Before Black Panther was a hit movie, Issue #7 cover artist Roy Okupe, a storyteller and animation entrepreneur was leading the charge towards creating a new comic book universe filled with tales and superheroes for Africa’s new millennium. We spoke to him in 2015

Words by Tau Tavengwa | Aug 10, 2020

Step aside Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, Africa has delivered the world a new superhero: Adewale “Wale” Williams, aka E.X.O. His domain should be familiar to comic book fans, the city—although it isn’t Gotham City, but Lagoon City. As with Gotham, Lagoon City is a stand-in for a real-world place: contemporary Lagos, where Wale Williams’ creator Roye Okupe was born. Okupe, who heads up YouNeek Studios in North Bethesda, Maryland, got hooked on superhero stories in the 1980s (he was a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series). Over time, though, he came to realise that superhero narratives had a predictable tone.

In 2008, Okupe began working on a superhero series set in Nigeria, E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams. A brief synopsis: Williams returns to Lagoon City after an absence of five years to investigate his inventor father’s disappearance. He finds a city of massive disparities plagued by CREED, a radical organization led by a brilliant but sociopathic extremist. Wale also inherits a suit with super powers … and an everyman becomes a superhero. Okupe talks about why he developed this future-focussed story.

Cityscapes: What is it about the genres of science fiction and comic books that prompted you to use them as a way to explore the future?

Roye Okupe: I’m obsessed with superheroes and superhero stories, but I’m just as obsessed with sci-fi movies, so when it was time to tell this story there was no better way than to combine my two loves. That’s how E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams was born. The creation of E.X.O. goes way beyond that though—there were two additional reasons why I decided to do it. My first was to step out and to risk making my dream come true: I have always had a dream to create a superhero from Nigeria, where I was born and raised. The second reason was pride: I wanted to do something positive and inspirational for my country, and my continent. When people see E.X.O.—whether animated on screen or as a graphic novel—I want them to see a different side of Africa, our booming tech industry, amazing architecture, unique culture and humour. This is a side that is not regularly shown in mainstream media.

CS: Your setting for E.X.O. is “future Lagos”—a place you name Lagoon City. It is pretty grim. You have referred to Lagoon City as similar to “what Gotham is to New York”. Is this grim future your impression of where Lagos is headed?

I am not saying we will have people flying around in super suits like E.X.O.’s hero does, but I believe with the boom in information technology and improvements in infrastructure, Nigeria—and Africa as a whole—will be great in ten years

RO: Oh, that reference wasn’t mine. It was a journalist at Forbes that said it. But in a way he is right. I made the choice not to go too far into the future. I set E.X.O. in 2025, ten years into the future. I wanted to illustrate what I truly believe Africa and Nigeria will be like in ten years time. Now, I am not saying we will have people flying around in super suits like E.X.O.’s hero does, but I believe with the boom in information technology and improvements in infrastructure, Nigeria—and Africa as a whole—will be great in ten years.

In my book I share that vision because the story is heavily focused on technology, and how the people in Lagoon City react to it. The cool thing is that the story focuses on a Nigeria that has done a good job of eradicating some of its most pressing issues—the lack of stable infrastructure, corruption and crime. But, a critical event happens and the nation starts to slip back to its old ways, and our hero, Wale Williams, is thrust into the middle of everything.

CS: What would you say are the possibilities and potential of science fiction in the African context?

RO: I think the future is really bright. There are a lot of other African writers taking more and more risks when it comes to telling science fiction stories, particularly how Africans react to technology.

CS: What are your impressions of other works of science fiction set on the continent that have emerged in the last few years?

RO: I think, no doubt, the biggest imprint has been made by Neil Blomkamp, the creator of District 9 (2009) and Chappie (2015). It was cool to see the concepts of artificial intelligence robots and aliens being showcased in a city like Johannesburg. I think successes like that are crucial for independents like me, and others who want to tell compelling sci-fi stories that take place in Africa

A flagship housing project on the outskirts of Luanda has created a new Angolan city marked by its own complexities

Words by Sylvia Croese | Aug 10, 2020

In 11 July 2015, the Angolan city of Kilamba, built 30km outside capital Luanda, celebrated its fourth anniversary. Promoted at its inauguration in 2011 as the largest housing project in the country’s history, Kilamba comprised 710 four, eight and twelve-storey apartment buildings built by the Chinese state-owned CITIC Group Corporation. Kilamba was intended to provide Angolans with a new and decent way of living through a new model of urban management. Occupations were initially sluggish and for a period after its construction Kilamba was described as a “Chinese-built ghost town” by various news outlets. But over 70 000 people now inhabit Kilamba’s 20 000 apartments, which provide basic services such as water and electricity. Schools, shops and restaurants are up and running. A second phase is currently under construction.

Some observers have criticised Kilamba for its exclusive nature and the irregularities that have characterised the sale and distribution of houses. However, in March 2015 a special issue of African Business magazine on African cities hailed Kilamba as clean, modern and dream-like. The modernist imaginary evoked by this development remains undeniably attractive in Angola’s rapidly growing capital, which by the end of the 27-year civil war in 2002 had largely come to consist of a deteriorated, congested urban core surrounded by massive sprawling slums. Decent housing was unaffordable for an urban middle class that started emerging during the country’s oil-fuelled post-war economic boom. Kilamba aimed to fill this gap.

The stakes for this and other mass-scale satellite housing projects built in recent years have been high. As the flagship project of the government’s housing programme Kilamba could not fail. Virtually everything has been done to guarantee its success. Houses that were initially priced at market rates have almost literally been given way, either for free to the politically connected, or through subsidised rent-to-buy schemes aimed at the larger public. Large investments have been made to guarantee basic and affordable service provision. Yet, in the face of dwindling oil revenues this top-down, state-led and free-for-all approach to housing development is under significant strain.

Imogestin, the company that took over the commercialisation of apartments from the state oil company’s real estate arm Sonip in 2014, recently announced that from October onwards residents of Kilamba and other government-housing projects would have to start paying their monthly instalments. But apart from an initial down payment to gain access to a housing unit, few of Kilamba’s residents have incurred any other costs. In May, state-owned water utility EPAL told residents that their connections would be cut off if they did not pay their outstanding bills. Videos have emerged on Kilamba’s Facebook page calling for people to pay their water and electricity bills as well as their monthly maintenance fees.

Houses that were initially priced at market rates have almost literally been given way, either for free to the politically connected, or through subsidised rent-to-buy schemes aimed at the larger public

Meanwhile, residents have been complaining about problems related to the lack of waste collection, maintenance of green areas and growing crime rates in the city. There have been calls for the administrator of Kilamba, Joaquim Israel, to step down. At the time of the city’s inauguration in 2011 Kilamba was viewed as a pilot project for the gradual decentralisation of state administration; Israel is however an appointee of Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos.

The widespread attention given to Kilamba, both nationally and internationally, has made its administrator more outward looking than other Angolan local government officials, who in the absence of local elections view accountability as working upward. Kilamba’s administrator has been open to receiving visitors and discussing issues related to the management of the city. Nevertheless, the city’s administration has little effective power or autonomy. Its budget is allocated annually through the state budget and while it collects some revenues locally through the issuing of documents such as proofs of residence as well as through payments for the rental of spaces in the city for events and publicity, there are no mechanisms that allow for collective decision making or accountability on how these funds are spent. In spite of a desire to turn Kilamba into a something new, the city is effectively still part and parcel of Luanda. It has therefore not been isolated from the problems that affect the larger metropolis, which has a highly centralised governance system, the limits of which are now being revealed by the drop in oil prices.

A new statute adopted in August hoped to make local residents’ committees a part of the solution to problems of daily urban management, by making them responsible for the development of activities related to cleaning and maintenance, including the levying fees for these services. Many committees, which are organised at the level of buildings and blocks, have already been doing this on a volunteer basis in order to solve on-going problems of maintenance and security. Some services, like waste collection and public security, however fall beyond the committees’ capacity which has led to calls on the administration for support.

