Foreign Policy Blogs

Africa’s Cities: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Johannesburg (52), Nairobi (56), and Lagos (59) made the Foreign Policy magazine’s 2010 Global Cities Index. The index provides a comprehensive ranking of global cities’ performance by measuring their influence on the world stage, ranging from the size of the economy, politics to culture.

Not a surprising choice here, but personally I find the three cities’(especially Johannesburg) architectural structures, just like many other cities across the continent, lacking in bringing out the African characteristics- the continent’s history, culture, and everyday life. Jozi, as Johannesburg is affectionately known, being the affluent among the three is the most unfriendly and intimidating city I have ever known.

Nonetheless, Johannesburg, Nairobi, and Lagos are a microcosm of the whole African continent. They have full of promise, but all three hide deep-seated inequality beneath their seemingly picture-perfect statehouse buildings, parliaments, malls, and five star hotels. Like many other African cities, they face the same challenge of increasing shack communities, sometimes referred as informal settlements, sprawling on the outskirts.

These squatter camps or shantytowns are home to Africa’s destitute, and the unemployed who every year moves to the cities in search of employment. With exorbitant service-prices that cater only to the city’s elites, Africa’s cities have become hostile to their own residents, turning them into refugees in their own countries. Poor people living at the peripheries of Africa’s major cities and towns are lacking proper social services such as electricity, access to clinics and access to running water, police protection, roads, transportation and other basic services.

Compounding Africa’s urban problems is a clear lack of comprehensive policy throughout the continent. The crux of the matter is that Africa’s urban policies are not entrepreneurial enough in responding to the challenges of rural-urban migration. Many African governments’ economic policies are outdated and still rooted in the 1980s and 1990s World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s ill-advised Structural Adjustment Programs. Policy aside, politics also takes its toll on Africa’s municipalities due to corrupt and inefficient local government institutions.

In conclusion, the 2010 Global Cities Index may have found that Johannesburg, Nairobi and Lagos now boast numerous fortune Global 500 company headquarters, on the ground these mean nothing, but macho buildings and infrastructures structures that are unfriendly to the majority of Africa’s citizens (and visitors too!).

Therefore, be as it may, that the indicators used in the 2010 Global Cities Index are important, I would rather prefer to measure and rank cities’ influence on the world in terms of (to borrow from Sima Mpo) survival, decency, respect and care for humanity instead of loud and masculine indicators. How a city invests in its social infrastructures, and takes care of children, the disabled, elderly, and the destitute are subtle indicators, but they also tell how worldly — or provincial — a city is.



Ndumba J. Kamwanyah

Ndumba Jonnah Kamwanyah, a native of Namibia in Southern Africa, is an independent consultant providing trusted advice and capacity building through training, research, and social impact analysis to customers around the world. Mos recently Ndumba returned from a consulting assignment in Liberia in support of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
In his recent previous life Ndumba taught (as an Adjunct Professor) traditional justice and indigenous African political institutions in sub-Saharan Africa at the Rhode Island College-Anthropology Department.

He is very passionate about democracy development and peace-building, and considers himself as a street researcher interested in the politics of everyday life.
Twitter: NdumbaKamwanyah