Africa’s growing slums are complex, diverse neighborhoods with their own histories. Currently, these places, characterized by spatially concentrated poverty and human rights abuses, are where large proportions and, in many cases, the majority of Africa’s growing urban populations live. These slums often have a politics characterized by clientelism and repression, but also cooperation, accountability, and political mobilization. Importantly, they must be understood within a wider political context as products of larger historical processes that generate severe inequalities in standards of living, rights, and service provision. Varied approaches (modernization vs. more critical historical and political economy approaches) attempt to explain the emergence, dynamics, and persistence of slums and the politics that often produces, characterizes, and shapes them in Africa.
While raising important questions about the link between urbanization and democracy, modernization theories, which are typically ahistorical, do not fully explain the persistence and actual growth of slums in African cities. More historically grounded political economy approaches better explain the formation and dynamics of slums in African cities, including the complex, uneven, and inadequate service delivery to these areas.
Whether the conditions of Africa’s slums and the social injustice that undergirds them will give birth to greater democratization in Africa, which, in turn, will deliver radical improvements to the majority, is a critical unanswered question. Will social movements, populist opposition parties, and stronger citizenship claims for the poor ultimately emerge from slum—and wider city—politics? If so, will they address the political problem of inequality that the slum represents? A focus on cities, slums, and their politics is thus a core part of growing concern for the future of African cities and democratic politics on the continent.