Urbanisation: slower than expected, but no room for complacency.

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Formal urbanisation: Durban CBD

Over a hundred Years ago, it’s estimated that 95% of people living south of the Sahara were engaged in cattle nomadism, hunting & gathering, farming and fishing, leaving 5% of Africa’s population in urban settlements.  Prior to the growth of independence movements in the 1950s, 15% had become urbanised. According to UN figures of 2002 that increased to 37.2 with a projection of approximately 3.5% per annum the figure will look more like 45.3% by this year.

There has been a mixture of dread and concern both politically and in sociological circles as to the outcome of the expected growth figures. Will Africa’s cities cope given that they have neither been built for such growth nor seem capable of accommodating increased infrastructure even if the funds were available?

So what do we make of some of the talk in research circles that urban populations are growing slower than has been projected? In South Africa: Durban and Johannesburg have been bracing themselves for a tsunami of rural migrants only to find that there has been nothing like the rate of growth expected.

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Informal urbanisation: Durban Informal Settlement

The late 80’s saw the scrapping of the Group Area’s act and the pass laws in general. People were allowed freedom of movement overnight. There was huge concern about cities becoming swamped. Johannesburg and other cities certainly have grown but not to the extent predicted while others haven’t at all.

In a paper published on the UN’s humanitarian affairs website IRINNEWS.org it is opined that with little access to the formal job market, most rural people lack the resources to live in cities for long periods. They often maintain homes and families in rural areas and return there for marriages, burials and when they fall on hard times.

It seems this ‘circular migration’ is muddling the conventional assumption that Africa’s urbanizing so quickly. Based on latest census material there are more and more countries ‘urbanising‘ this way. There are also more countries that are showing evidence of de-urbanisation.

In a paper released by the Africa Research Institute in February, researcher Deborah Potts, a reader in human geography at King’s College London, makes the case that the high standard of living and poor employment opportunities in African cities has created an air of economic insecurity in urban areas. The gap between rural and urban living standards has narrowed in some cases not making it worthwhile to venture into towns.

In South Africa for example Social grants for the elderly, children and the disabled can support a family living in a rural area where the cost of living is comparatively low. This has even kindled the growth of cash economies in some areas.

Then there’s what’s being termed ‘hidden migration’. It seems that many households have multiple locations given that some family members live in informal settlements and others at a rural location and there is movement between them. People keep moving until they find a reasonable standard of living.

South Africa’s  Independent Electoral Commission uncovers a very mobile population, “People are drawn to areas of greater economic opportunity, but also where infrastructure and housing is provided”  says the commission.

Fears about urbanization can hardly be dismissed given that overpopulation has played a major role in the lack of basic services, high unemployment and a general sense of hopelessness and political dissatisfaction. High crime and service delivery protests are a worrying knock-on effect.

Interestingly there are other dynamics at play elsewhere in Africa. Local traditional authorities in some countries provide the stability of access to land. In such communities people are at least assured of the opportunity to grow their own food for the extended family.

An example cited by Potts is Malawi, a profoundly rural country. Due to the lack of jobs and the high cost of living in urban areas people don’t settle in the towns but rather engage in very basic subsistence farming in the rural areas.  Some remain mobile and move from place to place traveling, moving with the food as it were.

None of this suggests that sub-Saharan African villages and cities are dwindling. The urban population continues to increase, however so does the rural population. There is still a general move towards urban life, but it is a slow shift, not a tsunami.

Eduardo Moreno, head of the Cities Programme at UN-Habitat, says “It is very clear that urbanization is slowing down, and African cities are not growing as fast as they were 10 or 15 years ago. But when you compare it with Asia or Latin America, Africa is still experiencing the highest rate of urbanization of the entire developing world.”

The warning in all this, is not to become complacent. Although the floodgates haven’t opened and the cities haven’t been swamped to the extent anticipated, negligence of the country’s urban poor would be huge mistake. Expectations of those who seek better lives in the cities and towns have been largely dashed. People with nothing to lose are a powder keg waiting to explode.

This isn’t to be melodramatic; civil disobedience around South Africa is arguably at an all-time high.  But no country in history has been lifted out of poverty by remaining rural. China, in its five-year plans says that urbanization is its driver of development.

A hiatus in the urban growth rate should, if anything, give those in authority a moment to catch their breath to deal with maladministration and corruption so that improving infrastructure and creating jobs can be brought up to speed. If not we will reap the urban whirl wind originally feared.

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About Matthew Campaigne Scott

I'm a freelance writer and researcher. I have written for periodicals and websites, composed speeches and sermons and prepared copy for web advertisements and research papers. I can tailor my work according to your needs. I love a challenge and enjoy building work relationships.

Posted on March 10, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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