's focus on the rural revolution.

KD: Scholars of African cities like to highlight the difference of conditions across African cities, but you also say that leaders have a hard time getting past symbolic arguments to talk about hard issues. Just how important is it to bear in mind the differences?

The reason I ask is because in Europe, where there are dozens of countries and hundreds of cities, scholars who are talking about the problems of European cities don't keep trying to emphasise the differences between them; they just talk about the hard issues. Is there a contradiction between wanting to highlight difference and wanting to talk about common problems?

EP: I would contest your view on the European literature a little bit. Especially in the last while, the dominant urban policy discussion has been urban specificity in the context of this broader discussion on cultural revitalisation as the key driver for urban renewal and growth. Everybody talks up their specificity and links it into heritage arguments to drive this growth and renewal.

So I think that's been a big emphasis, as well as coming to terms with social exclusion in some of these cities, what the drivers are in different European cities. The German cities are very different to the French ones, which are in turn very different to the English ones.

Of course there has been a very strong discourse on the European cities and their commonalities because of the European Union infrastructure on these questions. They've got the European Spatial Development Perspective which has been at pains to understand the connections between these cities and the city regions within the European context, but also to create a shared understanding of what the common problems are.

I think that effort has been very powerful in shifting attention to urban policy, raising the power of cities within the European Union context, and pushing the metropolitan agenda. Metropolitan government is really difficult to achieve in most places.

There are particular reasons why there's a strong European cities discourse, but I think you've got both commonality and specificity. Obviously for African cities it's the same; we trade on this mythology that you can talk about African cities in general, because of course there are common problems.

The most visceral of those are the prevalence of slums and informal areas, and the absence of formal jobs. Those characterise almost all African cities as the dominant condition — with important exceptions in South Africa and in parts of North Africa — but for most of sub-Saharan Africa that's a very common story.

Even though you've got different colonial precedents the current manifestation is actually very similar, in terms of the role of the absence of effective local governance, really poor fiscal systems, the inability to think about infrastructure in a sufficiently holistic way that you can facilitate cross-subsidisation between groups, and so on. All of these things are pretty generic across most African cities.

At the same time, to think that, even though we know what the headline problems are and what the headline policy responses may be, you can translate that into interventions without understanding the specificity of a place is the biggest error you can make.

So that's the argument, to recognise the similarities, but to understand that you can't simply implement policy frameworks without making the effort to understand the particularity of the place.

KD: Does the policy framework in the EU dampen understanding of those differences, and would regional integration in Africa dampen understanding of those differences as well?

EP: I don't know enough about the European case to pretend that I can give an answer. In places where regions are operational, they still really struggle to suppress internal diversity and heterogeneity. When you go up a scale in that way, you end up talking about certain things and you stop talking about other things, and when you go down a scale, you get so engrossed in local dynamics and specificities, you lose focus on the larger dynamic.

I think regional policy that loses sight of local articulations fails; they run out of political steam, run out of legitimacy. I don't think it's a necessary consequence of a regional approach.

One of the interesting things we're grappling with in the South African case is that we've gone the metropolitan route, and we've really messed up at the neighbourhood scale. There are no mechanisms for political enrolment and citizen involvement and ownership at that scale. We've been able to do redistribution well across the metropolitan scale, but we've lost the capacity for enrolment at the neighbourhood/ward level.

If we're now going to the city-region scale which is even larger than the metropolitan scale, if we do that without remedying this, I just don't see how it will stick, because there's a lot of resistance bubbling up precisely because of this disconnect.

The submetropolitanisation and the suprametropolitanisation are required at the same time, and that is missing from a lot of the regional discussions. People only focus on the regional questions, but not what the kind of compensatory mechanisms are to ensure that at the smaller local scale, people have a meaningful entry point to be part of governance.

KD: One of the things that the EU fights with heavily is the entire multicultural debate. How is that going to play itself out in Africa? I'm not sure how to ask this exactly, but how ready are African cities for the consequences of multicultural regions?

