Fritz Nganje is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.
Prior to this, he was a researcher in the Africa Programme of the Pretoria-based Institute for Global Dialogue. His research interest is in the areas of the diplomacy of subnational governments, decentralized cooperation, South Africa’s foreign policy and diplomacy in Africa, peace building in Africa, and South-South cooperation.
Who owns the future of our cities? Who determines how they develop? Who decides what does it mean a “dream city”? How can we challenge the unequal power distribution?
Listen to Fritz Nganje, a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.
Mr. Nganje’s current primary area of interest focuses on the international relations of sub-national governments, and more specifically on how provinces, regions, and municipalities come together to promote city cooperation and inclusive urban governance and development.
We spoke with Fritz Nganje during the conference: Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilisation, organized by The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).
The title of his presentation was :
City-to-City Cooperation and the Promise of a Democratic “Right to the City”
When city partnerships are designed and implemented in a manner that fails to challenge unequal power relations, the urban elite tend to use their position as gatekeepers of the institutional landscape of cities to determine which foreign ideas are localized and how, undermining
the transformative potential of city-to-city cooperation.
Find out more about UNRISD here: http://www.unrisd.org
My name is Fritz Nganje. I’m a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg. Right now my primary area of research is the international relations of sub-national governments, trying to look at how provinces and regions and municipalities are becoming more involved, their involvement in the global space and what is the significance of this, both for their relations with their national government, but also for power relations within these sub-national governments.
In fact, that is why my paper today looked at one of the key elements of this development, which is city cooperation. Trying to look at how cooperation between cities could be leveraged to be able to start challenging the influence of the elite both at the local and at the global level.
The key argument I made in the paper today is that the way these cooperation initiatives are designed does not really make them amenable to be able to serve as a catalyst for inclusive urban governance and development. Because for the most part they are designed as exchanges between city officials and politicians without necessarily bringing onboard the local population who also have an interest in the issues that form part of these transnational linkages.
I argue that in order for us to transform city-to-city cooperation into a tool for inclusive urban development we need to democratize this aspect of our international relations by ensuring that we design these partnerships in such a way that all interested stakeholders in the city, whether they are corporates or they are farmers or they are merely city dwellers, they shall have the opportunity to participate actively in these transnational linkages. Because ultimately they will affect the way that these individuals in the city are governed.
As things stand, for the most part, it remains more of a technocratic process that is not really amenable to significant democratic change in urban areas. Just to extend a little bit on that, I’m trying now to look at how the internationalization of cities, what kind of implications these have for power relations within cities. Because for the most part every single city in the world today, be it in the developed world or the developing world, wants to be globally connected, wants to be competitive.
I think we need to start asking the question: what vision of the city informs this global connectedness? Because for the most part, it is the visions that the elite have for the city that inform the way the city engages with the outside world. If that is the case, it means that the interests of the ordinary people are not reflected in these internationalization efforts of the city. That is why we have cities that devote significant time and resources just to make themselves to be seen to be competitive, even to the detriment of the livelihoods of ordinary groups in the cities like your street vendors or those who do not have any significant dwelling or accommodation in the city.
Well, I’m passionate about those topics because I am committed to the development and the emancipation of my continent, Africa. I believe that that is one of the ways that I can make a meaningful contribution to the development of the continent by engaging in research and developing knowledge and contributing to dialogues that will help to generate ideas and policies that could assist with the emancipation of the African continent.
The issues that I will say concern me the most actually touch on the key theme of this conference today, are the issues of growing inequality and the effects of global capitalism on the livelihoods of ordinary people particularly in the African continent, who are forced nowadays to go through processes and experiences that actually undermine their dignity as a result of the global processes that actually are geared towards making certain parts of the world and a certain groups of people richer while undermining the ability of others to meet their basic livelihoods.
In your opinion, what do we need to change? Where could we start changing this?
I think fundamentally I believe that the structure of the global economy itself is a starting point. It is from the structure that some of the misery and some of the challenges that people face even in rural areas or in the suburbs or in the townships in most of the big cities. These problems arise because of the way the global economy is structured. I am also cognizant of the fact that those who wield power, those who influence these processes are not willing to give up their privileged position.
