Long-distance buses get loaded in a terminal on the outskirts of Maputo, Mozambique. Photo: iStock

Rapid urban growth in Africa means these city populations have become politically more important

Why has it taken so long for the city to figure as a major factor in the developmental discourse around Africa? To answer this question it will be helpful to analyse some of the demographics and economics involved. In addition, we need to review the priorities of the liberation movements that took over the governance of African countries at independence.

We will also need to discuss the importance of agriculture to Africa’s economies at the time of independence, which meant that development for immediate post-independence governments was always likely to focus on agriculture. Lastly, we will ask whether the externally imposed austerity programmes of the 1970s and 1980s – which coincided with a fall in commodity prices and the period of most rapid urbanisation – meant that urban development was seen to be less of a priority until the late 1990s.

Sub-Saharan Africa is still a mostly rural society: as of mid-2015, the United Nations (UN) Population Division estimates, 62.1% of the population was still living in rural areas. However, that number was down sharply from where it was during the period countries were gaining independence: in mid-1960, 85.1% of the population was rural, and only 14.8% urban. In landlocked countries the proportions were even higher: in 1960, 97% of Botswana’s population was rural, for instance, and 98% of Burundi’s.

Before the decolonisation of Africa, the continent’s cities were not very big, and tended to be quite European in their demographic make-up. This element contributed to the mistrust that radical independence leaders had for cities, often seeing the Africans who lived in them as “compromised”. Apart from this somewhat prejudiced view, the sheer fact that 85% of sub-Saharan Africans were living outside of cities – 188 million, compared to less than 33 million in urban areas – forced African policymakers to consider rural areas the primary focus for development.

Yet another reason for the importance of the countryside in post-independence policymaking was the importance of agriculture in national economies, and the potential for more modern farming techniques and investment in food-processing industries to add more value to national economies. Numbers before 1990 are unreliable, but it is certain that mining and agriculture made up the lion’s share of value added in African economies in the 1960s.

The emphasis on rural areas and on agriculture was further emphasised by the powerful appeal at the time of communist thought, most importantly manifested by the Soviet Union. There, the Communist Party had an obsession with the peasant class – no doubt because the country’s working class was still tiny at the time of the 1917 revolution. Moreover, in Africa the instinctive focus on the rural areas was latent in the lived history of those who had fought in independence struggles, who had experienced the support of rural populations, and the ambivalence of more comfortable elites.

Frantz Fanon, one of the strongest contemporary voices of the independence struggles, writes of “the unpreparedness of the educated classes” and “the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people”.

Indeed, there were important correspondences in the personal histories of the men – and they were all men – who played significant and seminal roles in the (immediate) post-independence histories of their countries. In every case, they show a common rootedness in rural life, and a concomitant mistrust of supposedly un-African elites in the cities. This is so, even though each of them was also widely travelled and highly educated, and most were from well-off families.

Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana was the first African statesman to lead his nation to independence. He was born in a small village in the far south-west, and raised in the traditional way in a large extended family. Felix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast was born in Yamoussoukro when it was a small town, and spent his childhood there and in a French military post. His political consciousness was much concerned with the economic concerns of the African planters and their subservient relationship to European planters and buyers.

Immediately following independence Togo was led by two somewhat contrasting personalities. Sylvanus Olympio was born in Lomé to a family of cosmopolitan traders with generational links to foreign countries. In his third year in office he was deposed and assassinated by Gnassingbé Eyadéma, a peasant from the far north, who later became president.

Julius Nyerere of Tanzania – whose influence is still felt well beyond his own country – was the son of a chief born in a remote region near Lake Victoria. His childhood experiences of communal living heavily influenced his later philosophy of ujamaa, often translated as “African socialism”. Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta was born to a family of farmers and began his career in politics lobbying the colonial government on behalf of farmers. All these leaders came from rural areas, and their first concerns were those of rural Africans, who had faced the worst brutality of the settler class.

All this meant that African leaders necessarily had to think of their farmers first. Farmers made up the bulk of the employed population; this is still the case in a number of sub-Saharan workforces. Meanwhile, in many countries soft commodity exports – those that are grown, not mined – accounted for the bulk of foreign-exchange receipts and government revenues.

In the 1980s, after an oil price spike and a bubble in gold and silver, commodity prices on world markets contracted, and countries that were heavily reliant on exports of raw goods were in trouble. Many had grown used to strong currencies and resulting cheap imports – at the expense of domestic manufacturing – and had steadily expanded government spending.

The decade of the 1980s also brought a broad ideological shift, with the attractiveness of communism or other forms of state socialism sharply reduced after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1992, the Chinese obeyed Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation to “open up” to foreign capital. Western nations, which were run along mostly capitalist lines, now had a more or less unchallenged pulpit to press African nations and advise on policy. It is unsurprising, therefore, that ruling parties’ governing philosophies began shifting right.

The economic exigencies that went with this shift also had an influence. When currencies and government revenues fell along with exports, the governments of developing countries, including many in Africa, found themselves in trouble, and were forced to turn to the Washington institutions for help. By the end of 1989, 28 sub-Saharan African countries had World Bank-supported structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) in place, and 27 had International Monetary Fund (IMF) programmes.

These programmes focused squarely on cutting government spending at all levels, including investment. Projects aimed at developing the primary sector were discouraged and governments were, instead, pressed to keep their broad economic structures unchanged, and to cut subsidies.

By 1990 or so most of the bloody civil wars fought between Cold War proxies were winding down. Even those “communist” movements that won their conflicts, as in Mozambique and Angola, were making friends in the West. This shift has accelerated since then. Now, African governments sell bonds in international markets to finance development. To keep the lights on, government representatives have to go on regular roadshows to woo investors in the West.

The severity of the Washington consensus may have diminished somewhat since the 1980s, but development advice still tends to the conservative, with emphasis on policies that advance productivity, such as education and healthcare, rather than those which change the structure of the economy, such as industrialisation. The overall focus of development discourse in Africa has shifted accordingly from economic development – typically meaning industrial development and beneficiation of exports – to poverty reduction.

More recently, with the rapid urban growth occurring all around Africa, urban populations have become politically more important. This is partly because they are active in the service sectors that now account for most economic output (this is so, even if, as we have seen, in many countries more workers are still employed in agriculture). Returns on investment on education, sanitation and healthcare are best where population densities are highest.

All of these reasons, taken together, help to explain why Africa’s developmental focus has turned to cities. This can be expected to continue as Africa’s urbanisation continues. By 2040, according to the UN, Africa’s urban population will surpass its rural population in size.

François Conradie is head of research at NKC. After working as a teacher in Cape Town, he moved to Tunisia in 2007, where he worked as a stockbroker on the local market. In 2008 he launch the international trading desk for Integra Bourse, a regional financial services company in Morocco. He became a political analyst for NKC in 2011 and was made Head of Research in 2016. His research focusses on macroeconomic dynamics in an environment of lower commodity prices. He holds a BA from the University of Stellenbosch, and an MPhil in Futures Studies from the same university.