The main idea behind the construction of Kilamba was to provide the physical infrastructure needed to allow for a modern and new way of living. Kilamba was necessary proof of President Dos Santos’s 2008 pledgeto build one million affordable houses across the country. In this regard, the project has been relatively successful. However, the lack of structural change in the way Kilamba is managed has drained the state’s coffersand produced a toothless local administration.

Kilamba remains an opportunity to improve people’s living conditions, but ultimately its future will depend on the way in which the future of Luanda—and perhaps Angola as a whole—is managed. In the meantime, life in Kilamba will depend on those who inhabit, shape and change the city on an everyday basis

Informal workers in cities across the global south are challenging the precarious and unsupportive work conditions to meaningfully better their lives

Words by Caroline Skinner | Aug 10, 2020

Caroline Skinner is a senior researcher at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town and urban policies programme director of the global action-research-policy network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO)Recently the Forum for the Future, an international consultancy specialising in scenario planning, interviewed me about current and future drivers of change affecting the informality of cities in the global south. I offered a pretty bleak prediction. I have been thinking since about brighter alternatives for the huge proportion of urban informal workers. In that interview, we reflected on rapid and accelerating urbanisation trends: how basic service delivery fails to reach nearly 900-million people, and how colonial spatial structures persist in many cities, keeping poorer dwellers on peripheral land far from opportunities. We agreed that few can deny climate change, and that it appears those living and working informally are the most vulnerable to its impact.

Economic trends are equally bleak. Industrialisation has not kept pace with urbanisation. When the term “informal sector” was first coined in the early 1970s, informality was expected to dissipate with development. Now most workers in cities in the global south are working informally. This should not be romanticised—the work is often very precarious, especially where unsupportive or hostile authorities hamper it. The policy research network with which I’m affiliated, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), tracks global trends for different occupational groups within the informal economy. Our news monitoring, for example, suggests that there is on average one major eviction of street traders somewhere in the world every day. These evictions are often characterised by high levels of violence. Not surprisingly, detailed analysis of exclusionary practices like evictions often reveals that private sector interests are being served.

In late 2009, in partnership with membership-based organisations of the working poor, WIEGO did a rapid assessment of how the global economic crisis was impacting informal workers in ten developing cities. These already vulnerable workers were particularly hard hit. They reported decreased demand for products and services and, with the many newly unemployed entrants, increasing competition. Many had cut back on expenditures such as food and health care.

So when asked to look into the future, I concluded that the existing scenario of small enclaves of privilege among a sea of people struggling to survive was likely to intensify. After a pause, the interviewer posed a question that I have been pondering ever since, in part because it appeals to the optimist in me: “If you reflect on your current work, where are the ‘bright spots’, the experiences that suggest there might be an alternative more inclusive future?” I work with inspiring membership-based organisations of informal workers and support agencies and, yes, experiences within these networks provide glimmers of an alternative trajectory.

Let’s consider waste pickers. Millions of people worldwide—statistics indicate about 1% of urban workers in some cities, and a large number of them women—make a living collecting, sorting, recycling and selling valuable materials that someone else has thrown away. Most work in deplorable conditions, receiving little or no support from local authorities. However, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third largest city, and Pune, the ninth largest metropolis in India, waste pickers are being integrated into municipal waste management schemes. In both cases strong co-operatives of waste pickers have negotiated for access to waste materials, the establishment of facilities to sort and process waste, and better prices for the waste their members collect.

In Belo Horizonte, the Asmare Association of waste pickers signed an accord in 1993 with the council, securing their role as the city’s preferred partner for source segregation programmes. The municipality’s waste management department agreed to provide recycling containers, trucks to collect materials and warehouses to sort them. Asmare agreed to run the warehouses. Its members sort and sell collectively in order to obtain a higher price, but each waste picker is remunerated individually, based on how much they collect or sort. In 2000, legislation was adopted that institutionalised the relationship between Asmare and the council. The programme has now been extended to include door-to-door collection in some parts of the city. Waste pickers are negotiating for direct reimbursement by the council for the services provided.

Since the early 1990s, self-employed waste pickers in Pune have organised themselves into a union, Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), and offered waste collection services to residents. After some time, the Pune Municipal Commissioner authorised the KKPKP to provide these services and gave them equipment and space. In 2007, KKPKP established a worker co-operative, SWaCH, which signed a more formal memorandum of understanding with the municipality. The programme started in two municipal wards and by 2012 had spread to 80 of the 143 wards. Now more than 2,100 SWaCH members provide door-to-door waste collection to over 360,000 homes in the city. The workers collect in pairs, are paid through user fees, and are accountable to the residents as well as the municipality.

There are also positive examples of improved lives and livelihoods for home-based informal workers. In many Asian countries—including India, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, and the Philippines—organisations of home-based workers have negotiated basic infrastructure services (water, sewage, lighting) for their members, and insisted that services be appropriately designed to support livelihood activities. In India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has worked through its housing trust to negotiate public-private partnerships for slum upgrading that have delivered water, sanitation, electricity and paved roads to large numbers of working poor neighbourhoods. SEWA has also negotiated for the establishment of tripartite committees, with representatives of employers and local government, to negotiate minimum wages, pensions, annual bonuses and other benefits for home-based workers, especially those engaged in the homemade cigarette, incense stick and garment industries.

Market access is also a critical issue for informal producers. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is supporting an initiative—implemented by SEWA and HomeNet South Asia—that seeks to develop markets for home-based workers and integrate them into regional trade. Through national trade facilitation centres, the initiative helps to upgrade the skills, products and marketing capacity of the home-based workers. Launched in 2008, the project is currently being implemented in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Bright spots of inclusive planning are also helping street traders. After years of conflict between street traders and local authorities, the city of Bhubaneswar in eastern India developed a public, private and community partnership model that entails dedicated, legally-sanctioned vending zones in public spaces, as well as attractive fixed kiosks, partially funded by formal businesses. From joint planning of the conceptual model to the realisation of 54 vending zones, this was a wholly inclusive process.

In Durban, street vendor organisations from the Warwick Junction area worked for over ten years with city council on inclusive street vendor management. Vendors were organised in street committees, and by product group. Working with a sympathetic council, vendors were able to have a significant input into the urban planning process, resulting in innovative space design and management. Major interventions included the partial closure and covering of a city centre street, the construction of new pedestrian footbridges linking the train, taxi and bus terminals to the city centre that were wide enough to accommodate vending, the provision of storage, and vending kiosks with water and electricity. A dedicated traditional medicine market was built and tailor-made facilities provided for those selling beadwork and clay. This was combined with trade support strategies.

In all of these examples, workers are organised and act collectively. In most instances they have the support of either a national or local government that is willing to intervene. Together, these factors are powerful forces for change. What is most significant is that these cities are working with the reality of informality today, rather than aspiring to a northern image of “cityness” that denies it. We face a huge challenge to transform mindsets so that inclusive thinking becomes the more common approach. “The challenge is to convince the policy makers to promote and encourage hybrid economies in which micro-businesses can co-exist alongside small, medium, and large businesses: in which the street vendors can co-exist alongside the kiosks, retail shops, and large malls,” said Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA and now a member of the Group of Elders. “Just as the policy makers encourage bio-diversity, they should encourage economic diversity”

The world is now inhabited by seven billion people. It is not the only salient statistic about our rapidly urbanising planet

Words by Camaren Peter | Aug 10, 2020

In 1804, the world population reached one billion. In October 2011 it reached seven billion—seven billion people waking every day in a Mexican wave salute to the sun. “This global milestone is both a great opportunity and a great challenge,” declared the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in a campaign aimed at renewing the global commitment for a healthy and sustainable world for all. More than half of the world’s seven billion people live in cities: in the era of the city, the global vision of a fair and equal world seems further away than ever. The numbers contained in a UNFPA fact sheet say so.

