Africa's urban population will double over the next 25 years. By 2040 at the latest, a majority of all Africans will be living in cities. Given this development, it is apparent that democratic political legitimacy will increasingly hinge on a socially and gender-equitable provision of public goods and economic opportunities in African cities. Thus far, however, populations have been streaming into "unjust" cities, which were often erected in colonial times and in which historical inequalities have been further compounded by neoliberal urban policies. Public goods are scarce commodities. The majority of African city dwellers live in informal settlements, work in precarious conditions, mostly in the informal sector, do not have any employment contracts, do not have any social security and in many cases have bleak prospects. Informality is therefore the overriding attribute characterizing African cities. On top of all this, 70 percent of global CO2 emissions are generated in cities. Urbanization therefore functions as a catalyst in existing social and economic inequalities as well as the climate crisis.
A large part of the urban infrastructure that will be needed by the middle of the century has yet to be built. Who will benefit from this infrastructure and from urban public goods is one of the most important socio-political debates in Africa in the 21st century. Technocratic solutions alone, which national decision-makers as well as bilateral and multilateral actors tend to favour, will not be able to reduce increasing urban inequality on the African continent. For a just and redistributive urban policy, urban socio-political power relations must change. This is the stage where political struggles will be playing out.
The African continent's burgeoning cities have already prompted some socio-political actors to alter their strategies. More and more city dwellers are casting their ballots in elections for new-style politicians, with distrust of the old guard mounting. Fledgling protest movements are increasingly registering successes in efforts to overcome social divisions. Urban socio-political strife has ignited over access to public goods in some niche areas. Trade unions are reaching out in an effort to gain new members among informally employed city dwellers. Such changes are not only to be witnessed in capital cities, but also in so-called "secondary and tertiary cities". All this underscores that civic engagement in Africa will in future be shaped more than ever before by the fact that the fulcrum of life and work for most people is in cities.
Neoliberal or technocratic concepts, especially the Smart City, are dominating the discourse on urbanization in Africa. Above all, state actors together with private-sector actors with close links to the state see the continent's urban future to lie mostly in the Smart City. The Smart City is more conducive to an autocratic urban policy in which isolated special economic zones, digital surveillance and restrictions on the use of public space (may) go hand in hand. Thus, in many African countries, the debate over how to shape urbanization has become a battleground between influential actors who would profit from a neoliberal Smart City and the majority of city dwellers, who would benefit from a democratic and redistributive city. The majority of urban populations, however, who often subsist in marginal conditions, have so far lacked urban political sway aside from the occasional election or spontaneous protests. Progressive approaches to urbanization have to date at most surfaced in some municipal niche areas. Still lacking on the continent is a political discussion on a social democratic urban development policy, which in turn ties into a broader debate over socially and politically just, ecologically sustainable and gender-equitable growth trajectories that create better prospects for city dwellers living and working under precarious circumstances. Such a discourse is often wanting at the municipal, but also at the national, continental and international levels.
For the "unjust" city to become a "just" city, decision-making processes that decide access to public goods such as housing, transport, a fairer distribution of land, health care, etc., need to be democratized beginning at the municipal and ranging all the way up to the national level. This also requires international support. The ultimate aim is to enable and shape a "people-centered urban transformation".
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