Africa is the fastest-growing continent. Almost half of the people projected to be added to the world population between now and 2050 will be Africans, and the continent will have become majority (55%) urban.
There’s something we keep overlooking in the race to grow our economy. SMME and skills development, yes. Jobs creation, naturally. But there’s another factor than weighs heavily in on the debate... the development of our cities.
Welcome to City Season.“Urban Explosion!” “Urbanisation Crisis in Africa”. “Africa’s future is urban”. “The city triumphs, again!” “Sex in the City.” “If Mayors Ruled the World.” The headlines are dramatic and the city, as a subject, has taken the centre stage more than ever before. As such, we have both a new global urban agenda (ratified under the auspices of UN Habitat in Quito in 2016) and a new national urban agenda — South Africa’s Integrated Urban Development Agenda, approved by Cabinet in 2016. Furthermore, we witnessed (and likely participated) in cities becoming the battle frontier for the August 2016 local government election. Everywhere, the talk is about cities, cities, cities. So why all the hype… and what does it mean for urban dwellers, entrepreneurs and leaders?. Human beings have been gathering in larger and larger urban centres for millennia. Over the past 5000 years, those settlements have grown into what we would recognise as cities, the earliest ancestors of the places we now know as Ur, Babylon, et cetera. At first, our predecessors may have sought to build cities for the sanctuary and the security they offered — we know this from the location and defensive structures which survive as remains or relics in their modern incarnations.
Think of places like Rome, Athens or Jerusalem — or, on this continent, Cairo and Tunis.The presence of natural resources like water or gold also explain the existence of many cities on river fronts or at natural harbours on coastlines. Strategic locations along trade routes, and the presence of specific commodities at specific times, also explain the rise of many modern cities, including some of South Africa’s urban conglomerates. Cape Town was, for example, originally a halfway station on the sea route between the Netherlands-based Dutch East India Company and its East Indian colonies. Durban developed as a coastal settlement during the Portuguese exploratory voyages and colonial expansion. And Johannesburg, one of the continent’s most vibrant urban centres, arose little over a century ago because of the gold in the rock on which it was built.Factors such as hope and progress, safety and survival, the lure of the new and the exciting pulse of commerce and industry tend to explain cities’ origins and go some way towards explaining their continued existence and growth. And grow they have! In this century, for the first time in the planet’s history, the majority of human beings are now living in urban centres. Closer to home, after a century of measures by the colonial and apartheid governments in South Africa blocking the trend, the majority of South Africans are also residents in urban spaces. Cities are the largest of such conglomerations.
So what’s new?
Well, we have more cities, bigger cities, and greater population concentrations in higher densities than any of our ancestors before us. The human population has grown exponentially since the middle of the twentieth century. Following centuries of relative stability, the one billion population figure was reached as recently as about 200 years ago. In 1950, there were just over 2.5 billion people on Earth. Currently, we have exceeded 7 billion, with more than half of us now living in urban areas. The human population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, with over 65% being urban dwellers. As it is, today, more than 30 world cities have populations, which exceed 30 million people; that would mean that each of those cities would contain half the population which lived in the combined Roman Empire at its height in the 8th century AD! These enormous increases have been hitherto unprecedented in their pace and magnitude.Where the biggest populations will be is also changing. Africa is the fastest growing continent. Almost half of the people projected to be added to the world population between now and 2050 will be Africans, and the continent will have become majority (55%) urban. There is much to consider in this shift. For example, while human beings may have gathered in cities through the ages, the majority of us actually lived outside of such centres. The reliance on food production — which followed our ability to grow our own food — meant that most humans would have needed to live close to the places where they cultivated their food (farmlands). Cities, in that sense, have always been hungry: they have tended to rely on hinterlands to produce what their inhabitants consume.
