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African Cities and Journalism: the past in heated conversation with the future

The theme of this year’s Highway Africa Conference at Rhodes University in South Africa is ‘Journalism and the City’. It is a theme that conference organizers have explained is intended to help expand the debate around the media’s ‘urban’ narratives and representation of the poor ahead of the Africities Summit to be held later on in the year.



The particular importance of this debate resides in what we, as Africans, not only imagine but want our cities to be. Both by way of how the media and our media reports on us, the inhabitants, and how historical and contemporary global perceptions have set standards that we struggle to contextualize.

What has been clear, through some of the debates I have listened to or participated in during this particular conference, has been the understanding that contemporary African cities are a direct legacy of colonialism. Both in the way they are historically imagined, as well as how they are geographically designed.

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

This means that the African city was initially designed to best suit minority racial elites and to control and exclude black majorities. It is an historical reality that most African cities have found it hard to shake off both in reality and in the imagined. And the best evidence of this has been how, many years after independence, housing projects for low income families are still designed largely in a ‘township style’ colonial format. Or how in some cities, such as Harare, there is still an attitude that excludes the poor from housing through massive colonial style operations such as the infamous Operation Murambatsvina.

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

The media is, however, not immune from both this history and continuing contestations about meaning and placement in African cities by Africans. A South African academic, Steven Friedman, speaking at this Highway Africa conference, was quick to accuse the media of representing what he called the ‘suburbs’ against the township.

To put it in another way, the media may seek more to represent the perception of where its bread is buttered, and that generally is the view of the media proprietor. And historically some media owners have tended to prefer ‘city order’ as viewed by former colonial authorities. This has led to what can best be referred to as ‘city gate keeping’ reporting on issues. Council by laws and actions are presented as paragons of order when in fact they can be sites of exclusion and discrimination. Hence reportage on slums, squatters and migrants tends to mirror the ‘ordered’ intentions of the suburban or urban political elite.

Thus there remains a challenge in perspective and narrations of the city beyond colonial style exclusion or the image of the Western metropolis. Not that the mayors of South African cities that attended this particular conference did not demonstrate their great efforts at democratizing their cities. However, in the age of the disruptive tendency of the internet, there is evident need to retain greater democratic context in the African city. This would include understanding the global business and geographical understanding of an eventual arrival at ‘city states’ across the world to which the internet will be instrumental.

Photo: The Guardian

Photo: The Guardian

So there is need for African cities and African media to begin to navigate much more democratic frameworks of local government that would transcend legacies of colonialism. Beyond electoral cycles and technical administration of provision of services, we need to reimagine the African city in its democratic uniqueness and with a post-colonial inclusiveness that treats the city not as a site of privilege, but as one of endeavour.

Such a departure point would, however, require a greater embracement and understanding that on our African continent, the city cannot be imagined, discussed, developed or democratized without imagining, discussing, developing and democratising the rural. Where we fail to do so, we retain undemocratic colonial legacies to the African city. In the process our slums, squatters,  and ‘townships’ will still have the air of tragic permanence and be evidence of the legacies of colonialism.