BY BRETT PETZER
This year’s bedside book for those perplexed, fascinated, enthused and enraged by the African city is Rogue Urbanism : Emergent African Cities edited by Edgar Pieterse and AbdouMaliq Simone. The poetry, photography, narrative and academic writing that sing this continent’s shift towards a new primacy of the urban over the rural condition are cautious offerings. This is not the final word on an urbanism disobedient to the current found wisdom on cities, nor is it the first (readers of Counter-Currents — a 2012 work produced by UCT’s African Centre for Cities and also edited by Pieterse — will be deeply satisfied to know that the subediting of this volume is, at last, as good as the layout design).
One of the simplest aspects of the book that speaks most powerfully about its implicit mission to make an African work on an African theme – as much in its physical and intellectual production on home ground as in its subject matter – is the very light way in which it features several entries in French. These are not corralled away in an appendix but natural and unflagged parts of the text. This fluid, interwoven multilingualism makes the index feel like any busy African urban market: big ideas are being trafficked here – many not of the culture, language and perspective you were sold on the cover. The book is much the better for it, and it is to be hoped that future editions may expand to include Portuguese, Arabic and KiSwahili writing.
Perhaps the strongest part of Rogue Urbanism’s offering is the richness and timeousness of its offering as a collection. This is in excess of the power of individual contributions (such as the matchless Nnamdi Elleh on underprivileged urban housing as the central challenge to modernity, or Simone on the imaginaries of the urban economy in Kinshasa, or Orli Bass on pre-colonial versus post-apartheid urbanism in Durban).
Beyond the illustrations of the texts, it is Rogue Urbanism’s full-length photo essays that contest and contextualise the claims made by the scholarship. Rogue Urbanism is not only for academics, nor is it entirely effortless for the casual reader. It asks the academy to engage with an affective dimension of the urban experience, as captured by photographers and in text; it asks the casual reader to engage rigorously with the social, cultural and political paradigms and processes that subtend lived experience and narrative. If this is the future of a hybrid academic-popular publishing, we could be at the start of a golden age.
Brett Petzer is an urbanist, journalist and French-English translator.