- African Cities: alternative visions of urban theory and practice by Garth A Myers
In the final chapter (before its conclusion) of Myer’s book, he explores cultural production as a means of gaining insight into the meaning of cosmopolitanism in African cities. He uses the 2009 Grahamstown festival in this small South African town as an example of an event where ‘there are signs of the relational city’ (184), where identity and shared futures are explored in the dramatic and visual arts. At the 2012 National Arts Festival I attended an exhibition entitled ‘Retinal Shift’ by photographer Michael Subotzky, a 4-channel film installation that interrogates the practice and mechanics of looking and understanding the history of Grahamstown and our contemporary surveillance society. In many ways Myers achieves the same with this impressive volume; like Subotzky he shifts our gaze towards ourselves in using African experiential knowledge in understanding the diverse intricacies of African urban spaces, beyond just looking, but actually seeing. His stated aim is ambitious: using case studies and examples to revise how African cities are understood and discussed through a relational lens. He succeeds admirably in doing this.
Myers calls for a radical vision that departs from the developmental and tormented views of African cities. In doing so, he weaves an elegant tapestry of urban stories that gives the reader insight into the complexity, diversity and layered exchange of African urbanity. He is generous in his appraisal of current writing out of Africa, often drawing on geographers and urban theorists that distinguish themselves by engaging with practice and theory. More poignantly, he uses literature and the arts in expanding his conceptual base from which he draws to build his theory of hybrid and [End Page 131] relational urbanism. This is not a theoretical text however. In keeping with his desire to cross the theory-practice divide, Myers uses an expansive lexicon of cases and documented urban histories to explore the five themes that assist him in fulfilling his aim of grounding theoretical debates and discussion through the demonstrated political and social practices of actors. His own experience and fieldwork informs much of this and the cities that he is familiar with are prioritised accordingly. It is a good range; in addition to Zanzibar where he did his PhD research and clearly has great insight into, he looks at Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Lilongwe, Lusaka, Dodoma, Grahamstown, and Cape Town. This is a good range in terms of scale and colonial histories as well as typology and settlements types.
The conceptual frame for understanding these spaces is inspired by the work of Ed Soja. In a similar way to which Soja uses Los Angeles to develop his postmodern geographies proposition, Myers uses the seemingly unremarkable Zambian captal of Lusaka to develop the five themes that essentially lend structure to the book. Postcolonialism, informality, governance, violence and cosmopolitanism are not only seen as conceptual anchors but they build on one another in that order. There is a subtle unfolding of dilemmas that emerge in practice in accordance with these themes; the manifestations of colonial and postcolonial features are countered through livelihood practices that challenge officialdom (informality) and so raises issues of governance and the role (and nature) of the state, resulting in spaces not subject to any formal mode of governance (Mogadishu is used as an in-depth example of a wounded city in Chapter Five), and many experiencing a steady of outflow to other parts of the globe in an increasingly interconnected and global world. But this is also an intriguing methodological story (this is perhaps what impresses me more) as Myers moves between the many in-depth and secondary cases and their theoretical resonances with admirable ease. By decentring the reference points for understanding urban practice in Africa, he builds a solid conceptual base for understanding the manifestation of such practice on the Continent, and I would argue, elsewhere. These five themes are not new of course, but his discussion of them is critical enough to encourage reexamination.
Chapter Two on postcolonialism starts with an image...