Today, after the industrial and technology revolutions, which evolved humanity into modern production and logistical capabilities, it is possible and clear that the future is urban. The majority of people alive today live, work and play in urban centres, and many of these are cities. The growth and rapid change have not just been in the landscape but, rather, among the people and their character in that landscape.For Mokena Makeka, an architect and entrepreneur, ”tastes are diversifying — and middle-class aspirations are increasingly complex and rich. Lifestyle industries such as food, clothing, literature and music are growing exponentially in creativity. The world is connected more than ever and the fourth industrial revolution is a window for society to reinvent itself. I think the core evolution is that young people had to sell their ideas to the old in the world of yesterday; today, young people are selling to each other. It’s competitive and fast but, ultimately, more empowering.’ In the post-millennial geopolitical arrangement, urban centres have become even more significant in all sorts of ways: socially, economically and, increasingly, environmentally. This presents specific challenges for South Africa. Councillor Parks Tau, former Mayor of Johannesburg, refers to the infrastructural, economic, financial and ecological, demands — and then reminds us that our urbanisation context is accompanied with both legacy challenges and forward aspirations, which are sometimes at odds. He reflects that ”our cities are dealing with many historic challenges [as well as] competition for resources — particularly in highly urbanised cities that face high levels of poverty and unemployment, which create [competition and contestation]”
Thus far, the urbanisation trend in Africa (and, in some ways, the global south more generally) is cause for excitement, but there are also cautions we would do well to heed. On the one hand, we risk facing the possibility of a continent (and planet) of slums; a dystopic future of urban collapse and decrepitude, the kind of landscape evoked in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Already a seventh of the world’s population lives in urban slums today. While this statistic quickly evokes images of the urban sprawl of Mexico City, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or, on a smaller scale, in South Africa, the urban periphery and parts of the old inner city cores already show similar trends. But cities can be both problem and solution. For Mokena Makeka (architect and entrepreneur) believes that ”we can create cities which are diverse, rich in choice, generous to newcomers and rewarding to people who stay. Our cities are the places of dreams, where people arrive to transform themselves and others. Amazing cities allow people to transform themselves and make a difference to society.”
Of course, in South Africa the exclusion of the majority of the population of the region from the cities of the region has had specific consequences that many still live with. A conscious young leadership and energy could go some way to addressing that legacy.”We simply must reverse the terrible legacy of apartheid spatial planning that keeps black and white, rich and poor living separately — and equally. Failure to do so will hold back economic and social development,” says Andries Nel, the Deputy Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. Professor Edgar Pieterse of the African Centre for Cities is of the view that this presents young people and their leaders with challenges… but also with opportunities. Indeed, the original hopes which spurred the growth of cities through the ages still present transformative potential. Cities have been the sites of some of humanity’s greatest achievements. They have been engines of innovation, the locations in which we created our best art, literature and cultural achievements, whether in music, sculpture, painting, or architecture. ”Younger entrepreneurs who are considering a future in the entertainment industry must get out onto the streets and be inspired by what others are doing in our cities,” says Mandisa Bardill, an entertainer-entrepreneur. “Be bold… ask people what experiences they are looking for to help them de-stress and tailor all your services around new and innovative experiences.”
This is the potential of cities to create new forms of demand and value.
Cities are yin and yang. The twin challenges we face in making cities work lies in balancing out the potential for success based on our historical record, and the difficulties of managing the problems of the present and their possible articulations in the future. In some places in African, the majority of the people are young — and the majority of their leaders are not! This is a peculiar and urgent challenge and the role of young leaders cannot be underestimated or overstated. Sithole Mbanga, CEO of the South African Cities Network sees this as a potential strength. “Young people, have the advantage of creating the necessary disruptions that will propel our society towards that rainbow nation; one that is African, innovative and industrious, with fewer social ills and, importantly, with better economic opportunity,” says Mbanga
The modern city is a space which retains many of the characteristics of all cities throughout human history. They still focus on scale and the concentration of humans and their pursuits, which includes the infrastructure they require for their survival in large groups, the connections with one another (as groups and as individuals) as well as with other cities. However, in the post-millennial city, connectivity is not just about the interactions between humans, but also the connection between the human and the technologised non-human… and this often centres on information exchanges in networks infinitely more vast than any that had existed in history.“ICT innovations are that key into the mushrooming of mobile Internet among the youth and offer further opportunities to deepen and enlarge township economies that will effectively become the vanguard of future prosperity,”
says Pieterse. In these networks — many of them digital — lie the magic and spark for our potential as city dwellers. Tiyani Nghonyama, an innovator and COO of Geekulcha, is positive, stating that “smart citizenship needs a culture; young leaders must use their power of change in this adoption and help (people) embrace digital change of the city.”