I believe that the starting point to start changing things and to start challenging the hegemonic forces is for individuals at the grassroots level to mobilize and work together. Because it is through the collective force of individuals that we can start making any attempt to challenge the forces that undermine the dignity of ordinary people.
What we’ve seen in a number of countries, particularly in Africa, is a tendency for groups to arise and challenge those who hold power. Once those who hold power have been dislodged, we see the emergence of the same tendency that had given rise to the grievances in the first place. I think what is fundamental is to be able to put in place good institutions that are able to curb the excesses of power and to also ensure that the interests and the aspirations of everyone in a particular society are taken on board.
If you focus on change that relies on individuals, such a change can hardly be sustainable. If you have good institutions that are able to ensure that the interests and the aspirations of all individuals in society are taken into account, and that the excesses of power are actually checked, and I think that is a good starting point to be able to effect change in the system.
Sorry, going back to your paper, could you tell me which cities did you analyze and where and what kind of exchanges do they have and why?
I was looking at partnerships between Brazilian cities and their counterparts in Mozambique within the framework of efforts to promote the democratic right to the city. I drew from Henri Lefebvre’s idea of the right to the city, which argues that the city should be made to be a space where every city dweller is able to exercise their right to meet their interests and their aspirations, and not necessarily become a space which is the privilege of only those who own property and those who own capital.
Over the years, particularly in the early 2000s, we’ve seen that in Brazil there have been attempts to try to institutionalize the right to the city. Although the Brazilian experience with the right to the city has been characterized by significant struggles and pushback from property interests and conservative elements of the society, there has been an attempt by cities in Brazil,with the support of international organizations like the World Bank, the UNDP, the ILO, or city-led works like the United Cities and Local Governments, to support Brazilian cities to try to assist their counterparts in other parts of the world, particularly in Africa, and in this case Mozambique, to try to share their experiences with the implementation of the right to the city and help them to adopt more inclusive approaches to urban governance and development.
I think it is a good initiative. I think there is still work that needs to be done. By this, I mean we need to reconceptualize the way we design these partnerships. Because, as I said earlier, for the most part, they have been limited to technical exchanges between city officials or politicians for that matter, without necessarily taking into account the fact that for any significant democratic change to take place in the city you need to start challenging the dominant power relations in the city.
City to city cooperation that is designed from a technocratic perspective does not have the potential to challenge these dominant power relations. That is why I argue in the paper that we need to democratize these partnerships to make them more inclusive. So, instead of just having officials exchange ideas and knowledge and experience, we should also bring civil society and different groups within the city to be part of these exchanges so they can help to transform these partnerships into sites for the renegotiation of power within the city.
What kind of cities do we dream of? What kind of city do we want to have where we globalize them? How do you see it? How can we start doing it?
I think the starting point is to understand the nature of the city within the framework of neoliberal capitalism. If we start seeing the city as the place where the manifestation of the forces of neoliberal capitalism, they acquire a concrete presence. Because it is in the city that we see the manifestation of inequality. It is in the city that we see the manifestation of exclusion, where we see immense wealth existing side by side with abject poverty.
It is from that perspective that we can start looking at the city not as this neat space which speaks to the aspiration of those who wield capital, but rather as a contested space where even those who have traditionally been marginalized are also able to try to express themselves, and they are given space to be able to articulate the kind of city that they want to live in. Because for the most part today, the vision of the city reflects the interests and the aspirations of the elite and those who are in possession of capital. The property owners, they determine how our urban planning should take place to the exclusion of the street vendors who also need to make a living from the city.
I think the starting point, as I said, is to go back to try to democratize the urban space to create space for all city dwellers to be able to express themselves, and to play a role in shaping the city, and in shaping the vision of the city that is reflected in the way the city integrates into the global capitalist economy. Because, again, it is from that perspective that we can start having our grassroots voices challenging the transnational processes that undermine their livelihoods.
Is there a good example, is there a city who is doing well in this?
I think it’s difficult to say there is a poster child of some of those expectations. If you look at the example I gave you in my presentation today of Brazilian cities, like Porto Alegre, that were able to take advantage of the legislation, the statute of the city that sought to institutionalize the right to the city, they were able to adopt certain policies and practices, such as the participatory budgeting exercise that sought to try to create a deliberative space that allows the citizens of the city to play an active role in the way the city was managed.
