Deborah Potts Is Reader in Human Geography at King's College London. She Has Spent More Than 30 Years Researching and Lecturing on the Economic and Social Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa. She Tells Olivia Edward Why Africa's Rapid Urbanisation Is a Myth and Asks What Capitalism Has Ever Done for the African People
Edward, Olivia, Geographical
I was born in the UK but my formative childhood years were spent abroad. My father was in the Foreign Office, so that's where my interest in other countries began. When I was five, he was sent to the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and then we were posted to places such as Berlin, South Korea and Malawi. But, like him, I've always been an Africanist. It's something in the blood, almost spiritual.
I think if you've lived all over the world and you're curious and interested in people. you start seeing how different places are, not only in the obvious physical sense. but in the human and social sense, too. You start asking, 'Why?' And that's the essence of geography. History's central question is, 'Why was it like that then?', geography's is. 'Why is it like this here?'
People working in African studies despair of the media's projection of Africa. So often it tends to be about negative things such as poverty or conflict. In southern Africa, apartheid has gone and conflict has significantly reduced--in fact, there hasn't been any open war there for ten years. Poverty is a huge issue, but it isn't the prism through which to look at Africa.
It's a myth that urbanisation is occurring faster in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else. The populations of many urban areas are growing rapidly, but in many countries, levels of urbanisation are increasing slowly, if at all. Natural nationwide population increase rather than net in-migration is the main reason for growing urban populations.
The fallacy came about because limited resources meant that there were fewer people collecting data. During the first two decades of independence for many African countries--during the 1960s and '70s--lots of censuses were carried out because people were very keen to enumerate their societies and many governments had big development plans. But severe state cuts during the late '70s and '80s meant that the data were no longer collected, and international organisations began projecting data from previous decades.
African countries did develop and urbanise rapidly during those first decades of independence. There was a shift from agricultural to urban-based jobs. Small cities grew very rapidly. Lusaka, for example, grew at 13 per cent from 1963 to 1969. But the oil crises of the '70s led to nations borrowing money they couldn't repay when interest rates rose. As a result, the World Bank stepped in. It restructured their economies so that they could pay their debts but stipulated that future development would be on its terms.
The zeitgeist at the lime was to roll back the state and allow market allocation of resources. As a result, state investment in education and infrastructure was curtailed and trade was liberalised. …