EP: Well of course, African cities are multicultural regions already, just look at the 1970s where there was a huge expulsion of Ivoirians, Ghanaians, etc. from Nigeria. Something like three million people were given a month to leave the country, which means that before that edict was passed by the military government at the time, there were more than three million other Africans living in the broader Lagos region already.

Migration is so fundamental to the transnational livelihood practices of Africans, particulatly poor Africans; this is very much a given condition.

In most places, if you don't make multiculturalism an overt policy ambition or agenda, people have a way of living together, but that doesn't mean it's cosy. When there is violence, when there are conflicts, when there are cirses emerging, then all of the latent prejudices and xenophobia immediately surface, and you see visceral expressions of that in all major cities in Africa.

Because we don't have anything by way of multicultural governance mechanisms compared to the European context, there's just a copresence of these populations in a really intense way that 's completely unregulated, or totally self regulated within civil society.

Multiculturalism isn't something that's going to come, it's already there, it's already a part of African life. Are we going to have multicultural policy? I don't think so. I think as long as the basic needs agenda remains as profound as it is, things like that will always be seen as a nice-to-have and there won't be any formal political or policy response.

Are we going to see periodic episodes of intense violence and conflict?Absolutely; if you have such levels of poverty and inequality and competition over resources then of course these cultural differences will be mobilised, but at the same time, the remarkable thing is that people do co-exist, they have for ages, so there's just a whole set of things we can't understand and we simply can't explain in the same way that European multiculturalism would help us think about the issue.

KD: Thinking about the long term history, what about the long term history of African urbanism? Again, European cities are very heavily marked by the history of urbanism itself in their cities. Asian cities not so much, they tend to rebuild in the same place, but the African urban systems tended to be completely inverted over the last few centuries by trade and then by colonialism.

Does the history of African urbanism, the history of those systems, have any relevance to how cities are operating today, do they have anything to teach us, do they have any relevance to the people, do they connect to theory or to policy still?

EP: One way that I would answer your question is that for me if any student of urbanism anywhere in Africa qualifies with a degree and has not been exposed to a critical engagement with that long term history of African urbanism, that'd be a pretty serious omission.

And of course, the truth is at the moment they're not, it's not a part of curriculum, or when it is it's in this sort of nostalgic, pan-African mode, you know, the first this was in Africa, the first that was in Africa, that kind of revisionist history, and I think that's equally unhelpful.

But I do think anybody who gets an urban training anywhere who doesn't get grounded in the longitudinal history of urban systems is not very well trained. It has to be a fundamental part of what we teach in all of our universities in Africa. That's the one answer to your question.

The more cynical side of me would say that, if I put on the hat of a tactician, thinking about how you move the urban argument forward in Africa, I think we should drum up this invented history about the glories of African urban civilisations as a way of strking a chord with elites and politicians who are looking for levers to show that we are equal and equally significant partners in the global conversation. We've got our own civilisation up our sleeve, etc., etc. That speaks to their vanity and it speaks to their symbolic politics, so as a technician I would have no qualms about mobilising it.

The project in Timbuktu, the Mali library that's been built there where they've restored the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu in a beautiful bespoke new building, a very interesting architectural project, sensitively done, focused on an educational thrust and so on, I think those things are immensely important. When Thabo Mbeki latched onto that as part of the African renaissance idea, I was very happy, I thought it was a great way of giving expression to this pan-African ideology. So by all means let's mine it, but let's treat it seriously as well.

KD: What about real policy?

EP: In terms of real policy, I don't know. I think for the conversation about landscape, about architecture, about how we build, about what we build with, about how we respond to climatic condition and all of those things, the ancient history of urban life is an important resource. I do think that for a lot of young students it would be a very exciting way to encourage them to think more broadly and in a more grounded way about what would be a realistic and appropriate architectural response, landscape response in an African setting.

Real policy I would find a little bit of a stretch, but of course there's the heritage side, how you use heritage and history for doing certain kinds of cultural urban renewal, there's a place for that, and certainly that's what UNESCO would punt and that's what they do, but I would be much more interested in how we innovate around building the future African city, and seeing how we can weave some of those threads through that.


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