Around 97% of the world’s population growth occurs in less developed countries, while fertility and growth rates in developed countries are either tapering or declining as the role of women in society changes. By 2050 the global population will number nine billion, with most of the extra two billion people living in cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Fifty years ago, one in three people lived in cities; by 2045 two out of three people will live in them. Staggering projections have been made for the period spanning from 2009 to 2050: African urban populations will triple from 399-million to 1.2-billion; Asian urban populations will double from 1.7 to 3.4-billion; Latin America and the Caribbean will increase from 462 to 648-million, while European urban populations will increase more slowly, from 531 to 582-million; North America’s urban population will rise from 285 to 404-million. Undeniably, cities will play a key role in the shaping of the societies of the future.

In the developing world, cities face the pervasive challenges of slum urbanisation. Although the proportion of urban slum-dwellers has declined from 39% to 33% in the decade following 2000, the actual number of slum-dwellers is still increasing. By 2050 city dwellers will number the entire global population count of 2004. With the larger share of these people living in cities of the developing world, will slum settlements and informality continue to grow?

Since 1990, the proportion of people living in hunger has declined, due to improved living standards in East Asia, but the total number of hungry people now hovers at around one billion. Inequality is still increasing. Fifty years ago, 70% of all income went to the richest 20% of people living on the planet. In 2005, the income of the richest 20% had risen to 77%, while the poorest 20% experienced a decline from 2.3% just 50 years ago, to 1.5% in 2005. In excess of 1.2-billion people on the planet are between the ages of ten and 19, and 88% of them live in developing countries. Youth unemployment is three times higher than the global average for adults. Millions of these young people are homeless or live without the support of their families.

Will the global urban divide persist, as is warned in UN Habitat’s State of the World’s Cities Report 2011/12? Is it true that the urban divide mirrors the same failings as the global divide? Is this the meaning of poly-crisis, a crisis that cuts across scales, sectors and institutions? Or has a narrative been constructed around these numbers that underestimates our adaptability and ingenuity, presuming the worst for lack of imagination of what kind of future we can construct?

How will the least developed countries and cities of the world cope with this dramatic increase in population numbers, and the densely concentrated demand that results from them residing in cities?

We cannot answer these questions with absolute certainty, but we can start by painting a picture of the world today and extrapolating different plausible futures from that understanding. These numbers do not tell the whole story, and they are not predictors of a dystopian global or urban future. The future is always unknowable. Even though we can project a multiplicity of possible scenarios, the future keeps its secrets close to its chest.

However, it is indisputable that the numbers, courtesy of the UNFPA, reveal large concerns about our current sustainability. It is in our interest as a society to acknowledge this. We will be unable to move into a more equitable global future without adequately acknowledging the challenges that we face today.

How will the least developed countries and cities of the world cope with this dramatic increase in population numbers, and the densely concentrated demand that results from them residing in cities? How will all these people feed, clothe, bathe, educate, recreate, earn, communicate, fall in love, procreate, share and compete? Will climate change render energy, food production and agro-ecological systems defunct? Will ecosystems buckle under the dual strain of increasing demand, climate change and ecosystem degradation? Will the faltering global economy strain to breaking point and collapse entirely? Cities are places where these interests converge and concentrate. Will the city of the future be fraught with even more dispute and contestation over its spaces and infrastructures? How will we survive our nine-billion selves in 2050?

The questions quickly multiply. How can we visualise the future we face? How will resources flow and what role will cities play in the mediation, transfer and distribution of resources? Will the city continue on a global trajectory of accumulation, where the city organism acts as an octopus does, stretching its sticky tentacles into every home and every crevice of the earth, sea and air? Will urban growth be inclusive of all urban citizens, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, migrant status, gender, sexuality and the like? Will cities continue to be characterised by priority access to infrastructures (for example, along nodal and corridor development zones), adding to the existing legacy of uneven growth across the cityscapes and regions of the world?

How can we can shape the future through our infrastructure choices? Infrastructures mediate material flows—by which I mean goods, data, information, energy, water, waste, people, nutrient flows and so on. Infrastructure choices, however, are social as well as material choices. How will these infrastructure choices meet the multiple needs of urban societies of the future? Should the public or private sector guide these choices, or what balance must be struck between the two? Is it business-as-usual, or business-unusual? Or is it business at all?

Again, we cannot answer all these questions with absolute certainty. What is clear, however, is that a focus on the interstitial is required, in other words, on that which connects and distributes rather than disconnects and accumulates. We need to understand infrastructure as more than just physical systems that mediate the transfer of materials; we need to understand how socio-cultural factors and behaviours meet these infrastructures. As Abdou Maliq Simone puts it, we need to explore the idea of “people as infrastructure”. A dual understanding is required: of the dynamic inter-relationships between social infrastructure and physical infrastructure; we need to understand how these relationships converge to produce systemic effects in different local contexts.

Realising this dual focus will require new ways of thinking and doing. Urban theorists and practitioners hold the keys to a new world: it is difficult to predict what kind of future they will ultimately unlock. Will it be a world where more of the same urban development continues, or will new innovations be actualised in the urban fabric that guide us towards a more equitable, inclusive urban environment, ushering in a different kind of world from the one we live in today? Only time will tell.

To galvanise support, the urban development community must promote not only universal housing and services, but also universal employment and disposable income

Words by Kerwin Datu | Aug 10, 2020

In March 2011, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) completed a major review of its multilateral aid, which resulted in it pulling funding from a number of organisations, including UN-HABITAT. DFID wanted to focus on organisations that offered the UK taxpayer ‘good’ or ‘very good’ ‘value for money’ based on existing achievements. This meant such organisations as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM), UNICEF and the Fast Track Initiative for Education for All. At the time I argued that this was shortsighted, that DFID’s focus on measurable results misunderstood the complexity of urban areas and the higher degree of difficulty that urban agencies operate within compared to their counterparts in health and education. UN-HABITAT’s underperformance, I proposed, was due to its insistence on tackling complex problems, not repetitive ones.

I am starting to form another view. Whether or not urban problems are more complex, or less measurable, it seems that the organisations that retained their funding have a clear vision of their purpose, where we in urban development do not. For example, the global health community, exemplified by organisations such as GAVI and GFATM, has always had a clear purpose in the eradication of communicable diseases; the global education community has an equally clear objective when it comes to universal literacy. The clarity of these visions lends itself to easily defined and quantified targets against which progress can be measured, and to consistent and comprehensive programmes to collect appropriate data in each country, such as the Global Health Observatory maintained by the World Health Organisation.

The global urban development community does not have so clear a sense of its own agenda. It has been alarming to watch over the past two years how so many urban organisations have made the fashionable subject of climate change the focus of their work, dropping the ball on the many other profound urban challenges such as housing and livelihoods along the way. We have become followers of the sustainability agenda, rather than leaders of the cities agenda. Of course climate change and sustainability are important issues, but they are secondary to our core mandate of cities, which we are allowing to slip into irrelevance as DFID’s funding decision shows. This happens at the very moment that big business is jumping onto the cities bandwagon in a huge way, a movement we ought to be harnessing with great speed, but which we seem not to embrace with much sophistication.

The global urban development community does not have so clear a sense of its own agenda

Perhaps the experience of the Millennium Development Goals, where the bar was set so miserably low for cities—goal 7.4 sought to improve the lives of only 100-million out of nearly one billion slum dwellers around the world—made us shy from talk of visions and targets. But we need to regain our appetite for a common vision, and articulate our agenda in a way that gives national leaders and donor agencies no choice but to embrace our challenges as their own.

One might say that we have such a vision already, embodied in slogans like “cities without slums” and “housing for all”. I would argue that these visions are incomplete enough as to be misleading and counterproductive. It has been well documented how the notion of “cities without slums” gives cynical governments the rhetorical leverage to commit the most brutal evictions and demolitions in informal areas. But beyond this, the overemphasis on housing and the residential aspect of slums leads even the most well-meaning governments to embark upon large-scale housing initiatives that destroy livelihoods and undermine the economic sustainability of their cities, in the belief that housing must be resolved above all else.

