Democracy in Africa: The right to the city – a theory, a slogan, a politics of everyday life

Last week, Professor Marie Huchzermeyer gave her inaugural lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she is a professor in the School of Architecture and Planning. Her lecture explored the concept of the ‘Right to the City’ as it appeared in the work of Henri Lefebvre and as it appears in the everyday life and politics of shack dwellers in South Africa. The blog includes a link to a PDF and audio file of her original lecture.

In South Africa and in many former colonial countries, the struggle for a right to the city formed an integral part of the fight against colonialism and apartheid. However, the political transitions that followed did not resolve these struggles: As exclusionary legislation was finally repealed, market forces and (more recently) the relentless drive to attract global investors have been barring the poor from living and making a livelihood in the city, and from having any meaningful involvement in shaping it.

Today, as in colonial and apartheid times, informal or shack settlements remain a form of defiance in the face of that exclusion. Richard Pithouse, who works closely with South African shack dwellers’ movements, has written about the very long history of their part in the struggle for the right to the city. In post-apartheid South Africa, ongoing urban repression, exclusionary forces, and the state’s inability to overcome the highest urban inequality on the globe, means that the shackdwellers’ sustained struggle for city rights must continue.

It is fascinating that in the 1960s, when the demand for a right to the city expressed itself in struggles from below in South Africa and many former colonies, a French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre was also, unrelatedly, challenging dominant scholarly and political thinking in France by articulating and theorizing a ‘right to the city’.

Lefebvre’s publications on the right to the city were only translated into English after 1996, and still only in part. A much-belated Anglophone debate has ensued in recent years.  Many argue that Lefebvre’s ideas have been trivialized and corrupted. The reality is though, that they are being used in many different campaigns for a right to the city across the globe.

Working on informal or shack settlements in South Africa, one can hardly ignore the growing ‘right to the city’ movement internationally. Literature on this movement in the north refers directly to Lefebvre’s writings and ideas. But in the more recent adoption of the ‘right to the city’ slogan in the Anglophone Third World, little reference is made to Lefebvre himself. With a few exceptions, the meaning of this slogan is taken for granted.

In my inaugural lecture last week titled ‘Humanism, creativity and rights: invoking Henri Lefebvre’s right to the city in the tension presented by informal settlements in South Africa today’, I decided to go back to Lefebvre’s own writing. Despite the fact that Lefebvre was writing in a postwar European context, he provided us with concepts that are relevant to our understanding of informal settlements and to constructive mobilization around related issues in South Africa today. These concepts, however, are often overlooked.

In unpacking Lefebvre’s writing in this way and placing it in the South African context, it was surprising to see how a particular shack dwellers’ movement in South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo, has been evoking the right to the city in a Lefebvrian sense, perhaps far more so than academic discourse has to date. Take, for example, the value that Lefebvre places on the process of ‘inhabiting’ and on the everyday, with all its contradictions. Or, his  insistence that roles should be reversed in the synthesis that informs planning decisions. All these elements are deeply engrained in Abahlali baseMjondolo’s own philosophy. These commitments have driven the movement, since its founding in 2005, to engage in an extremely difficult (often life threatening) but relentless campaign demanding a right to the city.


This aspect of the lecture resonated particularly deeply with around 20 residents from the Makause informal settlement in Ekurhuleni on the eastern side of Johannesburg, who were able to attend the lecture. After the lecture, their sms comment to me was ‘Amandla2the Right2the Cities!’.