Re-imagining progressive African cities after Corona.

By Takura Zhangazha

Living in a contemporary African city if argued from an historical perspective is to the greater extent a construct of colonialism. Both in its initial or later phases. Including its post/neo-colonial construct as envied or mimicked by those of us who would come to consider the African city, ‘home’.

In the wake of the global corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic, the African city as a geo-political and economic construct has been thrown sharply into focus. Even if inadvertently.

African cities have been generally perceived as sites of developmental progress. While their majority populated surrounding and agro-economy human settlements areas have been considered ‘rural backwaters’. The latter being viewed not only in the sense of abject poverty but also as a primary source of perceived ignorance and in some ceases, biological pandemics. Never mind where the latter would have originated from.

An immediate historical point would be the fact that Africa has never been entirely ‘rural’. Ancient cities, such as the Great Zimbabwe Monuments in Zimbabwe, Southern Africa, are regularly held up as epitomes of African civilization. Except that they did not have electricity and Macadamized roads as in the contemporary.

The key element to consider though has been the historical fact that the contemporary African city, South of the Sahara, is one that emerged with the onset of colonialism. From Dakar through to Johannesburg, it does not require spectacular intellect to know how these settlements were established. Cocooned in the ambit of a colonial (mercantile) capitalism, the majority of the cities we, as Africans, live in, were never designed in either their civil engineering or economic planning for a majority of us. They were to the greater extent, exclusionary.

But that is not the issue at play here. We have cities that we have come to regard as our own.  This is despite the fact that we still mythologize the city as a living space of modern progress.  And this is probably across the board within African territories that are former British colonies.  Initially not just on the basis of the fact that most of these cities came to include Africans on the basis of either forced rural to urban migration/labor via uncouth rural taxation and loss livelihoods. Even more significantly because the capitalist/colonialist system made it appear historically inevitable.

The colonial/post-colonial city came to be viewed as not only the seat of power over rural hinterlands previously unknown or even in the contemporary, unexplored. It also came to be seen as aspirational for many young Africans trying to flee enforced rural poverty for ravenous colonial labour markets.

Ironically however the city in our African contexts is still not viewed as permanent place of abode. Though this may come to pass. There is always the anticipation of demonstrating success at having conquered it.  Many of us would still ideally envision a coming back home (rural) to demonstrate evidence of success via a newly built ‘modern’ or city like house or purchase of livestock. Except for the fact that it is still not like life in the city proper. It is only in order to mimic it.

With the arrival of the global pandemic that is COVID-19 the African city with its historical colonial baggage comes to be viewed as a source of contagion as opposed to hitherto enlightenment or a source of material progress.

Those that are generally considered the urban African poor in the midst of Covid19 sought departure from the affliction of the rich by trying to trek back to their rural homes. Places where not only, for now, were there less cases of COVID-19 but also where life is invariably cheaper even if with less potential sources of income.

The key challenge here becomes the centrality of the city as emblematic of human progress.  By way of perception as well as grounded in economic history. Be it colonial, post-colonial or as is the case now, global.

And in considering this challenge, what obtains is the necessity of a new perspective/thinking of the African city after Covid19.

The African city or metropolis needs to be demystified in a number of respects. The first being that for many of us arrival or being born in it make it appear as the epitome of individual progress. All compared with what we would unfortunately consider as rural backwaters where one way or the other our ancestors originally come from.

In this, we therefore still face the primary challenge of perceiving of the city as a habitat that connotes ‘arrival’. As opposed to a perspective that foregoes the arrogance of the colonial gaze and instead recognizes the humanity of both the urban and rural inhabitants.

In this, we need a new perspective that understands that for all our electricity tiled roofs in the urban, the rural matters. And that it is equal.

But for the city itself, we need to reconsider how to move away from colonially motivated urban planning.   Where we still retain the structural effects of the ‘African township’ by limiting not only the size of landed property for workers and the urban poor we need to move away from a mine compound approach to the urban. That is where we have a settlement structure that treats the working class as deserving of poor housing and a lack of social amenities. That may have happened in Europe during phases of their agricultural and industrial revolutions but we have no logical historical reason to mimic the same in the present. Nor in the future.

In the wake and hopefully livable aftermath of Covid-19, the African city needs to be less capitalist and recognise the rights of the informal economy by allowing it to thrive in safer, healthier and more accountable spaces.  As opposed to arbitrarily razing structures because of the opportunistic fears that COVID-19 has presented in the immediate. What’s wrong with a tuckshop or vendors stall anyway where and when it is closer to its target market?

The African city needs to shift from capitalism not only in its political management but the colonial legacy pretext of its existence. There are no replicas of New Yorks or Londons that should be expected on the continent. At least not anymore. We need African cities that respond more to contextual human livelihood needs. And cities that also come to a climate change balance with rural areas while emphasizing the need for equitable basic amenities (health, transport, water, education, communications) regardless of geographical location.

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)