Grasping the unknowable: coming to grips with African urbanisms

Pieterse, E. (2011). Grasping the unknowable: coming to grips with African urbanisms. Social Dynamics, 37(1), 5–23. doi:10.1080/02533952.2011.569994

Cape Town
Publication type
Scientific article (peer-reviewed)
Contributing to Urban Debates in South Africa
DOI Title
Grasping the unknowable: coming to grips with African urbanisms
Social Dynamics
0253-3952 1940-7874
Edgar Pieterse
Published year
Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
African Urbanism differential urbanisation postcolonialism affect deal-making



The purpose of this essay is to make a case for why a much more differentiated and complex theoretical approach to contemporary African urbanism is required. It builds on an important body of work that has emerged over the course of the past two decades that seeks to explicate and theorise the specificity of everyday practices of ordinary Africans as they endeavour to stitch together livelihoods, aspirations, socialities, aesthetics and space amidst conditions of widespread poverty and deprivation. However, this body of work on ordinary urbanism seeks to make a break with the reductionist tendencies in African urban studies to derive observation and explanation from a materialist reading of difficult living conditions, to foreground instead other ways of understanding the density and spatiality of urban becomings. The essay starts with some orienting information about the dynamics and trajectories of urbanisation in Africa in order to underscore how much we still do not know, and to caution against simplistic extrapolations that we need to ‘manage’ a so‐called disastrous tendency. In the section that follows the contextualisation, I switch registers and draw out some of the scholarly perspectives and debates on how we can create an account of African urbanisms with an eye on some of the limitations of this relatively new literature. Thereafter I use this convenient binary to enter into some reflections on what the methodological and philosophical implications might be of trying to come to terms with the elusive essence of African cities. This account is used to then spell out a research agenda that in part informs the overall project of the African Centre for Cities on African urbanisms.

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