Again, I mean all the time as the neoliberal forces continue to fight back, I don’t think we can even talk of Porto Alegre today as a shining case of some of these progressive ideas that we’re trying to articulate. Because it’s a process of a continued struggle because there will always be a pushback from those who wield power today who do not want to lose their privileges.
You see, I don’t believe that the state can be the starting point of change, and neither do I believe that the formal processes and institutions that we have today, we can rely on them to engender the kind of progressive policies and processes that we are talking about. I think the starting point for change will be at the level of the individual. We all need to be cognizant of the environment in which we live today. We need to understand the different processes through which power reproduces itself, and we need also to try to work together.
We need that social mobilization, both within and across state boundaries, to be able to work together as individuals that want to see a better world and better communities. I think it is from that point that we can start seeing some concerted efforts to challenge the dominant institutions and processes today. We cannot expect, because to a large extent the states and the institutions that we have today, they’ve been hijacked by those who want to continue to enjoy privileges to the exclusion of the larger population.
I think the starting point is to try to confront the dominant discourses that contribute to the marginalization of our broader communities just to serve the interests of a small elite. It was quite interesting to listen to one of the speakers at the introductory round table on Wednesday, that what we have today, those who are in possession of capital are able to have their way because they are in control of the dominant discourses, that they do not need to use military force to have their way.
All they need to do is to have the ideas become the dominant ideas in society, and as a result, enable them to reproduce their power and their domination. To answer your question directly, if I had the power to change something, it would be firstly to be able to promote education and promote greater sensitization so that people across the world should be able to understand the different processes through which domination is carried out and reinforced.
I think it is through and an awareness and a greater education that we are able to start confronting the hegemonic forces that breed inequality, exclusion, and abject poverty.
I think the most important lesson of late is that change can only happen if we go back to the local level. It is only at the local level that we can start bringing about change. You cannot rely on the government. You cannot rely on the dominant institutions that, as I said, have been captured by those who want to maintain their privileges.
In order for change to be engendered, we need to be able to unearth the power of the people. We need to make people understand that they need to take responsibility for their lives. They need to take responsibility for the better world that we aspire for. You cannot sit back and wait, that that will be handed to you by big corporates, or be handed to you by your government, or even by the global institutions that preach equality and social justice. We need to all start taking action at the grassroots level and draw from our respective strengths to work together to be able to challenge the system.
I think a very important role, because, as I said, domination today takes place predominantly at the level of ideas. If your ideas acquire a hegemonic status, then you are able to dominate those around you. That is why I think research and academia has a significant role to play in this. Unfortunately, to some extent, our institutions of learning and our research institutes have somehow been co-opted into the dominant system.
Those who still believe in a progressive world, I think they have the responsibility to challenge the dominant forms of knowledge and to be able to use what are considered to be their privileged position within the institutions that create knowledge, to be able to articulate alternative and more progressive ideas that can make the world a better place. Without the role of researchers and intellectuals, then those who are at the forefront of some of the adverse processes that we are talking about here will continue to use their ideas, no matter how perverted they may be, to continue to entrench their hegemony.
I want to live in a society where differences are respected. I want to live in a society where it is not just about me, it is about the broader community. As an African, I subscribe to the philosophy of Ubuntu, that I exist as a human being because of the broader community. As such, I want to live in a society where there is that kind of human solidarity and that I do not live only for myself, but my life reflects the value of communalism where we work as a human race collectively to make the world a better place.
I also aspire for a society where nature is not seen as something to be dominated and destroyed just to make a profit, but that we also recognize that our very existence depends on the health of the environment around us.
I think there is a lot that the rest of the world can learn from Africa. As I said, particularly they can learn the humanistic values that are embedded in the concept of Ubuntu, that life is not worth living without taking into account the broader community. I think what has, to a large extent, brought us to where we are today is this individualistic conception of life that it is all about me.
I think if we draw from the philosophy of Ubuntu that teaches us that I am an individual, I am worthy of a human being because of my connection with other human beings, I think that can be a starting point to try to deal away with some of the ills of the capitalist system that have made some lives very, very dispensable just to make profit and enrich other lives.
Thank you so much for this conversation.
Thank you so much for having me.