Slum Urbanism in Africa

by Edgar Pieterse

Edgar Pieterse (South Africa, born 1968) is holder of the NRF South African Research Chair in urban policy. He directs the African Centre for Cities and is professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics, both at the University of Cape Town. In 2008 he wrote City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development.

It is difficult to look across the next forty years and not be haunted by the past forty. According to the recent African Futures 2050 study, “Over the entire half-century [1960–2010], Eastern Africa gained only about $150 per capita and Western Africa about $130 per capita, while [annual] GDP per capita in Central Africa has remained almost unchanged since 1960.” This is an astonishing accomplishment of economic, political, and social failure. Looking ahead to 2052, an even larger and more dramatic process of systemic exclusion will occur in African cities and towns.UN-Habitat points out that almost 62% of urban residents in sub-Saharan Africa live in slum conditions. Roughly 280 million urban dwellers are regarded as income poor. Forward-looking speculation suggests that Africa will double its population by 2052, from 1.1 billion in 2011 to 2.3 billion. The urban share will grow from 40% in 2011 to some 60% by 2052. One reasonable question is whether the majority of the urban population will continue to dwell in slums. Another is what the cumulative impacts of slum urbanism will be by 2052.

Africa is the only world region that will continue to have robust population growth throughout the next forty years, particularly east and west Africa, which will more than double. Over that period, Africa’s share of the global population will grow from 15% to 23%. In spite of this dramatic increase, Africa will remain peripheral in economic terms, contributing less than 5% to global trade.

The limited economic performance is attributable to numerous factors. The most critical ones are severe infrastructure deficits, governmental inefficiencies, dramatic market failures, and the inability to forge effective regional trading blocs across the continent. And the perpetuation of slums can be attributed to a lack of infrastructure and maintenance investments to ensure affordable access to reliable and safe energy, safe drinking water, and sanitation. Investments will remain small because the formal part of the urban economies will remain relatively small. As a result the available tax base for large-scale public investments will remain inadequate. This is often compounded by pervasive administrative inefficiencies, enhanced by malfeasance and corruption—the lifeblood of many patronage systems that propel dominant political parties and elite systems across African countries.

Some recent reports suggest a rosier future, following from the observed economic growth over the past decade. From 2000 African GDP grew by some 5% per year, less than in Asia, but much faster than in the OECD. Furthermore, much of this growth stems from Africa’s cities. However, cities need adequate infrastructural capacity to foster economic growth. And here I foresee problems over the next decades and a possible solution in the longer run.

During the past five years much effort has been expended to understand the infrastructural deficit in Africa. This question goes to the heart of Africa’s prospects by 2052. If the infrastructure challenge is not adequately addressed, large-scale poverty rooted in structural economic exclusion and economic underperformance will persist. The World Bank has pegged the overall infrastructure deficit at $93 billion per year—less than 0.1 T$ per year. This is the level of annual investment required to address the current backlogs and cope with future growth. According to the same report, a massive shortfall is likely.

In the competition for limited finance, particular kinds of infrastructure get prioritized—for example, connective economic infrastructure such as roads, ports, and airports, which ensure that primary commodities get to destination markets as quickly as possible. There are of course also intimate connections between the infrastructure financiers from China, India, and the United States and the pathways that products from mines and fields need to travel. Essential infrastructure to channel power, water, waste, and data follows a strange, patchy geography along the contours of where the middle classes and formal firms are located. The net effect is splintered urban territories and a pattern of fault lines that follow social lines of distinction, discrimination, and oppression, predictably encoded by ethnic, racial, and class bases of power.

At the core of this unequal and unviable spatial patterning is the question of cost recovery, or more crassly, money. Or in other words:

Affordability may be a barrier to further expansion of access. Most African households live on very modest budgets and spend more than half of their resources on food. The average African household has a budget of no more than $180 per month; urban households are about $100 per month better off than rural households. . . . In most countries, between one- and two-thirds of the urban population would face difficulties in covering the cost of service.

In summary, given slow GDP growth, continued income inequality, and systemic political dysfunction, I believe that slum urbanism will remain a predominant feature of African cities. It is more uplifting to reflect on what kind of response this sad future will trigger in the hundreds of millions of urban households that fall below the poverty line.

The answer rests in a series of socioeconomic-cultural dynamics that is beyond the purview of economic forecasting models. I predict the emergence of a self-organizing movement to try to solve the problem. Slum movements organized under the global federal umbrella of Slum Dwellers International, for example, have been preparing a “social operating system” for urban slums. They seek to address the profound material and economic needs in the slums through empowerment and collective action. And since they work against a backdrop of long-term political and market failure, a sense of local autonomy is encouraged. Nothing is expected from the state. Nothing is anticipated from the formal private market. Instead, residents club together in various configurations to try to make their minimal incomes stretch further by leveraging each other’s support, intelligence, and labor to gradually, but systematically, move everyone forward. At the core of this social operating system is a capacity for cannibalizing, subverting, appropriating, and recasting the resources and expectations of the formal city outside the slum.

I believe that these social technologies and capabilities will deepen through continuous cross-country and cross-settlement learning. They will be characterized by a healthy dose of suspicion of professional and governmental knowledge. They will create an alternative basis for flourishing, especially as an adept youthful population brings the benefits of digital technologies and mobile money (cell-phone-based transactions) into the equation. These movements will install and maintain their own decentralized infrastructural solutions at scale from around 2025 onward. These organic experiments and solutions will then become the entry point for the state, massively decentralized, and new kinds of businesses, steeped in social entrepreneurialism, to engage the urban majorities on their terms.

Thus, even though the infrastructural deficit, poverty, and GDP per capita trend lines are dismal for urban Africa in most forecasting models, I am quietly confident that a social revolution will produce a much more complicated, differentiated, and somewhat less unjust future.