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OPINION: An urban Africa: are we ready?

By 2050, Africa’s urban dwellers are projected to have increased from 400 million to 1.2 billion and the majority of this growth is expected to occur in informal settlements. CDKN’s Charlotte Scott looks at the numbers and what they mean for urban development in Africa. 

Right now, about 40% of Africans live in urban environments, but by 2030, the number will exceed 50% as Africa ceases to be a predominantly rural continent and some cities swell by up to 85% of their current size.

In response to the staggering numbers, this month saw the 4th South African Urban Conference in Pretoria, South Africa. And in the build-up to the new State of South African Cities Report, released in 2016, the phrase on everyone’s lips was “Spatial Transformation”.

The single greatest mission of the post-apartheid city will be to transform segregation and urban sprawl into sustainable and equitable access to resources.

Hosted by the South African Cities Network, the meeting brought together city planners, local government associations, national housing and transport officials, NGOs and Minster of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs himself, Pravin Gordhan.

Gordhan’s appointment as Minister in 2014 placed one of the most well-respected members of parliament at the head of tackling South Africa’s impossible challenge: service delivery. The urban poor will be at the heart of this challenge. But Gordhan spent no time beating about the bush.

“Service delivery simply cannot keep up with population growth. We need to face this reality,” said Gordhan, a refrain urbanists have echoed. Informality in both housing and the economy will be a permanent feature of the African city in generations to come.

But the message was not a defeatist one. “Good cities don’t come about by accident,” said Gordhan, and he should know. Gordhan’s first task has been to get the new Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) off the ground, which aims to integrate the housing, transport, energy, education and health development strategies which have traditionally been developed in silos, often with contradictory results.

For years, South African cities have been subject to a national housing policy that contributes to urban sprawl, and a transport strategy catered towards hopeful densification. New housing developments can wait up to five years for new schools and clinics to be built nearby because national departments fail to coordinate effectively. The IUDF aims to change all that.


Where does climate change fit into all of this?

Although they cover less than 2 per cent of the earth’s surface, cities consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce more than 60% of all carbon dioxide.

Cities in Africa will be responsible for close to 60% of emissions growth on the continent before 2030. They will also be home to the greatest concentration of those most vulnerable to climate shocks and present the greatest opportunity for building climate resilience.

Housing densification, land tenure, public transport infrastructure, access to clean energy and sanitation, and disaster risk reduction are some of the most  effective development tools we have to tackle informal housing, flood damage, shack fires, spread of disease and the growing emissions our cities face.

Discussions focused on a number of challenges faced by cities in the Global  South. Urban land tenure is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for city officials.

Houses built on communal land cannot pay rent or contribute to financing the  delivery of basic services. Routine evictions contribute to vulnerability and uncertainty, negatively affecting residents’ ability to set up small businesses or reinforce their housing. Unavailability of land, often due to vested interests in the city centre, means that low-income housing is often located on the periphery of the city and vulnerable to routine flooding and high transport costs.

Case studies from two major informal settlements in Nairobi, Mukuru KwaNjenga and Mukuru Kwa Reuben, demonstrate how basic human rights to life, to health and to dignity are all obstructed by inadequate water and sanitation systems.

But the water and sanitation needs of dwellers in informal settlements cannot be met without first addressing the land tenure insecurity issues. Without this resolution, city officials cannot build roads and lay pipes. Similarly, access to water and sanitation in one’s home is not viable until formal housing can be provided.

Akiba Mashinani Trust believes in the building of affordable housing units equipped with water and sanitation systems as a way of tackling the persistent inadequacy of water and sanitation systems in informal settlements.

Presenters also stressed the changing rhetoric around the rural-urban divide. We can’t afford to think of the two as dichotomous or contradictory, and we now know that inter-dependencies between the two mean that underdevelopment of the one will negatively affect the other and vice versa. “Poverty, inequality and environmental sustainbilty do not have rural-urban boundaries,” said Prof. Lochner Marais from the University of Free State.

As cities in Africa undergo rapid growth, they will need support from services in the surrounding rural areas, which often supply their food and water. Residents in cities often return to their rural homesteads in times of economic hardship or when they retire, and rural settlements will be an important safety net economically and culturally significant for many.

However, the IUDF failed to take into account some crucial factors. In the working groups, participants called out the elephant in the room, missing from the glossy pages of the policy document: political agendas.

In many African states, support for the ruling party historically comes from rural voters, while major cities have become strongholds of political opposition.Nairobi, Lagos, Kano, Harare, Douala and Lomé are all examples.

More and more evidence shows how competing political agenda’s are negatively affecting urban governance in Africa’s cities. Cape Town, Lagos and Nairobi are just a few examples where party politics often gets in the way of policy implementation.

In South Africa, Ward Councilors and Ward Committees are supposed to be the ideal vehicle for public participation in local government and policy implementation. But Ward Committees have been criticised for bending to political agendas and failing to truly represent their electorate.

As Mayor Ramokgopa of the City of Tshwane said, “Cities are terrains ofcontestation and struggle.” And how right he was.


We occasionally invite bloggers from around the world to provide their experiences and views. The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CDKN.


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