African cities have become a major theme of social science research. Within this field, perspectives that can be labelled as “post-colonial” or “culturalist” have become highly influential. Work by scholars such as Simone, Pieterse and Robinson has taken issue with the normative and Eurocentric nature of dystopic narratives on urbanisation in Africa, in a move away from materialist explanations of urban realities centered on economic failure. In Simone’s words, urban life should not be seen as “a series of policies gone wrong”. In contrast, agency and “determination by urban Africans to find their own way” and “the resourcefulness” and “astute capacity” on which they draw hold the keys to understanding urban society in Africa.

This panel is premised on the perception that while avoiding Eurocentrism and teleologies is key to the study of urban life in Africa, much of post-colonial scholarship on African cities falls short of adequate analytical attention to the role of structural forces in African cities and to pinning down the materiality of urban life. African urban inhabitants, the amorphous “urban poor”, or “people at the grassroots”, tend to float mid-air, unhinged from the material and the economic. Often missing in them is an understanding of the social and economic processes which both constrain and are negotiated by “ordinary” urban residents on a daily basis. The celebration of individuals’ agency and of the functionality of African cities is thus often rooted on shaky foundations.

This panel invites contributions that explores the interplay of structural forces and agency by both individuals and groups in understanding how individual postcolonial African cities work and the materiality of life of its residents. In this context, panelists might consider:

• What constraints on urban development are posed by historic realities?
• How do the material interests of men and women intertwine and conflict in making African cities what they are?
• How are key urban services organised?
• How do urban residents make a living?
• How does capitalism in and of the African city shape spaces and lives?
• How is it resisted and mediated by urban residents and by different layers of the state?
• What does urban protest and struggles for the city teach us about life in African cities today?
• How do urban-rural and intra-urban relations, including mobility, help to explain the shape and growth of African cities?

Email to [email protected] 15 March deadline.