Comparative Approaches to Urban Africa

African Studies Association, Friday 4:45 p.m. “Past Perspectives, Future Vistas: Comparative Approaches to Urban Africa, pt. 2.” Session chaired by Stephen Marr.

An interesting session highlighting a variety of current urban trends across Africa. Marr points out that this session is a sequel, but aspires to an “Empire Strikes Back” level rather than “Batman and Robin.”

Martin Murray on policing and security network in post-Apartheid Johannesburg, “spatial govern mentality.” Routine private security practices are aggressive at “cleansing space” and brutality against young black men, in an attempt to prevent “swarms” of housebreaking gangs (20-30) who often have heavy weapons and blankets for surmounting barbed war. Private security firms hire veterans of bush wars, don’t believe the police have relevant experience. New division of policing division of labor reflects change in public and private spaces.

William Bissel on African cinema in shifting urban scenes (focusing on Tanzania). Aesthetic, political cinema of previous generation in art houses, but rise of new approaches and scenes for viewing them. Nollywood video alters the landscape of imagery as much in terms of creating new public spaces (video halls and libraries) and new roles in technology, commerce. By 2007 or so, Nigerian videos disappeared in favor of local productions. People identify with the vitality and pleasure of the new genres, which highlight the mystery of wealth creation, presuming that the sources of great wealth rest in the dark corners of urban life.

Cara Jones on urbanization and new wars, how politics change during violent conflicts. More than half of Africans now live in urban environments. Is crime an act of political violence? Wars drive people into cities, too.

Steve Marr comparing the narrative of Apocalypse in Lagos with Detroit. The story of Detroit is well known, bleak financial prognosis (half the income average of the county) and violent relapse to levels of early 90s. Fewer than 60% of Lagos children attend school. Similar geographic size but Lagos may be approaching 20M vs. 700k in Detroit, so diverging trajectories, while they resonate in interesting “cinematic” ways and seem to inspire lurid imagery in writing. Both challenge dominant ideas about what we expect from world cities.

Todd Leedy as discussant observed a mysterious theme in the direct, class based challenges to the state by private security firms and those who hire them. Nobody knows where these aggressive crimes and extra-legal reactions will lead next. Is the city a creative, exciting, and dynamic place, or is it scary, chaotic, and challenging? Views of the different styles of video fit into this dynamic. Should Detroit be viewed as a metro area as a whole? Many people who left the center are still in the metro area. It is a mysterious experience to live in the city for residents and visitors alike, because finding the links among diverse aspects is challenging.

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