This paper explores one possible argument for how to respond to the epistemic troubles in the production of knowledge about urban Africa. The problem I have in mind is the preponderance of policy-oriented research on the development challenges and absences of African cities, as opposed to a more rounded theorization of urban life (urbanism), or cityness. The paper starts by recounting the challenge thrown forth by Jennifer Robinson and Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall to take African ‘cityness’ or ‘worldliness’ seriously in our engagement with the African city. This starting point leads on to an exploration of what cityness can mean, given the overdetermining effect of violence in African social life, in no small measure a consequence of the colonial era of terror and exploitation, but also now remade and re-embedded in enduring inequalities that mark everyday life. In my reading this issue looms so large in the contemporary city that I found it impossible, within the constraints of this essay, to explore in detail other dimensions of urban sociality. As a result I simply assert that in the absence of a deep philosophical understanding of the social, it is almost impossible to hold on to a liberal humanist moral project of the kind which frequently underpins policy prescriptions to improve the quality of life, livelihoods, governance and social fabric in African cities. Put differently, here I am interested to define what it could mean to explore the African urban without a humanist (philosophical) safety net, yet committed to an ethical project of ‘becoming’ and human flourishing. Thus, in the final instance I turn to some speculative reflections on what promise this line of argument may hold for a more policy-focused research agenda in a move to bring policy and philosophical debates into closer articulation.
Pieterse, E. Cityness and African Urban Development. UNU-WIDER, Helsinki, Finland (2010) 17 pp. ISBN 978-92-9230-279-5 [WIDER Working Paper No. 2010/42]