Importantly, the various role-players in the city have to find ways to interface and interact productively. For Jonathan Lieberman, CEO of Propertuity (the motive force behind the Maboneng Project in Johannesburg), it is about role clarity and recognising common ground. “We need the government to understand that their best role is to be a facilitator and not a developer,” says Lieberman. “The private sector must then stand up and develop the cities with a new enlightened economic focus that takes care of social issues and profit, rather than seeing them as mutually exclusive objectives.”The challenge of urban interface is also spatial because cities are hungry consumers of resources, and not just at the human level. The importance of the link or connection with the rural cannot be underestimated. In the majority of cities, the population still depends on the rural for food and energy generation. In many first world cities, urban farming and energy generation have become features of the expansion and innovation architecture of the present and the projected future. However, in many South African and African cities, energy and food — and even water — still come from elsewhere, often the fast depopulating rural hinterland.
Cities, therefore, tend to be mistakenly thought of as insulated or artificially separated from the rural surrounds, except in their reliance on those spaces in consumption relations. However, that is to oversimplify the case. City dwellers in places like South Africa (as well as in many other parts of the world) maintain complex and intimate relations with rural areas, and not just as the source of their resource needs but, rather, as the spaces of leisure, as the homes of intimate relatives and, often, the spaces to which to retire in old age, and where they will return in death. It is the first and last home for many millions.Rural and urban are clearly interdependent, and not just in the global south. In the developed north, more recent strands of US election analysis suggest that the over-emphasis of the urban may also have ignored the simmering masses of rural excluded. But what defines “rural”? An agrarian economy? A lack of basic services? An un-sexiness? The complex and textured connections between the urban and the rural, between the city and the country, is not new—particularly in Africa. But this presents interesting emerging opportunities which young leaders could explore and exploit to the advantage of their generation, the future of cities and of the continent. Now that could be a real de-colonisation project.
Far from it being a competition between the urban and the rural—or competition between different kinds of urban conglomerations, or more stereotypically, between different cities—the competition could perhaps be more productively seen as a competition for greater innovation in order to improve life for all, both in the city and the countryside. In addition, it can be to improve the connected relationships between the two locations, as well as the people in them. Their fates are, after all, intertwined.”Urban areas and rural areas are inextricably linked. They need each other. We cannot talk about urban development and rural development as if they are unrelated and contradictory processes,” says Nel.
It is inside these complex networks of interdependence that innovation could lead to greater cooperation and competitive innovation, resulting in mutual learning which, in turn, will allow for better and more productive responses to the new demands. After all, cities are also spaces of diversity, and in that human diversity lies the productive capacity and the challenge to meet the divergent and sometimes contradictory needs of the inhabitants. For Mbanga, as for some of the other leaders in urban spaces in South Africa, this is precisely the crux of the challenge for young leaders. “Leaders, current and upcoming, need to understand and prepare for the implications of urbanism […] the opportunity of creating better-functioning cities will not happen without a long-term, sustainable plan,” says Mbanga. “With urbanism comes the opportunity to create a new base for economic activity, thereby creating much cleaner and greener spaces that respond to ecological demands of the day.”For Bardill, this is one of the strengths of the long relationship between the arts and cities: ”The arts generally have a very powerful impact on all members of society and they have the capability to bring us together despite our differences, and I believe cities need to support the arts more than they do for this very reason.”Mokena Makeka puts it best when he says that ‘“it’s our job to not only imagine that future but to help build it for ourselves and future generations… brick by brick, if need be! We can’t wait for others to make the world we want to be in.