Johannesburg and Accra: two very different versions of a contemporary African city

Johannesburg in 2009. Image: Getty.

Like it or not, we measure the success – or failure – of cities according to broad principles of urban culture inherited largely from the west. This includes quantitative data: infrastructure, transportation, access to health care, education, amenities and so on. Harder to measure, but no less important, are “other” factors like a sense of belonging, community, identity and history. The Conversation

What makes a good city? Or what makes a city “good”, as opposed to “bad”? In the past 30 years or so, measuring urban success has become an industry in its own right. There are a host of companies willing to answer that question. They use a mixture of factors that include political stability, economic performance, environmental issues, safety and security, transportation and public services. Add to it more nuanced indices like inclusion, diversity, multiculturalism and choice.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in 2017, European cities dominated the top 20, with Singapore, Tokyo, Melbourne and Auckland also in the mix. African cities are always in the bottom quartile of every survey, from Mercer’s Quality of Life Index (QoL) to the UN’s World Cities Report. Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Louis and Durban are the continent’s highest-ranked cities. In Mercer’s 2016 QoL Index, Accra, the capital city of Ghana, Africa’s first independent nation, is at number 166, one slot ahead of Riyadh and one behind Cairo.

Partly because Accra and Johannesburg are the only two African cities I can claim to know in detail, and partly because they represent two very different versions of a contemporary African city, this article looks at their slow climb up the urban food chain.

Cities of the same generation

Accra and Johannesburg are roughly the same age. Gold was discovered just outside present day Johannesburg in 1884, triggering the rush that founded the city. The British declared Accra the colonial administrative capital of the Gold Coast in 1877, both events occurring within a decade of each other.

Today, metropolitan Johannesburg’s population is around 5m, whilst Accra’s is just over 2.5m. Johannesburg’s brand identity, prominently displayed in its media image, is of a “world class African city”. Accra makes fewer claims to “world class” status, but in 2016, was awarded the title of Africa’s “most expensive city”.

Companies like Mercer Consulting, Moody’s, Fitch, Standard & Poor’s, and PricewaterhouseCoopers cover almost every conceivable inch and index of global urbanity. It’s mostly according to the indices covered above. Yet the lived, daily life experience of millions of city-dwellers, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, is hardly, if ever, captured by this data. So who is this data actually for? There’s an important clue on Mercer Consulting’s website:

These rankings indicate differences in quality of living factors affecting expatriates in popular assignment destinations. These rankings shouldn’t be used as the basis for determining hardship premiums, as many complex and dynamic factors must be taken into account.

Among the indicators used in determining the “value” of a given global city, the price of groceries, transport, utility bills, restaurants and rent are seen as benchmarks. But this says next-to-nothing about wages, recreation (other than restaurants), local class structures, social patterns, language and even “local” culture, most commonly described by expatriates as “traditions”.

Multinational expatriates may not be the site’s only users, but they’re certainly its target market. Presumably, then, the true purpose of the index is to work out how much to pay the average Briton, European or American in far-flung exotic or dangerous locations.

Booming economies

Ghana is classified by the World Bank as a lower middle-income economy with a per capita GDP of $1,100.

In principle, citizens of Accra, Kumasi and Takoradi (Ghana’s three largest cities) should be entitled to expect at least a reasonable quality of urban existence in line with their own aspirations and ambitions. One of the least talked-about issues in African city-making discourses, however, is precisely what these aspirations and ambitions are, should be … or even could be.

Expatriate expectations (and their salary scales) hardly ever take local realities into account. For your average Ghanaian, going to a funeral or visiting extended family relatives at the weekend may be infinitely more socially rewarding than sitting in an air-conditioned restaurant a deux, listening to piped musak.

Shopping for food in an open-air market where prices can be negotiated may be more convenient than going to an impersonal mall. Yet funerals and roadside markets don’t feature anywhere on any urban index. Given Accra’s current position (166), alongside the vast majority of other African cities, whatever local aspirations and expectations may be, they are neither being articulated nor met.

A man selling coconuts on the streets of Accra. Image: Legnan Koula/EPA.

At the “other” end of the scale is Johannesburg, an African city unlike any other. Narrowly within the world’s top 100, it’s a city undergoing enormous changes, although, like Accra, the pace of transformation is often perceived by its citizens to be too slow.

By and large, South African cities are closer in form, behaviour and appearance to their “world-class” counterparts – or at least those portions of the city that conform to the stereotype of ordered, well-organised and consensual urbanity. Informal settlements, squatter camps, inner cities, townships and rural landscapes are markedly different for complex historical, political and economic reasons.

Largely due to its demographic make-up, there’s no real expatriate culture in South Africa (with the possible exception of Cape Town, which holds large numbers of non-resident Europeans and Americans). In marked contrast to Accra, expressed as a percentage of the total urban population, middle-class Jo'burgers enjoy relatively easy access to a comfortably bourgeois lifestyle without the input or demands of expatriates.

The gentrification of inner city Johannesburg has prompted much debate, including outcry. But the truth of the matter is that in a context where race and class have historically meant the same thing (you’re poor because you’re black, and black because you’re poor), it’s neither possible nor productive to talk about gentrification in the same way as it’s in London, New York or Paris.

Some of the up-and-coming inner city neighbourhoods on which architects and urbanists pour such scorn are the few – if not only – places where young South Africans of all races freely mix. Yes, they do so on the basis of bourgeois values and common class interests, but what’s the alternative? Segregated cities? South Africans have had nearly two centuries of those: forgive a foreigner’s assumption, but I’m guessing the answer is “no”.

Up the urban food chain

Both Accra and Johannesburg have some way to go before they make it onto anyone’s top 20. Both cities have considerable challenges to overcome, not least the dramatic and desperate gap between rich and poor, haves and have-nots (which, certainly in most African cities, includes the gap between locals and expatriates).

But inequality is not a uniquely African problem; neither is intolerance, immigration and displacement. As we’ve seen only too dramatically in the past year, these are issues that continue to confound and confront cities across the globe. Developing more nuanced tools and yardsticks to measure the health and wealth of African cities may be more useful to the rest of the world than we currently acknowledge.

Lesley Lokko is associate professor of architecture at the University of Johannesburg.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.

Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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