Some time next year more people will live in cities than in the countryside. According to the State of the World Population report published last week by the United Nations (UN), humankind is experiencing a second great wave of global urbanisation.
The first, which took place in Europe between 1750 and 1950, saw an additional 420 million people move to the cities. The present wave, however, will mainly affect the Global South, swelling the cities of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
By 2030, the urban population of Asia will have almost doubled to 2.6 billion. In the same period, 440 million more inhabitants will be added to Africa’s cities and 200 million to those of Latin America and the Caribbean.
But Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the UN Population Fund, warns, “Most cities [in the Global South] already have pressing concerns, including crime, lack of clean water and sanitation and sprawling slums. If we do not plan ahead it will be a catastrophe.”
The problem isn’t just lack of planning. As Mike Davis shows in his important book Planet of Slums, the huge expansion of Southern cities is closely related to the development of neoliberal capitalism.
Rural producers impoverished by their exposure to the competition of giant agribusiness corporations flee to the cities in the hope of some kind of survival. But increasingly they end up in the vast slum settlements on the edges of formal urban areas. Meanwhile, Third World states under the hammer of the IMF and the World Bank have largely given up on providing public services for urban dwellers.
But what is the political meaning of these changes? For many, the growth of the megacities of the Global South represents the death of traditional working class politics. Wage workers are replaced by what Michael Hardt and Toni Negri call an undifferentiated “multitude” of poor city dwellers who live by means other than formal employment.
For Hardt and Negri this multitude is a new revolutionary subject. For many others who share the same basic analysis, the urban poor are the raw material for benevolent intervention by Western funded NGOs that give neoliberalism a human face.
Sub-Saharan Africa, neoliberalism’s greatest single victim, is host to many great slum settlements – but is also the site of a series of major mass strikes. This year started with a general strike in Guinea-Conakry that extracted concessions from the country’s dictator, Lansana Conte.
In the past few weeks Africa’s two major powers, South Africa and Nigeria, have been hit by major strikes. Last week a majority of the unions involved in the month-long strike by public sector workers in South Africa decided to accept the government’s pay offer. A similar compromise a fortnight ago brought to an end the four-day Nigerian general strike.
Both these deals were denounced by militant minorities among the strikers and urban youth. But, however clouded the outcome of these struggles, they confirm that the organised working class is a powerful social and political actor in Africa.
What this reflects is the fact that African societies, just like those elsewhere, are capitalist societies that can only function thanks to the labour of wage workers. Even where industry is comparatively weak, public services from teaching to transport are produced by waged labour.
The poverty of the population and the uneven development of capitalism in the Global South mean that workers merge into a mass of poor city dwellers who live off petty trade and the like.
Sometimes this means workers are submerged into populist movements led by middle class politicians. Thus the South African strikes have become entangled with a struggle between the country’s president Thabo Mbeki and his former deputy, Jacob Zuma.
But when the organised working class asserts itself as a collective actor, it can draw the rest of the urban poor behind it. Both South Africa and Nigeria have rich histories of struggle where workers’ and community movements have fused to throw up powerful challenges to the status quo. This can happen again – and on a much bigger scale.