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African cities in the changing global landscape

Prince K. Guma

21 November, 2017

The last couple of decades have witnessed a series of regional events, some threatening to shift the tides of global politics. For instance, it is not long ago when the notion of ‘Africa rising’ would become such a hot story amidst accounts of positive demographics, growing middle class, inclusive technologies, sprawling cities and budding economies. Or that China’s growing clout in Africa and connections with Europe through increased economic and strategic influence and vast infrastructure development projects such as the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative would begin to attract notice. 

However, it is the apparent shift toward ‘de-globalization’ and return of the nation-state within the West amidst events leading up to – and beyond – ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’ that has recently had critics express most anticipation. Critics have cited a broader shift of global flows and loops, and a purported shift toward decentring, multicentring and increased redistribution of power and influence. They argue that this could potentially lead perhaps to a more fragmented reality synonymous with increased multi-polarity in which ‘globalist’ institutions and establishments hold lesser legitimacy, and so-called ‘superpowers,’ a diminished global presence. But most of all, they suggest that we are moving toward a world that is more open and dynamic to the presence of diversity, variability and simultaneity. In this framing, every nation or entity constituting only but a ‘separate part’ of the global assemblage, each posing a minimised economic, political and social impact at the global stage. 

However, when you read about this so-called ‘global geopolitical reconfiguration’ and its signification, it is possible to think as if Africa was not (a significant) part in this conversation. Africa barely features. And when she does, she is located as the pitiable target to be consoled and sympathised with. As such, a victim. Much more likely to be wounded or affected in an apparent and metaphoric clash of the titans. This is so much so that even some of the most avid African provocateurs have taken to representing this transfiguration by ways of meekly fanning the elusive global restructuring as mostly being representative of ‘a demise’ of the West, in most cases disparagingly and redundantly placing Africa as a wretched entity. In other words, without due regard for critical examination and provocation of the continent’s placing, positioning and location within the constantly changing global present. 

This, however, is not to say that such a representation puts Africa in any extraordinarily unusual position. Africa, for a long time has constituted a complex, complicated and problematical matrix. Not least, by its very description. For instance, the term Africa is tantamount to contentious definitional problems both geographically and historically. Much of what is referred by the prefix of ‘African’ with regard to ethnicity, modernity, urbanity and development is strikingly influenced by different elsewheres. These kinds of contradictions and conflicts play out within a wide range of diverse identities, variegated rationalities, untapped (cultural, essentialist and nationalized) realities, all shaped by colonial and postcolonial systems designed to impose ‘order’ to economy, society and spatial form. 

Ultimately, the African city, at the nexus of constant global configurations, has become a significant copy and representation of an interplay shaped and affected by forces from all corners. With its internal morphology and political philosophy demonstrating more starkly the complexity and contradiction that is apparent in this complicated assemblage of multitudinous forces and influences from elsewhere. 

But rather more interestingly for the African city as a bounded territory, is the manner in which it appears that the African continent in general is presently being redrawn not necessarily along nation lines, but by city lines. With cities becoming the new nations. As such, at the nexus – constituting the prime and core of socio-economic, technological and infrastructural growth and (re)development programs in the continent. in fact, it is fair to say, within this context, that the African infrastructure map is being redrawn along the urban webs of connectivity not only of communication, but also of access and supply to critical services. These factors compounded, place the African city at a focal point of global configurations. 

Implicit in this articulation is the reality in which African cities are increasingly gaining more economic, geopolitical and academic centrality. They are further becoming reimagined beyond ‘laboratories’ or ‘test-beds’ for the importation and experimentation of theoretical and technological ideas, toward ‘incubators’ of technological investments, innovations and ideals. In fact, African cities are also often imagined as central complexes of activity – with some (such as Nairobi, Johannesburg, Kampala and Lagos), taking on the mantle even more laudably at realising complete urban digitalisation, connectivity and coverage. In such cities, material and digital network infrastructures are increasingly expanding, branching and interweaving in ways that cause traditional boundaries to vanish. 

These shifts add to the intricacy of the African city at the nexus, especially when imagined through the lens of the apparent reconfigurations of boundary lines and global politics. They subject the African city to affects from global networks and mobilities of influence in the changing world. For urban scholars and researchers, these shifts evoke contemplation on the embodiment and positionality of the African city beyond its representation as a kaleidoscopic, diverse, and complex landscape. As such, they make the further re-imagination of Africa’s urban landscape a formidable, if not daunting task. Questions need to be posed as to how we ought to (dis)associate and (dis)connect from/with dominant and inextricable narratives, imaginaries and dichotomies if we must accurately subsume the African city within the increasingly dislocated global present. We have to ask what the possibilities, opportunities and prospects are for cities evidently ready – or at least positioned – to (re)assert themselves within this apparent state of global precarity and reconfiguration. 


This post is a reblog from the Situated UPE site. See:

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Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.