Overgrowth - Edgar Pieterse - Incorporation and Expulsion

Incorporation and Expulsion

Edgar Pieterse

Subsidised housing in South Africa via the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), a South African socio-economic policy framework implemented by the African National Congress (ANC) government of Nelson Mandela in 1994. Photo: Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa.

November 2018

The notion of “degrowth” can provoke a mixture of annoyance, confusion, and frustration. There is, of course, an ideological and theoretical imperative to lay full culpability for the state of the world (and our impoverished imaginations) at the door of a highly exploitative and cruel economic system that thrives on differential valuation, reward, and expulsion. But the long-standing debates around “degrowth” or anti-growth ring profoundly hollow in many geographies such as African neighborhoods and cities marked by long-term exclusion. The necessary discourse and exploration of degrowth is crucial, but arguably a unique burden of the global class of over-consumers.

How, then, can the provocation of degrowth be thought from the street-level view of a typical popular neighborhood in an African cities; the kind of space where there is a clamor for any kind of growth and expansion because life and ambitions are marked by a series of frustrated attempts to be seen and embraced by capital. This invidious position demands inventive responses which are difficult to explicate through the prism of growth vs. degrowth. Therefore, we must start with a contextualization about the terms of incorporation/expulsion of African cities to substantiate this precarious positioning.

Terms of “modern” postcolonial incorporation can speak to the specificities of emergent urban trajectories. In most Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries, the upper middle-class and political elites (which usually overlap) represent little more than 5-10% of the population. The annual dataset generated by the Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa on characteristics of the African mortgage market provides a graphic illustration of the proportion of households that can afford to access housing provided by private developers. They premise their analysis on this working definition: “The housing affordability calculations make use of the average costs of an affordable housing unit in each country, prevailing minimum down-payment requirements and mortgage rates, typical mortgage terms and the distribution of household incomes in both urban and rural areas.”1 Their data reveals that less than 1% of households in Ethiopia can afford to participate in the mortgage market, whereas it is 8.1% in Kenya and 9.7% in Nigeria.

Housing affordability in select African countries Source: Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa.

Their data can be seen as a telling proxy that captures the share of the population which can be regarded as part of the global consumer class, anchored by attachments to specific brands for mobility, fashion, food, personal health, and numerous bespoke interests. Put differently, this is the share of the population that forms part of the global class of over-consumers; the people who reproduce the broken, extractive, exploitative, and inventive capitalist machine.

If we recognize that there has been a marked expansion of the lower middle-class over the last twenty years in most African countries, we can expand the middle-class cohort by another 20% or so. Even though many still can’t participate in the mortgage market, they are firmly locked into the logics and desire structure of consumer culture. That means that in many SSA countries, up to 70% of the population simply earns too little to be active members of the consumer classes, and rather exercises their identities between the desire machine of capitalism and the embodied drudgery of too little of everything that matters to keep a sense of self, family, community, and spiritual attachment alive. Data on the scale of informal employment in select West African cities provide a clear indicator of just how many families and workers navigate their place in the city in a state of permanent precarity and fear; anxieties about being able to afford food, service loan sharks, being evicted, falling ill, and so on. The dataset provides a picture of the gendered nature of informal work in a select number of West African cities, where we are seeing some of the most dynamic urbanization rates amidst a massive demographic transition.2

Percentage of labor force in informal employment. Source: Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 2015.

