Feature: Development and the removal of choice. Africa’s urbanization binge?

  • Feature Contributor: Alistair Mackay

AFRICA has joined the urbanisation binge that the world is on, and is catching up fast. Lagos is set to be one of the biggest cities in the world soon, rivalling the likes of Tokyo and Shanghai, and our very own Gauteng megacity (if that is still the strategy for Gauteng) also fills me with awe with its sheer scale and sprawl.

But you will note that I no longer live in Jozi. I discovered somewhere along the way of my life so far, that I need to be close to nature. I developed the habit of climbing Arthur’s Seat whenever I needed to be alone with my thoughts at varsity, and have never shaken that need. One of the reasons I chose to live in Cape Town is exactly that, too: I can smell the sea and see the mountains. Nature is all around me, and it keeps me calm.

And so it makes me profoundly sad to think that Africa, the last great untouched wilderness, is giving in to the greed and ugliness of industrialisation, modernisation and “development”. Without sounding too esoteric, I often wonder whether modernisation was the downfall of our species – that we were happiest when we were in touch with nature and each other in the Garden of Eden / Avatar’s Pandora / whatever metaphor you like. I think many “indigenous cultures” have more wisdom and fulfilment in them than any modern ones do, and that the modern world is full of the exact distractions that keep us from attaining true happiness, in the Buddhist sense. Having a great expanse of untouched nature is necessary in order to restore and replenish us when we feel overwhelmed. But aside from that hippy train of thought, the world would be a richer, more interesting place for everybody if it kept some of its diversity intact. Variety is the spice of life and all that. Even if you love the city, it is boring and monotonous to cover the whole world in it. Surely everyone should have the right to escape the modern world if they choose to?

But they don’t have that right.

Because everyone should also have the right to make of their lives what they will. And spreading opportunities requires spreading economic growth. Rural Africans have the same right to become doctors or physicists or actors as Americans or Japanese or Germans do. If we believe in equality of opportunity as an ideal for human society (and I don’t believe there is anyone left on earth who does not), then we necessitate getting all human societies to a certain level of wealth in order to offer people within them opportunities.

It is a strange thing to get our heads around: we pursue economic growth in order to give people opportunity and choice. And yet, in so doing, we obliterate their choice to opt out of industrialisation. It’s sadly ironic that such a high percentage of people in the already fast-paced and modern cities yearn to live in nature, while so many in the “developing world” dream of the opportunities of cities.

It is a crisis of geography, and freedom of movement. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if, instead of turning the entire planet into one generic city with opportunities for all no matter where you are, we interviewed every child or family and asked them the kind of life they would like to lead? Those who wanted modern lives could be placed in flourishing modern cities to pursue their dreams. And those who wanted to fish or farm or live humble lives in nature could be placed in the jungles, mountains or coasts that make them happy.

The injustice of unequal development would be removed, because it would no longer be an accident of geography, but an individual choice. And those “undeveloped” regions of the world could be proud of all the wonder that is in them, that today, they seem so keen to forget.