We are too focused on the supply side of urban services (how do we provide more housing, more infrastructure, more water and energy?) and not enough on the demand side (how do we increase employment and income levels to create lasting, self-sustaining demand for those provisions?). And we are teaching the private sector to make the same mistake. The big businesses that have started to engage the cities agenda are all learning to focus on the supply side as well—housing provision models, service provision models, infrastructure provision models—with very few asking how they can help solve urban unemployment, create new industries and new jobs and raise urban income levels, all of which are needed to finance those models in the long term.

This affects how we use data as well. The Global Urban Observatory maintained by UN-HABITAT is designed largely to capture statistics on shelter deprivation and service provision, with very little on employment, job creation and income levels. And whenever we collect data at the individual neighbourhood or settlement level, we tend to capture how many people reside in each area, and the quality of their residential spaces, but much less on how many people work in each area, how much they earn, and the quality of their commercial and industrial spaces. As it stands, UN-HABITAT’s working definition of slums suggests that these spaces do not even exist.

Collecting data on poverty is not enough; we need to go beyond subsistence or vulnerability models of livelihood to measures of overall earning capacity. We need data on job creation and employment growth, whether formal or informal. We also need to capture income levels as well as, crucially, disposable income levels, since these represent the surpluses required to finance and maintain housing and services in the long term.

The cities agenda is a dual agenda: universal housing and services, but also universal employment and disposable income. Neither can occur sustainably without the other. To galvanise donors, governments and business alike requires that we promote both of these visions simultaneously. It also requires that we collect consistent and comprehensive data on both fronts, to measure our progress, to compel governments to act on both without undermining one or the other, to substantiate our claims for funding from donors, and to harness the good intentions of the private sector in the right way *

Cities that leverage appropriate smart technologies and open data platforms will better manage everyday decision-making issues

Words by Jay Bhalla | Aug 10, 2020

African cities are growing exponentially, a fact that has spawned a number of catchphrases, including “silicon savannah”, “Africa rising” and “the last economic frontier”. The growth is partly explained by urban migration, although the influx of foreign investment and workers is also changing the nature and scale of African cities. As these cities grow, so do the challenges of managing them. Cities that gather an enormous amount of data that if structured and presented in an easy format could unlock tremendous value and help to remove strain off utilities, manage crime and deliver services, to name just a few applications. If this data was made openly available in accessible formats, software developers could use it to develop useful applications that cater to both citizens on the ground and city authorities.

But what is “open data”? One easy definition holds that it is piece of content or data that is both open to anyone and free for use, reuse and redistribution—“subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and/or share-alike”. And what opportunity does open data present to African cities? In New York, for example, software developers, using data generated by inspections of restaurants by the city’s health department, created an app that allowed patrons to send a text message and find out whether the restaurant passed its inspection and what rating it received. The health implications are self-evident. City authorities are also using crime data to predict the crime trends. In short: a city that leverages smart technologies and open data platforms in everyday decision-making will better manage its resources, save costs, enhance service delivery and drive sustainable economic growth.

The challenges to implementing smart city methodologies vary from a basic lack of awareness amongst city managers to negative perceptions related to costs. While the latter perception is well founded, there are a number of free and open-source tools and platforms out there that mitigate expensive IT spend. One example is the Open Data Kit (, a free and open-source set of tools that enables organisations to author, field and manage mobile data collection solutions. ODK allows users to: build a data collection form or survey; collect the data on a mobile device and send it to a server; and aggregate this data on a server and extract it in useful formats.

Better information could be a first step in improving services, regulation and accountability

Another example is the Africa Open Data Portal (, which allows users to visualise and/or map data that has been collected and stored in a central repository. The platform also provides application programming interfaces (or API’s) that enable software developers to access the data and build applications. These platforms are hosted on a data cloud and are free to use; they require no investment in big data stores or warehouses.

The real investment by cities will be in human resources. What kind of human resources? To understand huge amounts of data, a data scientist is an important part of the equation. These individuals not only understand the technical aspects of the data but also the business around data. To maximize the potential of these experts, cities need to promote a culture of innovation, both within and outside of city authorities. They could invest in in-house developers (to build applications, for instance), or welcome the development community. This latter option does not only involve making data readily available, but extends to engaging the community through sponsored events such as structured hackathons. Here thematic experts and community groups are brought together to identify the challenges faced by the community on the ground, and developers then use the data available to create sustainable, impactful solutions.

According to US-based Pike Research investment in smart cities will total an estimated $108 billion by 2020. Pike also forecasts that the smart city technology market will grow from $6.1 billion annually in 2012 to $20.2 billion in 2020. Cities that are not investing in smart technologies—smart grids, smart utilities, smart transport—and their related human resources are merely deferring the cost implications. Faced with the prospects of continued economic growth and expansion, African cities must be prepared to deal with rapid urbanisation and evolve into smart cities. This can only be achieved if they are technologically prepared to meet this growth.

Jay Bhalla is a Kenyan technology activist and co-founder and executive director of the Open Institute

Johannesburg hopes to be a vibrant, equitable, diverse, sustainable, resilient and adaptive city by 2040, a vision that will require rigorous engagement and monitoring over time, in unfolding contexts

Words by Geci Karuri-Sebina | Aug 10, 2020

On April 3, 1968, the leading American civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tennessee. In his address, which focused on labour action in Memphis—there was a major strike by sanitation workers at the time—and the ongoing civil rights struggle, King concluded by saying that he was content with his life as he had been to the top of the mountain, had looked over it, and God had shown him “the promised land”. Throughout his speech, he hinted at signs of progress towards this promised land, a home that, for him, promised freedom, equal rights and justice. Ecclesiastical overtones aside, I found this imagery useful in thinking about the future of Johannesburg, particularly in this year that Alexandra, the city’s oldest township, turns 100.

I live in Sandton, a neighbourhood directly adjacent Alex, as the townhsip is popularly known. Sandton covers an area of approximately 156km², Alex 8 km². Relative to Alex’s population, which is estimated at upwards of 800,000, Sandton is tiny. The evidence to Sandton’s horizon is not too difficult to speculate about. New construction is underway on numerous high-rise luxury apartment buildings, commercial complexes and hotels, all proudly announcing—or at least demurely seducing with their claims to—“exclusive living for the fortunate few”. In spite of the current economic climate, the property market is still active. Sale boards regularly go up, come down and go up again in different parts of Sandton. Small shopping centres are being upgraded into shiny white and glass-coated mini-malls with boomed gates. A new high-speed train offers a safe in-and-out experience for the less adventurous visiting Gauteng. There may be a few new potholes and some errors on the rates bills, but the future, like the present, looks optimsitic.

The picture is a little different when you turn your attention to Alex. It is estimated that Alex houses about 10% of Johannesburg’s total population. Seventy percent of the people living in Alex are under 35 and unemployment is estimated to be as high as 65%. Crime levels have dropped, but are nonetheless disproportionately high. All these factors contributed to Alex being one of the epicentres of the 2008 xenophobic attacks.

I spend many of my weekends in Alex, on 8th Avenue with a local teenage girls’ club. The area is abuzz with people, young and old, navigating the dusty streets, which they share with cars, goats, seemingly endless rows of houses, shacks, kiosks, vendors and hairdressers. Roads, a few dozen schools, new social services and community facilities also feature prominently in the new Alex. Once nicknamed “Dark City” for its lack of electricty, Alex however still hasn’t quite acquired the status of a desirable address, in spite of its excellent location near some of Africa’s most desirable real estate. You could say future prospects here are still dark?