The point of foregrounding these selective indicators is not to produce paralysis. On the contrary, what is remarkable about urban dwellers is the undeniable “capacity to aspire” and act even if supposedly rational calculations would suggest they have no prospects.3 Yet it is important to recognize and confront the systemic nature of urban exclusion in most African cities and towns beyond the challenges of low and irregular incomes that fuel housing poverty, the multiple dynamics and drivers that reproduce urban poverty, exclusion, and inequality.4

The vast majority of urban Africans experience routine exclusion from basic services (i.e. energy, safe water, dignified sanitation, safety, waste collection, and access to public space) and have some access to poor quality education and health care. They are left to their own devices, which creates a plethora of networks, groups, alliances, associations, social expectations, and reciprocities that make for incredibly dense and demanding patterns of socio-cultural life. Hybrid and convoluted patchworks of service delivery systems emerge in this vacuum.5 The necessary work of being socially embedded and always hustling produces a social economy of interdependence, reciprocity, intelligence, and attentiveness. This cultural fabric holds the key to decipher a different framework of incorporation that may yet alter the terms of urban life.6

The vortex of exclusion in African cities: the multiple dynamics and drivers that reproduce urban poverty, exclusion and inequality. Image: Edgar Pieterse.

Before delving into alternative frameworks for incorporation, it is important to understand that urban exclusion extends well beyond the challenges of low and irregular incomes that fuel housing poverty. At the core of this story of structural exclusion is the postcolonial crisis of public institutions, long-term authoritarian rule, and fractured government. Let us stipulate some basics. If the vortex of exclusion is to be broken, one needs a functional state with the interest and capacity to invest in the education of the population, especially the most marginalized, alongside the progressive installation of essential infrastructures for well-being, circulation, and economic generation and exchange. Furthermore, there has to be a variety of opportunities and support mechanisms to achieve meaningful economic incorporation through work, entrepreneurial effort, or as an investor or regulator. None of these preconditions make much sense in terms of societal flourishing without the political space for cultural freedom and pleasure manifest in the tapestry of popular culture. This tends to find expression through religion, consumerism, mediation, associational life, the arts, and deep senses of belonging and home.

To be sure, the intangibles of the heart continue to fight for expression even when the armatures of formal work, regular wages, access to essential services, and security are not present, but they can truly animate cultural citizenship when these fundamentals are in place, or at least, are in the process of being instantiated. On this note, let us return to the question of growth and degrowth. The formal institutions of modernity as simplified here require intentional investment and long-term institutional nurturing and care. They require an effective state, which implies an accountable and purposeful one. An effective state is also inconceivable without a tax base and an engaged citizenry. As intimated earlier, the postcolonial horror story has been one of lopsided and exclusionary economic growth and has produced national economies that are bizarrely inserted into the global economy—a toe inside and a body flapping on the “constitutive outside” in the parlance of post-structural political theory.

Whilst the usual suspects in the world of infrastructure solutions (global engineering and ICT companies, banks, multilateral development organizations, etc.) seek to seduce African governments with infrastructure packages and associated tropes of modern incorporation, it is essential to explicate how the “operating systems” of popular neighborhoods can be reimagined and remade. Through the voluminous and longstanding work on urban livelihoods, informal economies, everyday urbanism, and hybrid infrastructure, we can deduce that highly localized “models” or typologies of service delivery can be designed and honed to address the immediate crisis of inadequate basic service access. It is conceivable today to incorporate environmentally sustainable and labor-intensive work processes into the design of community localism. This agenda can animate just planning approaches that truly resonates with the immediate and strategic concerns of excluded neighborhoods. Through the incorporation of local household members into such processes, the drivers of extreme precarity can be softened. Time and energy can be released, and even more ambitious forms of collective life can be enacted.

A small think-tank embedded in the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa has, for instance, been working away at developing a new form of building material that can be blended with labor-intensive construction methods. The project is called Lighthouse and involves a process of harvesting invasive alien trees (which help restore water catchments) to produce wood chips of variable sizes, which are then mixed into a cement-based slurry. Since only 10% cement is required compared to conventional construction methods, the environmental performance of the slurry, in terms of embodied carbon intensity, is greatly enhanced. Furthermore, the building material achieves extremely durable properties that make it virtually fire and bullet resistant; critical properties for the conditions in South African slums. Moreover, as part of the design process, public servants developed a non-mechanical production system to optimize labor intensivity and ensure almost zero skills are required to become involved in the construction process. If one then overlays this innovative technology with the long-standing activism of various housing associations and movements who have long been doing their own collective construction, the potential for addressing housing needs whilst attending to economic vulnerability are immense. Similar production, deployment, and operational modalities can be envisaged for sustainable approaches to water cycle management, sanitation, road building, and guaranteeing open and safe public space. It suggests completely different institutional systems and value-chains than what is conventionally assumed to be the most rational ways of providing urban infrastructure.

