On the precarity of the global present and its implications for the African city

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The last couple of decades have witnessed a series of regional events that have threatened to shift the tides of global politics. For instance, it was not long ago that the notion of ‘Africa rising’ became such a hot story amidst optimistic accounts of a growing middle class, inclusive technologies, sprawling cities, and budding economies. It was also not that long ago that China’s growing clout in Africa and its connections with Europe began to attract extensive attention. This attention has become even more amplified at the global stage with China’s increased economic and strategic positioning through vast infrastructure development projects such as the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative.

However, it is the apparent shift toward “‘de-globalization’ and the return of the nation-state” in the West as witnessed by the events leading up to – and beyond – ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’ that has received the most critical attention. Critics have cited a broader shift in global flows and loops, and a purported shift toward decentring and multicentring alongside an increased redistribution of power and influence. They argue that this could potentially lead to a more fragmented reality synonymous with increased multi-polarity in which global institutions and establishments hold lesser legitimacy and so-called ‘superpowers’ carry a diminished global presence. But most of all, they suggest that we are moving toward a world that is more open and dynamic to the presence of diversity, variability and simultaneity. In this framing, every nation or entity constitutes only a ‘separate part’ of the global assemblage, each posing a minimised economic, political and social impact at the global stage.

It is important to note however, is that when you read about this so-called ‘global geopolitical reconfiguration’ and its signification, it is possible to think as if Africa was not (a significant) part in this conversation. Africa barely features. And when she does, she is located as the pitiable target to be consoled and sympathised with: a victim, much more likely to be wounded or affected in an apparent and metaphoric clash of the titans. This is so much so that even some of the most avid African provocateurs have taken to representing this transfiguration by meekly fanning the elusive global restructuring as being mostly representative of ‘a demise’ of the West, in most cases disparagingly and redundantly placing Africa as a wretched entity. In other words, they engage with Africa without critically examining the continent’s location within the constantly changing global present.

This, however, is not to say that such a representation puts Africa in any extraordinarily unusual position. Africa, for a long time has constituted a complex, complicated and problematical matrix. Not least, by its very description. For instance, the term Africa is tantamount to contentious definitional problems both geographically and historically. Much of what is referred by the prefix of ‘African’ with regard to ethnicity, modernity, urbanity and development is strikingly influenced by different elsewheres. These kinds of contradictions and conflicts play out within a wide range of diverse identities, variegated rationalities, untapped (cultural, essentialist and nationalized) realities, all shaped by colonial and postcolonial systems designed to impose ‘order’ to economy, society and spatial form.

Ultimately, the African city, at the nexus of constant global configurations, has become a significant copy and representation of an interplay that is shaped and affected by forces from all corners. The internal morphology and political philosophy of African cities demonstrates more starkly the complexities and contradictions that are apparent in this assemblage of multitudinous forces and influences from elsewhere.

Perhaps more interestingly for the African city as a bounded territory is the manner in which the African continent in general is presently being redrawn not necessarily along nation lines, but by city lines. Cities are becoming new nations. They constitute the core of socio-economic, technological and infrastructural growth and (re)development programs on the continent. When compounded, these factors place the African city at a focal point of global configurations. Implicit in the increased centrality of cities is another shift that is significant to Africa’s present state at the nexus of global configurations: a further redrawing of the infrastructure map along urban webs of connectivity not only of communication but also of access and supply to critical services.

Accordingly, African cities are increasingly gaining more economic, geopolitical and academic centrality. They are becoming reimagined as more than just ‘laboratories’ or ‘test-beds’ for the importation and experimentation of theoretical and technological ideas, but also as ‘incubators’ of technological investments, innovations and ideals. They are becoming central complexes of activity – with some (such as Nairobi, Johannesburg, Kampala and Lagos) taking on the mantle even more laudably by realising complete urban digitalisation, connectivity and coverage. Material and digital network infrastructures in such cities are increasingly expanding, branching and interweaving in ways that cause significant disruption in their ordering and organisation.

These shifts add to the intricacy of the African city at the nexus, especially when imagined through the lens of the apparent reconfigurations of boundary lines and global politics. They subject the African city to affects from global networks and mobilities of influence in the changing world. For urban scholars and researchers, these shifts provoke contemplation on the embodiment and positionality of the African city beyond its representation as a kaleidoscopic, diverse, and complex landscape. As such, they make the further re-imagination of Africa’s urban landscape a formidable, if not daunting task. The questions that ought to be posed have to do with how we ought to (dis)associate and (dis)connect from/with dominant and inextricable narratives, imaginaries and dichotomies if we must accurately subsume the African city within the increasingly dislocated global present. We have to ask what the possibilities, opportunities and prospects are for cities evidently ready – or at least positioned – to (re)assert themselves within this apparent state of global precarity and reconfiguration.

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