The teenage club I work with provides a microscopic reading of the difficult corner Alex—and many other places like it across the city—would have to turn to be tolerable, let alone successful places in whatever future we envision for Johannesburg. A group of us started the club in 2009. A few months of walking the township and asking residents what community service we could offer as “sisterly neighbours” elicited some horrific insights about growing up as a girl in Alex. “I have never seen a girl from Alex who’s grown up to be a professional,” stated one respondent. “If a girl is not sexually active by 12, it’s odd,” offered another. “If they are lucky, they finish matric first—that is if they don’t get pregnant and have to drop out—but then they just disappear into the township,” recounted a third. “They only have low-wage jobs—maybe a domestic or a shop teller—in their futures.” And so it continued. “These young girls need to be able to ask themselves who they want to be—a human being, or just dependent on a man,” stated another voice.

After three years running a sisterhood group that creates a safe space for the teenage girls to share and grow with guidance from other interested and experienced women, I have a clearer sense of how most young Alex women view their neighbourhood. To be successful, you simply have to leave Alex. This sentiment is reinforced through observation of the plight of family members, neighbours and peers. Even though you may love and be loyal to your home, your township, it offers little promise of ever being a promised land.

What exactly does a world class African city do to address the spatial legacy of apartheid on the city?

Going back to MLK’s image, some questions emerge. Where are the hints and signposts towards the promised land? How does Alex feature in Johannesburg’s vision of itself as world class African city? The recent Gauteng Development Strategy (GDS 2040), a long-term strategy that aims to offer “a coherent story of Johannesburg’s future development path”, suggests the sorts of outcomes that we should expect in this promised land: it will be vibrant and equitable, diverse, offer a high quality of life, be sustainable, be resilient and adaptive. As soon as I start getting excited about this appealing future, I remind myself to ask a few pointed questions: What does that future really look like for Alex? What do we anticipate it might take to actualise that future? Are the signs of progress towards that promised land really there? These questions prompt a further set of uncomfortable questions.

Firstly, instrumentally: What exactly does a world class African city do to address the spatial legacy of apartheid on the city? How long should that take? Does the city engage meaningfully and beneficially with the realities of informality in the African city, in all aspects of social and economic life? How?

Then, terminally, does the promised land retain the status quo, extending the dualities and exclusions of the present land, allowing the wealthy to do better, and the poor to reap more of the same? Will the excluded sit by quietly and accept this? Or, quite possibly, are we looking at an averaged future, a greyer, sub-optimal middle ground for all. Maybe the promised land is a more righteously exclusive land, the promise it offers of a cleaner and greener city expeditiously purged of those who don’t share in and contribute to the collective dream. What does this vision offer citizens living on the periphery? Perhaps the future of Johannesburg is Miami, as Damian Marley and Nas offer on their song ‘The Land of Promised’?

These are obviously just simple caricatures, but my point is this: visionary futures are interesting, but to be robust, they require rigorous engagement and monitoring over time, and in unfolding contexts. Cities don’t only change in neat and predictable ways based on population growth and shifts. Cities are also the result of the agency of people, our aspirations, changing lifestyles and consumption patterns, political priorities, public and private plans and investments, to single out but a few.

As a foresight enthusiast and practitioner, Johannesburg’s growth and development vision appeals greatly. Not because it will accurately predict or enable a specific outcome—“a world class African city”, “a city of our dreams”, “a city growing with you”, or “a city that works for me,” as various cities across South Africa have outlined in their catchy slogans—but because espousing a view to the future is a basic prerequisite of visionary action. It is a bold move, creating the potential to focus and capture the imaginations of the co-creators and constituents of that future. A basic question remains: What exactly is the future that we see for the entirety of our city? Before we begin talking of GDS 2050, perhaps we should attempt a shared peek from the mountaintop, to see if there is a believable and grounded promised land ahead, with clear signs behind, and many signposts in between *

How the Timbuktu manuscripts were saved

Words by TT/SoT | Aug 10, 2020

Shortly before French troops evicted al-Qaida-linked rebels occupying the historic Malian town of Timbuktu in late January, the retreating Islamist fighters performed an act of cruel revenge: they torched the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, an important repository for some 30,000 manuscripts, some dating back to the 13th century.

“These manuscripts are our identity,” Abdoulaye Cisse, the library’s acting director, told Associated Press after the town was liberated. “It’s through these manuscripts that we have been able to reconstruct our own history, the history of Africa. People think that our history is only oral, not written.” The manuscripts debunked this myth.

Initial news reports suggested that the library’s contents had been lost in the fire, which lasted for days. It has however emerged that Cisse, working with a group of associates, had secreted the rare manuscripts out of the city—right under the rebel occupier’s noses.

While the ultra-orthodox Islamist fighters spent their days destroying Timbuktu’s mausoleums, 72-year-old Abba Alhadi stuffed precious manuscripts into empty rice and millet sacks, which he then carted across town. There they were loaded onto a lorry and motorcycles bound for the Niger River—and ultimately the capital, Bamako.

“I have spent my life protecting these manuscripts,” the illiterate Alhadi told AP. “This has been my life’s work. And I had to come to terms with the fact that I could no longer protect them here. It hurt me deeply to see them go, but I took strength knowing that they were being sent to a safe place”.

What cities in Africa could learn and unlearn from Latin America and Asian transit systems

Words by Tau Tavengwa | Jun 12, 2019

Speeding through the dense traffic in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, on the back of a Gojek motorcycle taxi, I realise we are looking in the wrong direction for the transformative solutions to the continent’s massive mobility issues. We have been looking west, when we should look east.

The Gojek phenomenon in Indonesia is astounding in its simplicity. For decades, the city of Jakarta (like most other cities in South East Asia) has run on a network of informal owner-operated two-wheeler motorized bikes popularly known as Ojeks across Indonesia. These unregulated and sometimes unsafe vehicles have been the most affordable way to travel across the city. Customers, however grudgingly, have used them in droves - having to contend with bad customer service, unknown wait times and other general service problems. Enter some entrepreneurs a few years ago. Their solution: sign up Ojek drivers to a system that allows riders to book rides and plot routes and have them to determine where and when to be picked up - giving them greater control of how they get around town. You simply download the app called Gojek to your phone, hail a driver who locates you via GPS and they do the same before picking you up. You pay them in cash at the end of each trip and rate the quality of service you have received ala-Uber. Gojek now has a string of competitors including Uber itself who have adjusted their modus operandi to be more competitive in the local market. So far they trail the local upstart which is popular across Indonesia.

In Nairobi, some interesting work to create an extensive digital map of how the 14-sitter Matatus operate since 2013. Matatus service hundreds of routes and the majority of commuters in the city. This collaboration between the University of Nairobi’s Computing for Development lab, MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab and Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development has upended a few popular misconceptions. It’s proven that contrary to the widely held notion that informal transport systems do not work optimally and are the cause of multiple mobility problems in Nairobi are wrong. Conventional wisdom has been that the only way to address road congestion and other mobility challenges in cities like Nairobi is to replace them with systems that principally mimic those in operation in most western cities.

The map has proven that the Matatus are quite an effective means of mass transit and in their unplanned fashion, work in patterns that have evolved naturally to mirror more formal systems elsewhere - Nairobi has a transit system, albeit a non-traditional one. Now integrated into Google Maps, these routes now enable commuters to know exact times to expect taxis on their routes - allowing them to plan their trips better. Using the data collected from this poject, the transport authority in Nairobi is now working towards providing better roads, bus stops and other infrastructure that responds to the natural patterns that have emerged from people using this informal system. Some tech companies have got into the game and created simple apps that allow commuters to track matatus, enabling them to determine when to be at a particular pick up point, calculate travel times and pay.

Stories abound currently in the South African media, not only about what has become the expected annual minibus taxi war carnage but a new manifestation. Metered taxi drivers are going on the offensive against Uber drivers in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town - violently. It’s a fight not only for territory but against perceived unfair competition. At the same time, reports of minibus taxi drivers setting fire to shiny BRT bus stations and buses surface regularly. Any improvements that have gone on where transport infrastructure is concerned have been seen as threatening to established informal modes that have been the major source of transportation for decades. These operators provided transport services that the state and big business had no interest in until recently and resent being cast aside in preference for better, more resourced systems that have failed to take them along for the ride.

