Done right, urbanisation could boost living standards in Africa

Nairobi, home to about 2.5m slum dwellers. Image: Getty.

Sub-Saharan African countries are urbanising fast. Currently, 335m people are living in urban areas across the continent and this number is expected to double in the next 25 years.

But as African cities have grown, so have their problems. They are more congested than they were a decade ago, commuting times have increased, and there is growing evidence that air pollution is on the rise.

Most African governments have found it difficult to expand public services and infrastructure fast enough to keep up with their growing populations. This has led to an expansion of informal settlements. According to UN Habitat, more than 60 per cent of all residents in African cities now live in slums.

However, the news is not all bad. Most of Africa’s urbanisation is yet to come - so there is still time to get things right. Africa is urbanising later and at a lower level of income than other developing regions (see graph below) which means that African policy makers can learn from the successes and failures of other countries. Done right, urbanisation has the potential to significantly raise both productivity and living standards across Africa.

Urbanisation in developing regions: Asia, Latin America and the Cariibbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Source: Author’s calculation based on World Development Indicators (2012).

Cities are engines of growth

Urbanisation is central to the growth process. As countries develop, workers move from rural to urban areas in search of higher paying and more productive jobs. Similarly, entrepreneurs choose to locate their firms in cities where localised economies increase their productivity. This is why cities are viewed as engines of growth.

Historical data support this view. Since the industrial revolution, cities have become centres for industrial production and, as cities grow, so have the countries where they are located. The robust relationship between levels of urbanisation and per capita income can be seen in data mapping trends of economic growth against urbanisation:

Source: Author’s calculation based on World Development Indicators (2012)

Economic growth happens when workers shift out of low-productivity activities such as agriculture and into high-productivity activities, such as manufacturing and some service activities. Urbanisation generates growth in two primary ways: urban jobs tend to be more productive than rural jobs and productivity changes are larger in urban areas than in rural areas.

In poor countries, where the majority of workers are employed in agriculture, economic growth is driven primarily by rural to urban migration. For rich countries, economic growth is primarily driven by higher productivity changes in urban areas compared with rural areas.

Cities are engines of growth for a range of other reasons too. It is cheaper to provide infrastructure when populations are large and people are densely packed together.

Spatial proximity also makes it easier for individuals to learn from each other. There is increasing evidence that knowledge spillovers play a key role in raising the productivity of successful cities. In the United States, for example, a 10 per cent rise in the proportion of workers with a college degree in cities leads to a 22 per cent rise in per capita metropolitan product.

What’s missing in African cities

Historically, the best way for a country to grow is by expanding its manufacturing sector (see graph below). Early industrialisation usually takes place in cities so industrialisation and urbanisation go hand in hand.

The problem, however, is that Africa is urbanising without industrialising. Few African cities are expanding their manufacturing sectors - at least not at the same rate as cities in other regions. This is a cause for concern because manufacturing jobs usually pay higher wages than those in agriculture and trade.

Source: Author’s calculation based on World Development Indicators (2012).

Across Africa, average wages are highest among miners and manufacturing workers. But the mining sector is capital-intensive which means that it employs fewer workers compared to other sectors. Therefore the best way to raise incomes is by increasing the number of manufacturing jobs.

Where Africa’s cities are falling short

Successful cities serve two functions: they provide liveable environments for workers and their families; and they provide productive environments for businesses.

The typical African city is achieving neither. Most African cities score low on every metric of livability such as housing quality, access to public services, and security of tenure.

African cities also fall short in terms of productivity. Often firms are unable to take full advantage of being based in cities because of inappropriate regulations and massive under-investment in public infrastructure.

On top of that, high urban costs make it difficult for African firms to compete on global markets.

These constraints can be eased through better policies, particularly in relation to land access and business regulations.

The way forward

Getting the most out of Africa’s rapid urbanisation won’t be easy. There needs to be a focus on proper co-ordination and effective planning.

The biggest challenge is to understand how public policies can be used to optimise investments by households and firms. The development of a city is about three investment processes which build assets on land: investment in residential property, in commercial property and in infrastructure.

The productivity of these three forms of investment is mutually inter-dependent. These interdependencies give rise to benefits that accrue to parties other than those making the investment (positive externality), which, to be optimised, require coordination through effective planning.

Developing countries need to learn how to manage their urbanisation process. The key to success is not simply ensuring that the positive benefits outweigh the negative — it is about creating liveable and productive environments that promote sustained growth.

Patricia Jones is Project Manager/Researcher (Urbanisation in Developing Countries) at University of Oxford.

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

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.