Africa and urbanisation: Re-imagining Africa’s realities


A bird's eye view of part of Khayelitsha, South Africa's second largest township.

Bird’s eye view of part of Khayelitsha, South Africa’s second largest township.

Recently the Daily Maverick has published a number of pieces speaking to some of the consequences of urbanisation that often go overlooked by the public. In particular, two articles have risen key insights about service delivery and access in the face of large-scale urbanisation.

In the article “Analysis: Africa’s cities, crying out for re-imagination” van der Merwe explains how widespread urbanisation on the continent has lead to a huge shortage of housing services and delivery. Some negative consequences of this massive migration to cities are the lack of land, infrastructure, and governmental ability to provide service delivery. These problems require immediate attention considering 40 percent of the continent is already urbanised. As the author explains:

“Last week, during the budget debates, Human Settlements minister Lindiwe Sisulu admitted that the delivery of housing in all South African provinces was a massive problem and that it had “dropped drastically”. As Rebecca Davis wrote, “The problem, in crude terms, is that too many people are moving to South African cities, and there isn’t enough land available for them. ‘We are ill-equipped to deal with this rate of urbanisation”, Sisulu said, though she promised 1,5 million homes over the next five years.’”

But, say some academics, migration is not the primary problem. Cities are actually expanding from within – and even without the influence of migration, the rate of urbanisation across the whole of Africa is posing a significant challenge to policy makers, governments and researchers alike. And it’s not only a South African problem. Urbanisation in Africa is one of the fastest-growing fields of study, and stakeholders are working overtime to try to build a critical mass of workable knowledge to combat inequality in the continent’s cities.

To put the current situation in perspective, the middle-class population across Africa’s cities is expected to double by 2050 and the population of informal dwellers to treble. Only three percent of urban dwellers are eligible for a mortgage and only 28 percent have ‘stable’ jobs (including minimum wage employees). Sixty-three percent are in ‘vulnerable’ jobs, i.e. sources of income they could lose at any time. The implication is therefore that urban planners have to build infrastructure that is desperately needed, but that might fall apart at any time because tax bases might not be maintained.

Professor Sue Parnell of the African Centre for Cities (ACC) points out that there is a critical lack of understanding of African economics. “We don’t understand the informal sector, so we stereotype,” she says. “We don’t understand Africa’s urban labour market very well.” There is also a tendency to inflate increases in wealth, because it is coming off such a low base, and there is a lack of knowledge about where to invest, she says.

One of the major challenges facing African urbanisation today is an anti-urban bias, believes Parnell. “The population may be 50/50, but 90 percent of the funding will go to rural development,” she says. “This speaks of a definite anti-urban bias.” This, too, means that poverty and inequality in cities are real, significant problems. However, she points out, there are also other factors at play, such as a belief that there is more internal expertise on agriculture, for example; or there may be political factors – such as a desire amongst donors not to create more economic competition by developing African urban interests. However, she points out, through the painstaking work of scholars and academics, attitudes and thought patterns are slowly changing.”

In the second article “Transforming urban realities: the need for responsive strategies” Adone Kitching of Islandla refers to the recent Lwandle protest and process, and calls for a re-imagination of housing in urban areas. Informal settlement upgrading could go a long ways in creating a more accessible city while ensuring basic human rights for many more of its inhabitants. While civil society and nonprofits have witnessed some successes in informal settlement upgrading, the issue needs much more attention within the government and public policy agenda. For as she explains, not only does upgrading entail the building of houses, but also requires creating a livable community; a phenomenon that will take much more effort and coordination from a number of actors.

Kitching speaks about the Breaking New Ground policy, which details a comprehensive commitment from the government to provide better facilities and houses to townships. She explains:

Breaking New Ground was instrumental in highlighting the value of incremental in situ informal settlement upgrading as a strategy for building safe and adequate living environments. In a recent piece in the Daily Maverick, Lauren Royston and Stuart Wilson from SERI note that informal settlement upgrading is essential for providing affordable housing at scale. The upgrading approach also recognises the need for both physical and social infrastructure. In addition to the provision of sufficient shelter and access to basic services and amenities, upgrading interventions emphasise the need for building the capacities of urban communities.

If South Africa faces, as the Minister suggests, “alarming” rates of urbanisation, then informal settlement upgrading offers a viable strategy for dealing with rapid growth and transformation. Such an approach can ensure that the basic needs of millions of urbanites are met, and that residents are empowered to engage with the state as equal partners in development.

It is then, firstly, essential that the state recognises the voices of the urban poor. Secondly, it must create platforms for meaningful community participation, and become a structure that empowers residents by building their capability to improve their own living conditions. For communities to realise their role as active and equal partners in development, the state will also have to invest significant effort in building parks, recreational facilities, schools and clinics.

The current state of affairs suggests that there is a mismatch between the state’s proposed strategies for transformation and the reality faced in South African cities today. Rapid population growth coupled with housing backlogs and dwindling delivery rates make it clear that the road ahead will not be an easy one. But the challenge of human settlements can be met through responsive approaches such as in situ informal settlement upgrading, and through collaborative processes that draw on the skills of multiple partners.

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What both these articles have pointed out is the huge shortage of housing services in the face of ever-increasing urbanisation trends. Certainly housing rights and property ownership for the urban poor is a critical issue; not only for providing access to infrastructure for all, but also for ensuring that basic human rights are met. Considering that development has not been occurring at the same rate of urbanisation for most African cities, this issue requires not only support from multiple stakeholders but also innovative solutions. Are governmental policies adequate when addressing inequality and social exclusion for affected settlements?

Also read:

Kitching, A. (2014, 08 04). Transforming urban realities: the need for responsive strategies. Retrieved 08 17, 2014, from Daily Maverick:

van der Merwe, M. (2014, 07 29). Analysis: Africa’s cities, crying out for re-imagination . Retrieved 08 17, 2014, from Daily Maverick: