Essay originally drafted for the WPF seminar, ‘What Animates and Challenges the Possibilities for Collective Action today?‘ held in September 2023.

This exploratory paper explores a fundamental question: given acute and self-evident forms of inequality, deprivation, and disenfranchisement (or non-enfranchisement) what form of urban social mobilisation and politics are emerging across sub-Saharan Africa. More specifically, it asks if there are latent bases for solidarity and democratic demand making taking shape in the continent’s rapidly expanding cities. It draws (somewhat haphazardly) on almost twenty years of research in small and medium sized cities and a more recent project in Accra (Ghana), Nairobi (Kenya), and Johannesburg (South Africa). It ultimately offers an ambiguous if unsettling set of conclusions: decades of political ‘departicipation’ (Kasfir 1976) and the associated informalisation of spatial regulation have combined with urban residents’ heterogenous socio-temporal trajectories to generate fragmented and fluid civic space. From this emerges multiple modes of politics. These exist almost kaleidoscopically, be slowly reconfigured by ever-changing urban environments. While some conform to the space-based, temporal linearity informing democratic and ‘progressive’ political theory, others rest on less certain spatial and temporal foundations. These multiple ‘publics’ (to borrow Ekeh’s famous framing) at least partially share cities’ geographic space but remain situated within intersecting and often competing moral economies distinguished by their spatial and temporal parameters.

The observations/speculations included in the following pages are manifold and extend beyond the sub-Sahara African case studies from which they derive. Such cases may bring the implications of mobility, economic and environmental precarity, and political fragmentation into stark relief but nonetheless resonate with similar process occurring elsewhere. By considering how multiple forms of human mobility – domestic and international migration, displacement, and varied forms of translocalism – methodologically challenge common ontological and normative evocations of community, site, and progress the work intends to unsettle. In exploring how mobility regulation across multiple scales reinforce and reshape global categories of class and race in ways that fragment conceptions of a cosmopolitan future, it partially explains the limited forms of sustained solidary movements seen across much of the global south. In so doing, it challenges the normative foundations of ethical and political concepts informing progressive politics: representation, marginalisation, belonging, and progress. Instead, it points to emerging forms of translocal and transtemporal modes of membership through which mobile and non-mobile populations find recognition, elude or undermine regulation, and build futures.

Urbanism afoot

The world is urbanising. Close to 80% of the world’s GDP is produced in cities and such wealth attracts people.[1] Already more than half (approximately 56% of the world’s population or 4.4 billion inhabitants, spend the primary part of their lives in cities.[2] By 2050, the size of the urban population is expected to double with more than 70% of the world’s population at least partially urbanised.[3] These trends are markedly pronounced in the global south where urban populations will likely top 1.34 billion by 2050. Once modest cities are now expanding dramatically due to environmental change (i.e., flooding, desertification, rising temperatures); conflict and insecurity; and the spatial concentration of wealth and production. Africa – long the least urbanised inhabited continent – is expected to host many of the world’s largest cities by 2100 (See Cheesman 2022; Goodfellow and Jackman 2023). These are generating tremendous gateway zones and neighbourhoods where people from myriad ethnicities and trajectories cross paths. These zones absorb and propel multiple movements of people. For those staying put, the city changes. Sites on the urban edge rapidly transmute from swamps, fields, and forests to densely inhabited city space. Inner cities churn with populations on the move.

Yet despite cities’ evident appeal, manifold challenges face new and long-standing residents. Most of these people will live in cities that were not built for them. While there are extended histories of urbanisation on the continent, most contemporary African cities were intended as sites of extraction or domination (Cobbinah 2023; Freund 2001). Designed for the comfort and ambitions of a small economic and political elite – foreign and domestic – and necessary workers, they were intended as centres intended to remotely control or manage a rural, often deeply ethnicised, population (see Green 2020). With the population embedded in rural areas, travel to the urban was often transgressive and risky. Apartheid South Africa is the most extreme example in which citizens were made foreigners in their own cities, but the ethos of segregation and ruralisation extended across much of the continent. It continues to inform urban planning modalities which often marginalise and exclude new arrivals despite the rhetoric of inclusion and equity.

Decades of under-investment in urban infrastructure or overt anti-urbanisation policies have generated forms of ‘do it yourself’ urbanism. Undoubtedly there are elements of ‘neo-liberal’ privatisation of public services or emerging regimes of employers and public elites. But to speak of privatisation or the dissolution of a social safety net inaccurately implies the existence of a substantial public infrastructure that extended to, incorporated, and ‘captured’ the political imagination of the citizenry. As Hyden (1980) argued years ago regarding Africa’s peasantry, many urbanites remain ‘uncaptured’: not fully beyond global capital or cultural flows, but with a level of autonomy born by frail or disinterested states. With their enhanced agency, even the political and economic elite often seek to evade the demands of urban regulation. As they increasingly vacate cities or move behind walls (see Caprotti, et al, 2022; Goodfellow and Jackman 2023), they promote geographic and social distance from the less fortunate, public security apparati, and participatory urban politics.

The results are that state policy and global-local regimes of regulation are often limited to geographically narrow sections of the cities or to new developments on the outskirts designed for those with resources to buy land and property or work in business or the formal sector. Stone (1993) famously speaks urban regimes: relatively stable and coherent networks of public and private interconnected systems of employers, officials, labour, and other residents. But the disconnections described above instead generates a highly fragmented system of authorities. The wealthy may continue to rely on labourers, but those labourers are often so numerous that their negotiating power is minimal and attempts to substantively organise them often fail. Superfluity is rife and replaceable (cf Gans 2012) in these consumptive, not productive, cities (cf. Kihato and Muyeba 2015). Similarly, we increasingly see the term ‘migration industry’ applied to the nexus of private and public organisations, nongovernmental organisations, and government agencies that profit from human mobility (see Sorensen 2012; Hernandez-Leon 2012). People are moving across the continent and many employ smugglers to ease their way across borders. Yet to speak of an industry implies a level of intentionality and consciousness that is rarely evident. This is not to say there are not those benefiting, but rather there is not a formal regime of complicity or compliance. There is non-regulation, but not even clearly strategically so.

Increasingly people occupy spaces beyond state regulation or where states are too weak (or frightened) to go. In some instances, they are intentionally erratic and unknowable to avoid accountability or risk (cf. Biehl 2015; Damianos 2023). At times informal systems may link to state authorities through patronage networks or other systems of indirect rule (cf. Paller 2019; Misago and Landau 2022). However, this can not be presumed and often regulation takes place in the distant shadow of the state where state capacity or strategic absence makes space for alternative structures and political rationalities. The limited engagement of non-urban Africans in substantive policy making or state-centred political mobilisation translates to urban life. As Dyson (2009) suggests, people’s orientations towards states as the locus of politics can not be taken for granted. Where states have historically been predatory, absent, or illegitimate – and options for local organisations and elusions exist – popular political imaginaries are even less likely to centre on reshaping public institution.

Transforming politics and space

People may live longer in cities than rural areas, their children may have better access to education, and possibilities exist for physical and economic security. But the fragmentation and uncertainty described above means that for many the only certainty is uncertainty. These are spaces as much of fantasy and aspirational imaginaries as pathways towards progress. Ambitions informed by gendered and generational success tropes shape these aspirations, but the means of achieving these ends often remain elusive. Many African cities – or at least significant sections of them – have subsequently become cities of strangers with few clear pathways or incentives for local economic or political incorporation. With neither long-term employment or publicly provided safety-nets, people retain strong material and moral connections to ‘multiple elsewheres’ (Mbembe and Nuttal 2004).  

As people make lives across multiple sites – from where they come, live, and hope to go – they forge connections both material and moral. Circulations of messages, memories, and remittances accompany modifications in goals, values, and norms. From the gateways or urban estuaries in which these multiple pathways converge, constellations of peoples and sites interlinked within and across space and time begin to emerge (see Worby 2010). This is how cities emerge that are simultaneously cosmopolitan and heterogeneous, connected through tissues that prove more durable than many narratives about cities tend to convey.

Amidst this web of connection, individuals remake the spaces around them, generating novel forms of mobile urbanism and belonging. Many of these local attachments are only loosely structured by dominant social norms or a comprehensive vision for urban development (cf. Asher and Okoth 2020). People cross urban boundaries to work, play, and pray side by side in multiple languages. They slide past each other, leaving light traces while fashioning loose bonds. Speaking scores of languages and following almost an equal number of religious denominations, they connect and disconnect with neighbours and kin across diasporas.

This mobile urbanism rests on the dispersion and reformulation of families, communities, and the transformation of gendered and generational relations (cf. Dodson 1998; Lubkemann 2007; Massey 1994). Some will coalesce in forms familiar from other increasingly diverse urban centres: ethnic groups hunkering down and forming enclaves; neighbourhood associations formed around spaces, debates, or themes; home-town associations (cf. Holschfield, et al, 2022; Oldfield and Greyling 2015). Within these, women and men may revert to familiar roles, recreating family life recognizable and respectable to those at home. Others will take the forms of localized disconnection, where individuals actively resist local incorporation while building relationships – platonic and intimate, material and imagined – that may be fleeting or far-flung (cf. Ye 2018).

Men and women will escape the expectations of watchful families, assuming public and private identities and living arrangements that they cannot readily take on when monitored in the communities from which they originate. There is a liberatory aspect to these shifts even as there is profound dislocation and even violence that accompanies these efforts to remake oneself in a new city.

Futures in another place and time

These emergent possibilities for social life require us to see the multiple rhythms of the city, lives made at once for the here and now and simultaneously for futures in spaces that may only ever be visited in landscapes of dream and aspiration. This is illustrated in the map presented below. Some of the people who make the journey to a gateway zone long to return home when their working lives are done only to find the spaces and people to which they return are unrecognizable. Others build diasporic futures with investments and families in places they may never reach (see Furgeson1999; Johnson-Hanks, 2022; Rast, 2012). People’s aspirations are often imbricated with fantastic images of contemporary achievement: the wealth of Nollywood films, hip-hop videos, the millenarian and miraculous promise of Pentecostal preachers, or selfies from friends and relatives fabricating successes at odds with their material conditions.[4]

Whether liturgical or popular, informed by current affairs or historical and cultural bequests, imaginations include trajectories and markers of progress often closely associated with geographic mobility: a move to the city, a move across borders, a journey to Europe or America. Yet material circumstances, the increasing policing of borders between African states, and Europe’s lockdown of African migration that fashions borders into barriers make these journeys increasingly difficult and life-threatening.[5] Many become stuck in place and time, unable to progress or reach the next milestone of success. [6][7] Without such achievements, they cannot return ‘home’, but nor can they move forward, suspended in a state of what the anthropologist Alcinda Honwana calls ‘waithood.’[8]

If nothing else, Africa’s urbanisation simultaneously centres and unsettles the margins. Africa’s urban gateways and estuaries often appear in city plans and scholarship as denigrated or degenerate spaces of poverty, violence, and exclusion. They appear to many as ‘well-identified, bounded, and increasingly isolated territories viewed by both outsiders and insiders as social purgatories, urban hellholes where only the refuse of society would accept to dwell.’[9] Yet this exhibit – and the cities which inform it – call on us to see these zones as politically generative spaces, frequently contoured by sustained and varied forms of mobility. They are created, transformed, or maintained through interactions among the multiple ethnic, political, or religious groups within it but also through connections to allies, families, and interlocutors elsewhere that people in the margins draw in.

In these spaces we begin to see a range of possible futures beneath a framing that is initially domestic but gives way to reveal broader forces at work. Urban gateways and estuaries are ultimately more than transitory spaces on the edges of power that contain and frustrate personal or collective trajectories. They may serve this role, but they are also sites of contestation, membership claiming, identity formation, and boundary production.[10] They are places where the political and institutional practices that define centre and periphery are taken up, adapted, recast, and reinvented. It is where conceptual categories of insider and outsider are forged with, or without, reference to material or institutional opportunities and endowments. They are places where new margins are drawn, sometimes creating spaces of exclusion and incorporation within the periphery. As people retain orientations to sites elsewhere, what was a community’s centre becomes the margin of another. They are also places where new solidarities are forged. They are places where people develop new practices to break down divisions, but also new practices to mark out and enforce new divides. As people move, mix, and merge, the margins can become new loci of action and contestation. Economic and political fragmentation means multiple centres and margins with each space potentially serving as both. [11]

As space-time compression, multi-localism, economic precarity, and political fragmentation continue apace, these urban spaces are decreasingly discrete sites on the edge of the ‘real’ economy and politics. They are instead locations where lives are made, in which women sell Chinese or Dutch fabrics or – tellingly – maps of the globe, on the side of the road that they carry with them on their cross-border journeys for resale. And for tens of millions across the continent, they are the new normal. They are spaces at once hyperlocal and immensely global. They are marginal yet also central, emerging as connected sites together through multiple circulations within material and moral economies. Increasingly these constellations will define self, city, and our future politics.

Reconsidering democratic inclusion and mobilisation

This is an era of increased fluidity, political devolution, institutional fragmentation, and precarity both economic and environmental (cf. Standing 2011; Malone, et al, 2017; Katz 2004). Mobility transforms families, spaces, and potentialities. It denudes and it builds: heightening precarity and poverty for some, creating pathways to accumulation and advancement for others. It also gives cause to questions cities historical role as sites of production, extraction, subjectification, and subversion. As sub-Saharan Africa’s population increasingly moves within, to, and through cities, cities are increasingly becoming gateways to indeterminate economic, social, and political futures. As urbanism takes multiple forms — cities and suburbs; high-rises and informal settlements – so too will the future of solidarity, sociality, and imagination.

What will become of these connected islands of space-time that are forming across African cities and elsewhere in the world? Undoubtedly, given vast contingencies, the future for people and the spaces they create will require time to work themselves out. Translocal or oscillating lives, diasporic imaginaries and deterritorialised politics may become the new normal. Yet there is not one African history, nor will there be one political future.[12] Because of the mobilities that shape them, the alternative forms of social organisation they allow, and the new meanings and new identities they support, they may ultimately shape global politics and culture, as mass mobility becomes an increasing hallmark of our modern age even and we have yet to design political forms, or safety nets, wholly adequate to this phenomenon.

Where cities of the industrial revolution were progenitors of modern nationalism and democratic or liberatory mobilisations, Africa’s urban centres lack both the markets and institutions to bond their populations or to territorially extend their disciplines. This is significant at a practical level, manifesting as multiple forms of political action and inaction many of which remain invisible or underappreciated by scholars versed in the liberatory ethos historical materialism, democratic theory, or even Foucauldian governmentality.

This points to the need for a broader epistemological and ethical realignment for both normative scholars seeking interventions to address marginalisation and inequality and others seeking to theorise emerging 21st century politics. As Hoelscher, et al, (2022:2) note, ‘most African countries are urbanizing without significant structural economic change, rendering many social scientific theories based on the experience of ‘early urbanizers’ in Europe and North America of limited relevance in the African context.’ Indeed, understanding politics amidst the emerging agglomerations and exclusions demands new modes of reflecting and theorizing divergent yet intersecting configurations of space-time.[13] These reflections must move beyond the teleologies and normative ethics of modernism, Marxism, and other liberatory analytical modes. There is need to develop an understanding of political authority and institutional configurations that reflects people’s fragmented, uncertain, and mobile futures: Modes of engaging in constellations of connected and disconnected spaces and regulatory systems and the people shaping them.

When considering the implications for democratic mobilisation and solidarity, it is worth reflecting explicitly on how scholars epistemically and ethically mobilise ideas of inclusion and participation. At a normative level, scholars often align with the eleventh Sustainable Development Goal’s call to build ‘inclusive cities’ or older refrains to ensure all residents have a ‘right to the city’. Even when not explicitly stated, norms of representation, visibility, and local investment often serve as means of evaluating the effectiveness, structure, and morality of urban diversity management. For some this is largely about economics: access to work, basic services, and possibilities for upward mobility. For others, it is about political inclusion: consultation and the ability of all urban residents to shape the municipal policies affecting them. The understanding of inclusion informing most policy approaches –from Urban Vision plans to the Sustainable Development Goals – draw inspiration from industrial cities in North America and, to some extent, Latin America. Henry Lefebvre’s famous demand that workers have rights to the city is premised on their contributions to building its infrastructure and wealth (see Purcell 2016). Moreover, it presumes an ideal of urban ownership, if not of land, then of the city’s future. For him, for the drafters of the SDGs, or the forces behind Habitat III’s demand for urban inclusion are ideals of localised belonging; of representation and visibility; of recognition and status where you are. They work from an ethics of inclusion that presumes people wish to remain. Yet models of place bound by incorporation, assimilation, or integration are no longer adequate as either an empirical or ethical guide (see Bakewell and Landau 2018). As people build translocal lives – often governed by processes beyond formal institutions – local, state, or social recognition and ownership may cease to be the goal. For some, it may be something they actively avoid.

The translocalism and informality described above give cause to question the desirability of inclusion that is so often a metric for ‘urban success’. Indeed, one must not presume the desirability for urban solidarity and place-bound membership for those living in estuaries or translocal constellations, or for those who see the state as either inherently oppressive or irrelevant. Instead, political participation and inclusion – like the economic and social lives described above – becomes something that is often temporally and spatially dispersed: nodes and networks spanning space and time. People shun local engagement while supporting political parties and processes elsewhere. They attend churches, go to community meetings, or help repatriate corpses to maintain their status in villages they otherwise visit only now and then, while they actively resist forging binding connections with their urban neighbours and institutions. Apart from Pentecostal churches that often encourage members to distance themselves from non-parishioners, the migrant respondents in our survey belong to few associations; find little value in attending government meetings; and express remarkably low levels of trust in ‘locals’. Many are deeply suspicious of people from their own countries or communities of origin, fearing that close connections with them will result in additional demands or serve as a surveillance function, potentially embarrassing them to people back home (Cazarin 2018; Kankonde 2010; Landau and Freemantle 2022).

This helps explain why across the cities where I have worked one not only sees low levels of civic engagement, but only faint or partial desire for it. To be sure, there are other reasons for this limited orientation – preliminary analysis suggests activism at home is correlated with urban activism – but it nonetheless discourages engagement with formal political structures. This applies even among those who have spent extended periods (or were born) in the city. In Accra, 75 per cent of the locally born said they would not attend an official, local planning meeting if given the opportunity. That figure was close to 80 per cent for domestic migrants and even higher for those from other countries. Those in Nairobi and Johannesburg were slightly more inclined to attend, but only just. Meantime, similar percentages report interest in attending a political rally, party meeting, or community group. While voting remains high on people’s agenda, other forms of inclusion and local representation do not.

Rather than an analysis measuring ‘inclusion’ or ‘participation’ in localised or dichotomous terms, this too must be respatialised. After all, what looks like exclusion and political marginalisation in one neighbourhood may be part of a strategy for status and influence elsewhere. A worker in Johannesburg, for example, may continue to live in a backyard shack or single, rented room for decades. While he registers in urban data collection as indigent, his urban self-denial allows him to buy land, cattle, and status within the community whose respect he desires. Hiding urban wealth is also a way to shelter one from the redistributed demands of kin and colleagues, allowing individuals or families to accumulate the resources required for onward movement. Recognising these constellations of belonging and inclusion means explicitly recognising that people seek varied forms of recognition and membership in multiple places. This may create alternative urban cartographies with disconnections between neighbours and municipal institutions, but vibrant conduits between a Nairobi street corner and a village in Somalia and a mosque in Minnesota. It may connect a small shop in Johannesburg to a political party in Kinshasa or a farmer’s cooperative or chamber of commerce in Mozambique. As much as supply chains and commuting corridors, these forms of participation shape urban policy outcomes and interactions.

Pentecostalism, one of Africa’s most muscular social forces, is perhaps the greatest driver of belonging across corridors and constellations (see Wilhelm-Solomon, et al, 2016; Landau 2014) While relatively few people in our three-city sample attended public meetings or party events, almost all were part (and contributed money to) religious organisations.Large numbers of the churches build on their strong connections to institutions in Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, and the United States, and many of them are increasingly political. However, their preaching is often extraterritorial, overtly denying the legitimacy of state laws while speaking of the dangers of local connections. Both the state and the sullied are enemies of salvation. If our concern is with the actors shaping urban space and governance, surely these are among the most significant (see Maclean and Esiebo 2017). Indeed, as they pray, parishioners draw on variegated liturgical language to make demands on cities while locating themselves in an ephemeral, superior and unrooted condition in which they can escape localised social and political obligations.

The forms of participation (and self-exclusion) we see emerging across many African cities are connected to urban residents’ multiple and often translocal economic, social, and political aspirations. Rather than seeking strong, localised relations and influence, some – by choice or necessity – orient their participation elsewhere. This is does not justify the active exclusion of populations by political or economic elites, but it raises important analytical questions for policy analysis. Accepting that urban political participation and local recognition is not a normative goal for all (and may counter emic understandings of urban ‘success’) frees us to treat it as both a subject for empirical inquiry and a potentially powerful heuristic. As scholars seek means of comparing and contrasting urbanism (Robinson 2016), finding ways of comparing the nature and geographic scale of participation becomes a way of reading the city. Doing this effectively means opening the form and scale of participatory forms and recognising the role ‘stateness’ and translocality play in shaping urban space. As such, scholars will benefit from considering categories or continua of participation that can provide more nuance and comparative leverage. Seeking a means of assessing participation at multiple geographic scales, individual or collective projects, and residential environments holds the promise of a broader comparative account of urban policymaking.

If understanding urban politics is about how institutions hinder or encourage participation, I advocate an agnostic approach. Rather than promote participation as a normative good, participation and other forms of social connection become means of characterising cities rather than judging them. Such a perspective does not take as its goal facilitating participation or identifying local level ‘democratic deficits’. Rather, it looks at forms of participation and, importantly, the desire and geographic basis for it as means to understand political and policy processes. In this regard, formal meetings – consultations with political parties, policing forums, participatory budgeting consultations and the like – become just one way in which citizenship is expressed and participation practiced. These must be considered alongside substantive interactions with non-state actors and with leaders (formal and informal) outside the city’s geographic boundaries. This furthers others’ observations about multi-level policymaking, but again in ways that do not centre state policy as the ‘dependent variable’. It extends the efforts to ‘see like a city’ which usefully positions urban government within a diverse and multi-local ecosystem. It goes a step further in asking scholars to see urban policy as an outcome of processes that may have little to do with direct city government action or are taking shape precisely because city officials are deliberately absent, administratively under-resourced, or effectively kept away from neighbourhoods and policies through the actions of developers, gangsters, and others. Most importantly, by decentring the focus on local authorities, it makes space for the multiple system of political and social authority that intersect (but is not contained) within cities or urban boundaries. All are part of managing diversity when viewed within an urban frame.

In summary, Sub-Saharan Africa presents cities with ill-defined boundaries where people both struggle for and actively resist inclusion. Some seek status where they are but are stymied by economic structures that work against them. Others pursue a kind of distanciated deferral in which they seek recognition and futures elsewhere in continental or trans-continental constellations. For them, visibility, group membership, political participation, cross-cutting social ties – the forms of inclusion scholars and activists almost universally celebrate – become forms of entrapment. Rather than rights to the city, which is effectively a right of ownership, many want what I’ve termed ‘usufruct rights.’ They are helping turn parts of cities into ‘nowherevilles’ – a place where almost no one is from and almost no one wants to belong.

Concluding remarks: translocality, informality, and mobilisation

This short paper calls for ways of assessing urban politics in slightly more expansive ways.

First, while recognising that scholars of urban regimes often analytically include non-state actors (e.g., business, civil society organisations), they unduly privilege state institutions as the locus of advocacy and the ultimate standard-bearer of urban policy. While states remain important actors, the range of alternative modes of local and translocal regulation at work in African cities often mean states are only of secondary, practical concern. Even if cities and ports are among the few sites where Sub-Saharan states have exercised centralised control (see Herbst 2000; Leonard and Straus 2003), they are often amalgams of regulatory systems working at different spatial scales and moral registers: what Holsten and Appadurai (1996) refer to as honeycombs of jurisdiction and regulation. Like cities elsewhere in the Global South, urban populations’ demographic dynamism often outstrips the capacity or interests of state regulators (see Harms 2016; Buechler 2008; Auerbach, et al. 2018; Ren 2018; Caldeira 2017; Landau 2006; Bank 2011).

Second, that understanding urban governance and policy requires a distinctly translocal perspective that not only considers global supply chains and international institutions (public and private), but often less visible material and moral circuits of exchange. As people increasingly move into and through primary and secondary urban centres, they may spend most of their time in a city while their political and moral engagements remain in sites well beyond the limits of urban policymakers. This results in a form of translocal ‘do-it-yourself’ urbanism which blurs the geographical and institutional boundaries underlying conceptions of the urban and urban politics (see Myers 2021; Turner 2015; Mains 2011).

Third, there is need to challenge approaches explicitly or implicitly assessing politics through a focus on inclusion and popular participation. Take, for example, the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ number 11: to ‘make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’.[14] Underlying this is a normative pronouncement that provides a series of comparative analytical metrics that resonate strongly with much research on urban policymaking. This chapter asks whether a focus on inclusion and local, state-centred participation effectively enables scholars to understand the politics and priorities of urban spaces and populations. This is not to advocate for economic, social, and political marginalisation, but rather to recognise that due to histories of ‘stateness’ (Dyson 2009) and scepticism of official interventions, many urban residents have little interest in participating in official policy. Moreover, those seeking to build lives may actively avoid engagements to remain effectively ‘uncaptured’ (cf. Kihato and Landau 2006; Hyden 1980).

Doing so requires a dual recalibration. The first is to shift beyond the localised trifecta of business, civil society, and state that tends to position government as the locus of mobilisation and influence. As work on xenophobic violence in South Africa (and violence elsewhere) suggests, the state often disengages from the de facto regulation of peoples, processes, and places. These become sites for experiments in governmental form (see Iskander and Landau 2022). The general irrelevance of state policy in many people’s lives further suggests the value of coding as regulators and policymakers as actors that may have little engagement or make little reference to official policies or institutions. The second is a recalibration of scale. While scholars have long recognised the need to see municipalities as ‘nested’ within state and national bodies, there is an increasing awareness that cities are connected horizontally. These connections are often as much social as material. The policies shaping lives in those sites – whether agricultural and land use policy, taxation, and banking, even education and housing – affect how people live, engage, and mobilise in the cities in which they reside.

Our analysis of politics must adapt to this approach with a heightened focus on informality and a rescaled epistemology. This should recognise the spatio-temporalities of life in the city – what Lefebvre might call it’s polyrhythmicity – but also the multiple urban configurations produced through the mobility of people, goods, and ideas. There is a need to go beyond the stacking or nesting of urban policy in vertical relations with provincial, national, and global frameworks. This is invaluable, but a spatial approach considering corridors, catchments, and the constellations forged through material and socio-economic connections will better capture the multiple temporal and geographic policy spaces shaping contemporary cities. Work by Banerjee (2011) and others adopting a ‘transnational’ or ‘translocal’ perspective starts us on this process, but there is need to include constellations and not just connections that can help us build socialised, spatialised, and temporalised approaches that reveal what Johnson (2012) might term, ‘systems of systems’ but with specific focus on material and social forms entanglement.

There is also value in reconsidering how many of the normative foundations work as metrics for comparative analysis. It is, for example, still possible to use levels of civic participation, social cohesion, and representation as comparative metrics without proffering these as universal objectives: the Weberian distinction between ideal-types and normative ideals. Doing so allows us to assess what, for example, social cohesion and community do and should mean when people who live with multiple temporal and geographic trajectories share space. It may also help avoid efforts to make visible populations that might otherwise wish to remain invisible or to avoid the kind of ‘insurgent citizenship’ or ‘autoconstruction’ the literature often celebrates (see Thomaz 2021; also, Holston 2008; Caldeira 2017). These are people who see cities as spaces of extraction, not belonging, and fear inclusion and incorporation as a threat to their longer-term projects.