However, what is even more important is that these radically localized processes will very quickly demand spatial, planning, and design literacy among urban households and their associations. The public pedagogic work involved in nurturing such literacies, always amidst action, requires a further institutional layer that connects intermediary organizations with grassroots formations. For example, NGOs and applied urban research centers with knowledge from different sites (within a city and across the global South) can provide support to foster these organizational literacies without diminishing the autonomy and leadership of grassroots movements. Intermediary organizations are also well placed to mediate between grassroots associations, public officers, private sector interests, and whoever else impinge on the functioning of a neighborhood. Thinking with the example of Lighthouse suggests that we can think of forms of collective economic practice that connect with the urban imperatives of securing household wellbeing whilst expanding various categories of opportunity.7 The transformative potential is staggering when one considers the speed with which digital money systems and productive efficiencies have taken off across East Africa during the past five years or so.

There is unprecedented opportunity today to delink the imperatives of just urban planning from conventional tropes about economic modernization that tend to produce acontextual technocracy. We should, therefore, focus our creative energies on defining new forms of collective life, economy, wellbeing, invention, and care. This may even prove a worthwhile approach to re-signify “growth.” Beyond narrow economism there is a vast canvas to populate with alternative meanings: signifiers linked to practices that bring us back to the beauty of discovery, learning, questioning, debate, dissensus, experimentation, strategic consensus, and most importantly, the courage to do and feel things differently.


Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa, Housing Finance in Africa. A review of some of Africa’s housing finance markets, Yearbook 2017 (Johannesburg: CAHF, 2017), 18.


For meticulous detail on diverse urban transitions across Africa, see: OECD/AfDB/UNDP, African Economic Outlook 2016: Sustainable Cities and Structural Transformation (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2016).


Tatiana Adeline Thieme, “The hustle economy: Informality, uncertainty and the geographies of getting by,” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 42, 4 (2017): 529–548.


More detail is explored here: Edgar Pieterse, “Grasping the unknowable: Coming to terms with African urbanisms”, in Edgar Pieterse and AbdouMaliq Simone eds., Rogue Urbanism: Emergent African Cities (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2013).


These works are particularly insightful on these dynamics: Sylvy Jaglin, “Regulating service delivery in southern cities: rethinking urban heterogeneity,” in Susan Parnell and Sophie Oldfield eds., The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South (Routledge: London, 2014); Sylvy Jaglin, “Is the Network Challenged by the Pragmatic Turn in African Cities? Urban Transition and Hybrid Delivery Configurations,” in Olivier Coutard and Jonathan Rutherford eds., Beyond the Networked City: Infrastructure reconfigurations and urban change in the North and South (Routledge: London, 2016).


Edgar Pieterse, “The Politics of Governing African Urban Spaces,” International Development Policy vol. 10 (2018): 26–52.


This argument is set out more fully in: AbdouMaliq Simone and Edgar Pieterse, New Urban Worlds. Inhabiting Dissonant Times (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017).

Overgrowth is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the Oslo Architecture Triennale within the context of its 2019 edition, and is supported by the Nordic Culture Fond and the Nordic Culture Point.

Africa, Precarity, Wealth & Inequality, Infrastructure
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Edgar Pieterse is founding director of the African Centre for Cities and holds the South African Research Chair in Urban Policy, both at the University of Cape Town. He is consulting editor for Cityscapes, an international biannual magazine on urbanism in the global South.


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