Rather than merely adopt models that have worked elsewhere, we need to work on our own, localised hybrids which have not only the benefit of hindsight from the experiences of other places but also have closely listened to the demands, habits and needs of the local communities they are meant to serve

So what might these three examples begin to tell us?

First, that technological solutions aren't the magic pill to solve all maladies. It’s important to note that Jakarta is in the middle of construction of a citywide metro rail system that will launch in 2019. It also has a currently over-subscribed rapid transit bus system that in many ways has proven to be ineffective as a way to move millions in a city that still has some of the worst traffic in the world - it can take you 2 hours to travel 10 kilometers. Point is, the Gojeks alone are not enough and one app based service has and will not solve the traffic problems Jakarta has as effectively as an extensive metro might. It’s important to note also that Nairobi just needs better roads. Technology solutions are not enough. However, where technology embraces the realities on the ground, it can be a powerful tool to address systemic deficits where they exist. Rather than throw away and seek to replace the clearly utilitarian informal systems that characterise most transport systems across the continent and it’s cities, we should seek to create alternatives that build on them.

Rather than merely adopt models that have worked elsewhere, we need to work on our own, localised hybrids which have not only the benefit of hindsight from the experiences of other places but also have closely listened to the demands, habits and needs of the local communities they are meant to serve. Just because Medellin has found success in it’s mega-projects that have included BRT (which it pioneered) among other things does not mean this approach is transferrable and replicable. Just because people in Amsterdam cycle everywhere does not mean that we follow blindly and fool ourselves that we can get everyone cycling to work and solve all our problems that way. No-one in Amsterdam is expected to cycle 30kms to work on barely-there bike lanes from a wasteland periphery similar to where most citizens of cities across Africa live. Speak to anyone with intimate knowledge of Medellin’s success and they will tell you that it was a culmination of forces, actions and moments across the city that made it possible politically and socially to embark on it’s various undertakings. Having bold, intelligent leadership helped immensely but the citizenry was also engaged - they chose the bold leadership for a start. Just taking an idea from a place like Medellin is not enough either. Local dynamics matter.

An argument can be made that the current obsession with “mobility” in many parts of Africa needs to embrace certain realities. Better systems require better governance. Innovation without public authorities in place to take care of basic systems just becomes a series of band-aids that ultimately fall off to leave our wounds again exposed after a time. Alongside the big mobility debates we are currently having, we need to have a serious debate about the governments we are electing to run our cities and realise that in the end, the transport systems we have will always be as good as the governments we elect.

A favela in Rio de Janeiro is producing important lessons in urban design and democratic practice

Words by Pedro-Henrique & Caroline-Shannon de Christo | Aug 10, 2020

Today, as humanity lives through its most intense period of urbanisation, the largest and fastest growing cities are increasingly concentrated in the majority world. Commonly referred to as the “third world”, “developing word” or “global south”, the continents of Latin America, Africa and Asia are in fact home to 82% of people on this planet. Its cities will absorb 93% of the projected urban growth through 2050, mostly in urban slums, which by then will be home to a third of the global population—compared to one-seventh today. This world and these cities must be put at the forefront of our global consciousness and action because they are where the majority of our lives will be decided.

The promise of the city to provide a better life has delivered on many levels, but whether in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Medellin, Cape Town or Mumbai, inequalities in social and economic opportunities as well as political voice are translated directly into space and services, producing the self-reinforcing cycle of the divided city that we all inhabit today.

While power structures are organised in a top-down manner, the functioning of the city system is determined from the bottom-up. As citizens suffer the violence of the lack of access to services, infrastructure and human rights, this violence is returned in a literal manner, culminating in the failure to achieve an equitable and productive society. The argument for urban integration is both normative and instrumental for the effective functioning of our cities.

In addition to these integration challenges, the severe impacts of climate change (concentrated in the majority world) demand that we address the fragile equilibrium between our urban and natural systems, whose limits are already dangerously strained. The dream of living and prospering in the city must take a different form from the default carbon-based model we rely on now.

These are urgent problems, and it is up to our generation to lead the charge to create more equitable, just, productive, sustainable and resilient city systems. To realize this vision two main challenges confront us: firstly, we have to change the way we make our cities, and, secondly, for this to happen, we also need to change the way we design.

After finishing our graduate studies at Harvard University, these pressing questions led us to make the favela of Vidigal, in Rio de Janeiro’s south zone, our home and laboratory with the aim of producing top-notch research and design while also doing serious fieldwork. We knew there were biases embedded in our own understanding—the theories and databases we worked with, as well as the education systems we came from—and we wanted to know the reality first-hand.

From there, we were able to integrate the contextual intelligence of the community with our training and the sound evidence gathered from our academic and professional peers into our design. We evolved our understanding of architecture to be centred on user-experience, and extended it to include elements beyond space (primarily policy and technology). We came to see design as more than a discipline, but instead as a process that must be made widely applicable and accessible, along with research and development (R&D) as an integral part of the technological innovation process. We call this R&D2 and have applied this process within our urban strategy, RioLab, in the delimited built and natural space of Vidigal.

During the same period, with the support of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), we travelled to six cities in five different Latin American countries analysing more than 30 projects designed to address the challenge of urban integration. The evidence we gathered demonstrated that simultaneous improvements in education, democracy and urban development are necessary to enable citizens to have better access to knowledge about their community and city, and agency to engage productively in the design and development of more effective urban projects and policies. Only with the combination of knowledge, agency and access to opportunities will we be able to move from the cycle of the divided city to a progressive city.

The RioLab urban strategy has been focused on delivering projects that together shape the cycle of the progressive city. The first was Future Now, our concept for a school integrating education, design and technology. It was the subject of a studio at the Harvard GSD in 2012 and inspired the experimental school GENTE, in Rio’s favela of Rocinha, which opened in 2013 and surpassed its national education exam goal in 2014, two years ahead of time. This project has continued through various research and design initiatives focused on innovation in education, early childhood development and in integration with the Digital Agora, which emerged from this work.

The Digital Agora, focused on democracy, is our concept and formulation of a new spatial program that integrates public policies, spaces and technologies to produce a new calibration between representative and direct democracy at the city level. The Digital Agora is designed to decrease asymmetries of information while improving civic engagement and executing the “right to the city” through the creation of new forms of public space (both physical and digital). The first Digital Agora became operational at RioLab in Park and Institute Sitiê in February 2014, serving as the basis for Vidigal’s civil society, and was the subject of a case study for innovation in democracy published by Harvard scholars Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford, in their book The Responsive City (2014).

Our urban development efforts have been concentrated on Park + Institute Sitiê, an initiative that began with the transformation of a 16 ton trash dump into a park, with reforestation and urban agriculture, becoming the first agro-forest in the city of Rio. Over the last three years, we have worked together to build the coalition and community necessary to transform Sitiê into a public green space and institute for the environment, arts and technology, with community leadership and ownership that serves Vidigal and the city of Rio. It is recognised globally as an example of urban innovation and received the 2015 SEED Award for Excellence in Public Interest Design, administered by US-based Design Corps. Sitiê, now at 8500m2 and expanding to 104 ha, is responsible for 58% of Vidigal’s public space and has become symbol of integration and development for the city of Rio. Sitiê demonstrates that the advancement of democracy must happen through the creation and occupation of public space and that our built space must work to strengthen our natural environment.

RioLab’s solutions come from a diverse coalition of people who share a common vision for a significantly better future—they are not limited by boundaries of professional disciplines or social class. The results of these projects—Future Now, the Digital Agora and Sitiê—have proven how the metabolism of different types of expertise and knowledge, all of equal importance and value, is the most effective path to produce innovation in the way we make our cities.

Additionally, they prove that we must keep evolving architecture in a manner that integrates the pursuits of social function, aesthetic excellence and technological innovation.

