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  • The African City: a history
  • Richard Ballard (bio)
Bill Freund (2007) The African City: a history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Africa, as Bill Freund points out, has long been associated with the rural. Yet, not only is it important to recognise and understand long-established urban life in Africa, but doing so is a highly productive way of understanding the category of the urban in general. In The African City, Freund makes an important contribution towards a better understanding of Africa’s urban history.

Despite the vastness of the subject, this book is of manageable length. Freund’s approach is not to create an encyclopaedic account of the subject but rather to use an impressive array of illustrations from the literature to explore a host of themes: continuity and change, growth and decline, town and countryside, parasitism and exploitation, pre-modern and modern, and African and European. From the vantage point of an economic historian, Freund develops what he calls an evolutionary account of the development of urban life in Africa. The book is therefore organised according to a very broad periodisation of the evolution of African cities.

It opens with an account of the emergence of urban life in Africa. While some of these communities were shaped by waves of classical urbanism, Islamic influences and European colonialism, there are many examples of settlements beyond the reaches of these influences. Some settlements, including a number of the oldest, are now the sites of great cities. Others have no continuity with present day settlements, as the factors that enabled and motivated their existence dissipated over time. These factors include: sacred and religious activity, political power and trade.

From the fifteenth century leading up to the European imperialism of the late nineteenth century, Africa became increasingly involved in world trade. Commerce had a profound impact on towns, resulting in the steady growth [End Page 142] and commercialisation of many. Towns became nodes in trade networks and were in turn shaped by flows of goods, people and wealth. However, older urban forms were not always obliterated by new commerce-related growth. Furthermore, growth was not inevitable and some towns disappeared altogether. Other towns came into being entirely as a result of European trade interests, such as slavery.

From the mid nineteenth century, European imperialism came to define the development of African towns. Growth in many towns continued to be fuelled mainly by commercialisation although some were sites of production, such as mining, and others grew as a result of the increasing importance of administration. Where cities were arguably parasitic on the surrounding countryside and peasantry before colonialism, the shift to commercialisation meant that cities were increasingly generative. The growing influence of capitalism under colonialism should, Freund argues, be framed as exploitative rather than parasitic. Unlike the pre-colonial period, economic activity under colonialism began to fundamentally alter relations of production. Within towns, the appearance of continuity in some older districts often masked extensive change to the greater urban form and economy.

Colonial cities were also characterised by segregation, through which European immigrant populations attempted to reduce their contact with native people as a result of both racist world views and concerns about hygiene. Paradoxically, therefore, the African populations that supported the economies of towns were denied claims to citizenship. Racist concerns about the detribalisation of what were seen as naturally rural Africans ran up against leftist calls for the recognition of Africans’ participation in modern urban workforces. The work of anthropologists and sociologists further shows how these stable urban populations were not simply mimicking Europe but were engaging modernity on their own terms and infusing cultural forms and practices which appear western with distinctive local meanings. As the twentieth century progressed, African cities were the sites of various struggles from a great variety of interest groups and for a great many purposes, but were most significant for their independence from European forms.

These themes are explored more specifically in the case of South Africa, where European designs on creating white towns were at odds with the presence of and need for workforces dominated by others. By the mid-twentieth century, many Africans engaged in more than temporary urban lives which included...


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pp. 142-145
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