In an era of informalised work and regulation, a focus on law and formal migration policy – even at multiple scales– is inadequate to explain social, economic, or developmental outcomes. Instead, we must understand the migration experience simultaneously across multiple geographic and temporal scales, both formal and social. At the very least, it requires a more substantive understanding of the multiple trajectories under which urban residents are living their lives and the spatial and temporal horizons informing them. This means new forms of research. It means new forms of engagement. Perhaps most importantly, it requires constant self-reflection on the societies we want versus the societies we are likely to get. Until we reconsider what we mean by justice, by inclusion, and by sustainability, scholars and planners risk building cities that only exacerbate the inequality and exclusion we seek to address. There will be those who suggest these observations do not apply beyond Africa’s rapidly transforming urban centres. Without denying their distinctions, it is worth remembering the Comaroffs (2012) rejoinder that even the cities where modern political analysis began – Frankfurt, Paris, New York, London – are increasingly looking like the kind of fragmented precarious spaces we see across Sub-Saharan Africa.


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[1] https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/urbandevelopment/overview

[2] See https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-11/mapping-65-years-of-explosive-urban-growth-around-the-world

[3] For reasons discussed later, it is useful to think of many of the world’s population as ‘partially’ rather than fully urbanized. As Potts (2011)notes,many Africans retain strong connections to rural areas or small towns and translocal households are common.

[4] On Pentecostalism, see Wilhelm-Solomon, et al, 2017; and Cazarin, 2018.

[5] I. Freemantle and L.B. Landau, 2022. ‘Europe, African Migration, and the Timespace Trap,’ Geopolitics. 27(3): 791-810.

[6] K. Ramakrishnan, 2013. ‘Disrupted Futures: Unpacking Metaphors of Marginalization in Eviction and Resettlement Narratives’, Antipode, 46(3): 755.

[7] See S. Oldfield and S. Greyling, 2015. ‘Waiting for the State: A Politics of Housing in South Africa’, Environment and Planning A, 47(5): 1100–12; also C. Jeffrey, 2010. ‘Timepass: Youth, Class, and Time among Unemployed Men in India’, American Ethnologist, 37(3): 465–81; C. Katz, 2004. Growing Up Global: Economic Restructuring and Children’s Everyday Lives, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[8] A. Honwana, 2014. “’Waithood’: Youth Transitions and Social Change,” in Development and Equity, D. Foeken, T. Dietz, L. de Haan and L. Johnson. Leiden: Brill: 28-40.

[9] L. Wacquant, 1996. ‘The Rise of Advanced Marginality: Notes on Its Nature and Implications.’ Acta Sociologica, 39(2), 125.

[10] See S. Hall, 2021. The Migrant’s Paradox: Street Livelihoods and Marginal Citizenship in Britain, University of Minnesota Press

[11] Many of the ideas in this paragraph draw from N. Iskander and L.B. Landau. 2022. ‘The Centre Cannot Hold: Arrival, Margins, and the Politics of Ambivalence,’ Migration Studies 10(2): 97-111.See also F.F. Piven, 2008. ‘Can Power from Below Change the World?’ American Sociological Review, 73(1):1-14.

[12] S.A. Dalberto, H. Charton and O. Goerg, 2013. ‘Urban Planning, Housing and the Making of “Responsible Citizens” in the Late Colonial Period: Dakar, Nairobi, and Conakry’, in S. Bekker and L. Fouchard (eds.), Governing Cities in Africa, Cape Town: HSRC Press: 43–64.

[13] For more on the chronotope, see J. Blommaert, 2017. ‘Commentary: Mobility, Contexts, and the Chronotope,’ Language in Society 46(1): 95-99; also L. Steinby and T. Klapuri, 2013, Bakhtin and his Others: (Inter) subjectivity, Chronotope, Dialogism. London: Anthem Press.

[14] See https://sdgs.un.org/goals

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