Since making the decision to move to Vidigal and developing RioLab we have learned a great deal about many things, most fundamentally about human empathy and independent thinking. These are not things that you can learn in a classroom, although they should be essential aspects of any education. Through this endeavour we have matured and sharpened our design practice. But, most of all, we have become ever more dedicated to delivering change, especially for those most at risk—us in the majority world—knowing that the surest things about the future are that it is up to us to make it, and that it starts now.

In July 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan and became Africa’s newest country. This is what it was like to be a journalist, white and from South African at that moment

Words by Sean Christie | Aug 10, 2020

Brief: As the Open Society Foundation’s South African foreign policy correspondent I am expected to travel to South Sudan to bear witness to the birth of Africa’s 54th state, where, particularly, I must perceive Pretoria’s attitude towards Juba, and vice versa. In preparation I attend a round table discussion at which South Africa’s former ambassador to the United Nations cautions diplomats of the future Government of South Sudan (or Goss) to “be wary of those who love you more than you love yourselves”, and to “avoid making our mistake, which was to promise too much”.

Airport: A basaltic runway bristling with anti-aircraft guns, and here’s the white whale again: UNHAS’ vast Ilyushin IL-76 multipurpose airlifter. In the tea room-sized terminal (the new one has not been completed in time), an enterprising man with teeth like fossils hawks a “Bye-bye Bashir” T-shirt. Another of his shirts, channelling the Jay-Z hit, gloats: “I got 99 problems, but a Bashir ain’t one.”

The new highway: Four kilometres of newly laid double carriageway connects Juba to the airport. The donated streetlights and the photovoltaic panels meant to power these lie beside the road, still to be erected. A succulent with pretty pink flowers has been planted in the central island, forming a tape of pink that links the unfinished airport to Africa’s newest capital.

Hotel: A former governor’s residence now operated as a hotel by an expatriate South African couple, both formerly with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. All the world’s media are in the bar, gassing along to a programme on Discovery called World’s Lost Tribes. The big Al Jazeera cameraman doubles over when a bearded Papua New Guinean wearing nothing but a penis gourd says, “I save my pigs, I save my children, but my house is gone.”

Bar: The hotel owner, DeeDee, says, “It happens, you know. I don’t like talking about it but the syndrome is real enough. People who stay here more than a few months get cynical. We call it Juba jaded. JJ’d.”

Room: Cockerels and airplanes. And mosquitoes and the faintest kiss of rain. Then all out Congolese kwassa kwassa from the neighbouring nightclub, which is owned by the giant NBA star Deng. Deng who? It is actually possible to Google this on generator-powered broadband.

Consulate: South Africa’s chargé d’affaires arrives 15 minutes late for our meeting, inspects the shoes of the guard in the guardhouse, and then orders him out for ice: “Quickly man, we have a lot to do today.” In his air-conditioned office he reveals fascinating details about South African government support of Salvar Kiir’s provisional government. “We got it wrong in Burundi, where we spent billions on reconstruction and development for no meaningful return—not this time,” he says, tapping a finger on a newspaper report about the planned expansion of the South African Breweries plant, which, like the solitary jebel on the outskirts of town, towers over Juba’s huts and shanties.

Work: I write the story in the foyer of the Beijing Juba Hotel and send it in, cc’ing Pretoria because, well, their man in Juba was just a little too forthright, and I must guard my government relationships carefully. In the dusty parking lot outside the hastily built hotel there is a single palm tree, made of metal and painted blue.

Independence eve: A sign that reads “Swiss Ambassador” has been taped to the door of my room. The receptionist says there isn’t nearly enough hotel accommodation in Juba to absorb the dignitaries who are flying in, so I’ve been moved to a room in a construction yard managed by Zimbabwean expatriates who refer to themselves as Rhodies (after Rhodesia, the overthrown white supremacist state). They celebrate independence eve inside their compound walls by drawing swastikas on each others’ nipples and asking me questions like, “have you ever welded a bushcat” (had sex with an African woman). I spend many hours dancing in a field miles outside the walls of the construction yard.

Independence Day: Woken by a call from the chargé d’affaire, who has only just read the by now published story. Incoherent with anger, he demands that I present myself at the consulate, where he accuses me of being a liar, and exactly the sort of thing that is wrong with South African journalism. I play the digital recording of our meeting back at him. “Get out,” he hisses. Stopping by Logali House for a much-needed beer I SMS an account of the extraordinary meeting to my wife, ending the message with a slur against the chargé d’affaire. The phone pings in response. It is the chargé d’affaire. “Your sentiments are noted.”

The new highway: In the course of the Independence Day celebrations all the solar panels meant to power the street lights have been stolen. The succulents are still there, though; their bright chewing gum flowers hold the carriageway together. Adenium obesum, the desert rose, chosen, the taxi driver tells me, because they are native, and grow here regardless of neglect, or help.

Sean Christie is a journalist based in Cape Town

In Medellin, a former landfill is now the meeting point between rich and poor

Words by Alejandro Echieverri & Laura Gallego | Aug 10, 2020

For several years, the city of Medellín had imaginary walls that divided it into two antagonistic worlds: the informal and violent city of the poor, located on the northern slopes of the city; and the developed city of the rich on the southern plains. The presence of physical boundaries defined by the complexity of the geographical landscape, and the social segregation produced by real and imaginary limits created a city of fragments, gaps and marginal spaces and borders, which strengthened social inequalities, insecurity and violence.

The impoverished communes of the northern zone begin where the old Moravia landfill was located 60 years ago. Over the last decade the Moravia region has witnessed a sequence of unique initiatives and new architectural interventions. Events have been organised and meeting points and contact sites have been created as places of intersection for the new social tribes dominating the city. The northern zone is now, at times, the expression of a utopian idea—it is what we would like Medellín to be.

Carabobo Norte Street is today an example of the success of Medellín. It is the site of large open-air public demonstrations, concerts and fairs. It is a street that changes or becomes a different space according to the time and day. During the week, it serves as a neighborhood park, as a space for passage, and on weekends and public holidays it is the ultimate expression of the pulse of this intense city.

One of the areas landmarks is Explora Park, an architecturally remarkable science and technology centre that is also one of the most modern in Latin America.

“The park is a place for transcending barriers,” says Ana Ochoa Correa, a communication officer at Explora Park. Correa says the park’s open-plan design is “a precise metaphor of what we want to be: in permanent communication with the neighborhoods”.

At the city’s botanical park, the new wood and steel Orchideorama Hall (or House of Orchids) provides a space to spend the afternoon, maybe escape the rain or glaring sun. Completed in 2006, it is a viewed with pride by Moravia’s residents and is a new symbol of the city. The central pavilion, with its distinctive, floating roof design, brings together a heterogeneous audience from all social classes; it is a new place for intersections and encounters.

Elsewhere, the Moravia Cultural Centre, located in the heart of the neighborhood, takes its name from the old city dump, which was originally only used by recyclers. Today it is a neutral space where non-violence prevails amongst the city’s urban tribes. Carlos Uribe, director of the centre, describes it as “ public space where people feel at peace in the midst of neighborhoods affected by raw violence”.

He adds: “Through daily work and activities it has become a kind of unintended oasis where the forces trying to weave the territories and control them do not place restrictions.”

Another popular meeting point is the Park of Wishes, a large stone square sloping downhill to allow the viewing of movies and images at night. While it serves as an official stage for music events, festivals and plays, its day-to-day use is shaped by the youth from the northern suburbs, who invade it in the evening.

Medellín’s northern zone is today a diverse landscape full of new events, symbolic references, contact spaces, green spaces and linked infrastructure that complement each other. It is a space which has reconstituted and healed itself, partly through powerful symbolic architecture, also the generous availability of open spaces without defined functions.

Moravia is a place that has transformed itself from being the borderline zone between downtown and the northern neighborhoods to a crossroads and meeting point for the entire city.

