African Capital Cities are in the spotlight.

By Thandisizwe Mgudlwa

African Capital Cities are in the spotlight.

A new book Capital Cities In Africa: Power And Powerlessness looks at the contemporary issues facing these cities.

The book is edited by Simon Bekker from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa and Goran Therborn from Cambridge University, United Kingdom and published by the Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC) PRESS.

According to the editors, Capital cities have always played a role in nation and state building.

“Typically, the state projects its power through the urban landscape and layout of its capital city. Power is asserted via the capital’s architecture, its public monuments and the names of its streets and public places. But these urban symbols of authority are fluid and subject to change as ideologies and political landscapes shift. “

“In Capital Cities in Africa: Power and Powerlessness (HSRC Press), a range of authors present a set of multifocal studies of sub-Saharan African capital cities. From Dakar to Conakry, Nairobi to Luanda, the chapters deal with the historical development of these capitals, their political dramas, their levels of service delivery and their location within the ethnic, economic and demographic fabric of
their nations. “

What emerges from the studies is a sense of the power of African capitals, in terms of their political importance and their proximity to the centre of patronage and redistribution. But what is also revealed is their powerlessness, in the face of both massive immigration and the resultant service demands of exploding populations and ethnopolitical violence.

The primary historical focus of the book is the period since political independence from European colonialism, some 50 years or less (2010 marked the 50th year of independence for many countries in Africa). Hence much of the urban and built landscape discussed is of recent construction, while colonial traces are still significant.

Each study provides a short historical context of the city and nation state, while concentrating on the urban geology of the capital, on its use of monuments and names of streets and identifying pertinent spaces where public rallies, marches and other forms of mobilisation have taken place.

While each city has its own individual national trajectory after independence, they also share a common demographic feature. In contrast to Europe, where rapid urbanisation is past, sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a process of urbanisation that is moving at extraordinarily great speed.

The studies and concluding overview cover West, central, East and southern Africa, and British, French, Portuguese and Boer colonialisms, with some mention of German, Italian and Spanish legacies. The contributors bring a range of diverse disciplines to the discussion, from historical to geographical to political.

“The chapter on Conakry is written by French historian Odile Goerg. Dakar is covered by urban planner and geographer Amadou Diop. Political scientist Wale Adebanwi traces the development of Nigeria’s new capital Abuja, while historian Laurent Fourchard looks at its previous capital, Lagos. Kenyan geographers Samuel Owuor and Teresa Mbatia write on Nairobi, while Congolese demographer Gabriel Tati looks at Brazzaville.
“British architect Paul Jenkins authors the chapter on Maputo and Luanda, while South African geographer Alan Mabin writes on the three South African capitals of Pretoria, Cape Town and Bloemfontein. Editors Simon Bekker and Gran Therborn conclude with an all-embracing overview.”

“Cities are living geology, shaped by historical and political events, set in natural environments, and subject to change. Capital cities in particular offer a rich, multi-layered reflection of their nation states.”

They also present both the attraction of power, as designated centres of authority, and the powerlessness of cities facing explosive urbanisation. Capital Cities in Africa: Power and Powerlessness offers a fascinating and original perspective on the subject which should be of immense interest to readers in the fields of urban geology, architecture, social studies, history and political science.

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