Gauteng’s private motorists, road tolls, taxis and the hope of public transport

Words by Kim Gurney | Aug 10, 2020

The signboard gracing the Rea Vaya bus station in the heart of Johannesburg’s regenerating inner-city Fashion District has one neon message emblazoned across its entire surface: “ZZZZZ.” It suggests the current failings of the smart new bus rapid transport (BRT) service, launched ahead of the 2010 World Soccer Cup to initially link Soweto with the CBD.

Not only is the signage generally dysfunctional but Rea Vaya is missing an ideal moment to capitalise on public transport momentum as it readies itself for third-phase expansion.

Students at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) researched Rea Vaya for an undergraduate assignment co-ordinated by multimedia lecturer Terence Fenn. Sabelo Ngobase suggests that with pending freeway tolls, the operator should run a campaign akin to an election blitz.

“They need to give people more information, signage,” he says, “and public announcements.”

His fellow researcher Tanita Murray says of Rea Vaya’s shortcomings: “[As] with taxis, if you know your signs, you are fine. If you don’t … then you’re going to go for a very long ride!” She adds: “We are very private-vehicle dependent. With Rea Vaya, it only operates until 9pm, but at least you know … you will get home safely.”

Indeed, the mid-July fuel sector strike illustrated just how attached motorists are to their cars as panic-stricken queues formed at service stations. But the reality is Johannesburg’s drivers are facing a protracted multi-pronged assault. In addition to tolls for the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, there is constant congestion from transport upgrades, general economic activity and increased urbanisation.

In many European cities, urban planners are deliberately inconveniencing motorists with strategies like more closely spaced traffic lights, no-car zones and fewer parking bays. Johannesburg is rather upping the public transport ante. In addition to expanding Rea Vaya, the high-speed Gautrain rail service is now linking up Johannesburg with Tshwane (Pretoria). And Metrorail already runs a popular Business Express between the two centres.

“We cannot build ourselves out of traffic gridlocks on our roads and freeways,” Ismail Vadi, the MEC for Roads and Transport, told the Gauteng Legislature on July 5. “We must develop and integrate our public transport system… to a point where commuters—both working and middle classes—would consider public transport rather than private transport as a mode of choice.”

This potential market, according to Wits University’s Gauteng City-Region Observatory, is substantial: 67 per cent of respondents in a 2009 quality of life survey used public transport daily. Taxis were the most popular (95.6 per cent), followed by trains and buses, with one-fifth using multiple modes.

Ngobese says a prime motivator for residents in Soweto to switch from taxis to Rea Vaya is cost, especially among youth, as well as taxi strikes. He says older commuters are more influenced by safety and comfort.

Certainly, many are converts—buses are full, even on afternoon inner-city routes. They are smart, the stations are equally impressive, and a slick service seems to run on time. Yet navigating the system is an alienating experience for a newbie that requires a lot of asking around. Some suggestions from the UJ researchers include more automated processes like cashless payments, signage in other languages besides English, improved mapping schematics, commuter alerts and interfaces for a variegated target market rather than some generic notion of a standard passenger. Operators like Rea Vaya need to become more responsive to the new user experience to get more bums on public transport seats. It could start with waking up the signboards.

Honduran dream of charter city fizzles

Words by Tau Tavengwa | Aug 10, 2020

It was never a simple plan. In October 2011, the National Congress of Honduras passed a controversial piece of legislation granting concessions to a private consortium to develop “special administrative zones”, independent territories that would enjoy limited sovereignty—notably their own tax system and systems of justice. In effect, they would operate outside the confines of what is widely agreed to be the failed state of Honduras.

Condemnation was instant. Very quickly a collective of constitutional lawyers and activists mounted a legal challenge. These territories violated the sovereignty of the country and the rights of its people, they argued. On October 17, the supreme court of Honduras agreed with opponents to the zone, ruling that the whole enterprise was unconstitutional.

The history of the zones goes back to 2009, when economist and academic Paul Romer gave a TED Talk about “charter cities” as a new way to “move progress forward and help make the world a better place”. Among the 300,000 online viewers was Octavio Sanchez, the chief of staff to the president of Honduras and champion of the country’s special administrative zones. He saw these zones as a way to reboot Honduras’ failing economy.

Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital city, has one of the highest murder rates in the world; indeed, violent crime is commonplace in this central American nation of eight million. With 65% of the country’s population living below the poverty line, the special administrative zones seemed a no-brainer: not only did they promise international investment, these vibrant economic zones would generate an estimated 200,000 jobs. The zones were expected to become the largest direct foreign investment in the country and rectify the imbalances of an economy that for the last five decades has remained dependent on banana and coffee production.

The two most common criticisms against the zones were that Romer and Sanchez were advocating the introduction of a new form of colonialism and that outsourcing government functions to private entities was an irresponsible dereliction of duty. The former argument resonated with Hondurans, many who still recall American government and corporate interference in the country’s affairs. The expression “banana republic”, which refers to export economies dependent on single limited resources, is closely tied to the United Fruit Company’s meddling activities in Honduran politics. Resentment of “gringo bullying” was a contributing factor to the rejection of an idea that never seemed to be an appropriate response to the nation’s problems in the first place.

A rift between Romer and the Honduran government over transparency in the award of the contract to NKG, a consortium that was meant to act as lead developer of the cities, coupled with Romer’s public condemnation of the process, made it highly probable that the constitutional court’s decision was not going to be in favour of the project. The October 17 ruling was therefore not entirely a surprise.

Romer meanwhile has not given up on his dream. He is reportedly in talks with an unnamed North African state exploring the viability of a charter city in that region *

The army’s influence on Colombo is growing

Words by Liza Cirolia | Aug 10, 2020

The announcement was unexpected. In January 2011, with the country facing an unprecedented increase in food prices, the Sri Lankan Army, referred to in press material as “the pride of Sri Lanka”, declared that it was to become a vegetable vendor. Soon it was supplying food to residents in Colombo and other cities at a cost lower than traditional retailers.

The following March, it was officially announced that the army was also going into the travel business: the general public could now buy air tickets and international travel packages from Air Travel Services, an army-owned travel agency. Commentators saw this as part of the increased militarization of Sri Lankan society following an end to a civil war in 2009. During the war against the Khmer Rouge, the army’s ranks swelled to about 300,000.

It was not a surprise to most when the country’s president announced in November 2011 that urban development would be added to the remit of the Ministry of Defence, now renamed the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. Led by the president’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, this new ministry has become a key developmental player in the capital city Colombo, and elsewhere in the country.

The army now has a stake in most developmental activity throughout the city, ranging from running sidewalk cafes to building stadia, roads, bridges and housing. It all forms part of plans to transform Colombo into a luxurious, slum free and hygienic “world-class” city akin to Singapore. Before 2010, urban development and its accompanying functions were civic mandates housed under weak ministries. Municipal authorities managed planning and construction in urban areas and the buying and selling of state land, for the most part.

The relocation of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and Land Reclamation and Development Board (LRDB) to the Department of Defence has given these divisions a new impetus. The first display of this newfound power took place in 2011 when the military made a grab of the most valuable pockets of land across the city, destroying shanties and attacking informal traders. Efforts to resist evictions were easily suppressed. 70 per cent Colombo’s estimated 752,993 residents live in ‘low income’ areas.

Slave Island in central Colombo was the site of about 60,000 evictions and is now the centrepiece of redevelopment by the new ministry, with millions of dollars in investments pouring into the area. The UDA has announced an ambitious plan to build over 10,000 high-rise housing units for some nearly 70,000 households who need to be relocated to make way for various large-scale development projects. In the face of some opposition, the Defence Secretary is optimistic.

“The Shangri La hotel chain, Sheraton Hotels, the Krrish Group, Indo-Ocean Developers and various others have already committed to build high-end hotels, residential spaces, office buildings and commercial facilities in and around Colombo”, he said recently. He has also publicly claimed that the residents of Slave Island have been relocated voluntarily *