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The right to the city in the Global South. African appropriations and adaptation

Marianne Morange et Amandine Spire
Cet article est une traduction de :
Le droit à la ville aux Suds. Appropriations et déclinaisons africaines


This paper addresses the mobilization in the global South of the notion of the right to the city, reflecting the debates on the “southern turn”. It analyzes the complexities surrounding the incorporation of certain elements of the debate in the post-colonial context, posed on the one hand by the neo-Marxist authors of the North who have reactivated the notion since the early 2000s, and on the other hand in developmental approaches. It thus returns to the contribution of so-called southern cities, and particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, to the debate on the right to the city and the place of these cities occupy in it. The aim is to shed light on the way in which contemporary discussion on the right to the city has been elaborated in order to question the limits of the North/South analytical nexus, whether the latter aims to denounce the theoretical domination of the North over the South or whether it reinforces the specificity of the South and the need for theorization by the South.
The right to the city, urban, Sub-Saharan Africa, critical geography, informal

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Notes de la rédaction

This article is the translation of: Le droit à la ville aux Suds. Appropriations et déclinaisons africaines

Texte intégral

1A little over fifty years after the publication of Henri Lefebvre’s seminal work (1968) the right to the city has become the subject of multiple re-appropriations. As of 2000 his most loyal re-readers are without doubt anglophone neo-Marxist geographers of the global North who have updated the concept so that it takes in the transformations in capitalism. These scholars have thus adapted the Lefebvrian notion to the present day by sharpening its critical potential in relation to new issues. At the same time, the right to the city has come to support the sociological analysis of urban social movements as part of the process of decentralization and the rise of the debate on urban citizenship in the North.

2The adaptation of these debates in the South is both stimulating and complex. Indeed, it is not certain that the concept of the right to the city, forged during the triumphant period of Fordism and throughout France’s functionalist planning in the “glorious thirty years” (1945-75), and then revisited under neoliberalism with reference to the trajectories of European or North American cities, actually makes sense in the postcolonial contexts of the global South. The dynamics of urbanization, the economic trajectories and the nature of the State in the South are indeed very different to [similar] cities in the North, as a point of reference for neo-Marxist urban studies. According to the work on the “southern turn” (Robinson 2014; Roy 2011) and of postcolonial approaches, we should at least cultivate a certain diffidence vis-à-vis these reinterpretations of the notion of the right to the city, in the same way that we should avoid speaking of neoliberalization in the South. Hence Parnell and Robinson (2012) point out the effects of distortion and impaired perception caused by such an interpretation of urban dynamics in the South.

3Starting from these observations we will discuss the ways in which the academic debate on the right to the city is revisited today, between North and South. This essay examines how the partially separated areas of debate are built on either side of this academic-institutional and analytical divide. This means not only contrasting appropriations of the notion of the right to the city, but also the basic problems when it comes to dialogue between the two worlds. The epistemological stakes of these revitalizations are not much debated. Thus, it is a question of considering why it may be difficult to incorporate elements of the debate on the right to the city in post-colonial contexts, especially when framed in the radical urban neo-Marxist studies of the North. Here we hope to highlight the issues of the “southern turn” and the North-South division in urban studies (Robinson 2006; Gervais-Lambony and Landy 2007; Watson 2009). To do this, the article is based primarily on work dealing with cities in sub-Saharan Africa where we have accumulated theoretical and empirical expertise. In the [global] South, the contemporary debate on the right to the city is more oriented towards Latin America when it comes to debate on the “urban question” (Quentin and Michel, 2018; Lopez de Souza, 2001), far enough away from issues of the “southern turn”. Starting from African cities where the notion has been less mobilized in academic work, allows us to address the debate on the appropriations and meaning of the right to the city as part of the debate on the “southern turn”.

4Firstly, we examine the gap between critical programs associated with the notion of the right to the city in the North and the South respectively. Then we observe the difficulties involved in transposing the debate on the role of the city in political mobilization and urban citizenship to sub-Saharan Africa as a result of some of the specificities taken by forms of « citadinité » (Gervais-Lambony, 1994). Finally, we examine how the notion of the right of the city is applied in some cities in Africa in order to renew discussion on the urban dimension of inequality and on informality in the South, together with the ensuing polemic in critical urban studies.

The role of cities in the South in constructing the notion of the right to the city

A notion first reactivated in the North as part of a critique of neoliberal capitalism

5Since the early 2000s the revival of the debate on the right to the city has primarily been the work of radical anglophone geography of the North (Harvey, 2003; Marcuse, 2009; Brenner et al., 2012; Samara et al., 2013; Kuymulu, 2014). This revival comes in the wake of the first English translations of Lefebvre’s work (see Revol, 2012), and is connected with a movement for the revival of critical thought on the urban dimension, particularly in Lefebvrian thought (see, for example Kipfer 2012). In France this movement was transmitted by the journal Métropoles (in particular and by the work of Bernard Jouve who directed the joint project on the right to the city at UNESCO in the 2000s), or the work of researchers straddling France on the one hand and North America on the other.

6Among neo-Marxist approaches, the most complete theorization of the reading of the right to the city as a bulwark against neoliberal capitalism is that of David Harvey (2008, 2011, 2015). In his recent work he again takes up the idea of the right to the city to formulate a program of resistance in the face of the inequalities and injustices linked to contemporary capitalism. In particular, he does this in relation to the revival of the urban question and urban social movements in Latin America. This allows him to denounce the socio-spatial effects of neoliberal policies: gentrification, forced residential displacement, the disconnection of urban services for poor households for non-payment, discrimination and repression of [urban] practices and the use of space running counter to the capitalist goal of accumulation: begging in public space, practices considered deviant in relation to expected consumerist behavior (Mitchell, 2003).

7Beyond the denunciation of the effects of neoliberal capitalism, the right to the city is also a critical conceptual tool to develop a concrete program of resistance to the latter. It allows us to initiate a revolutionary reversal of values, to reassert the use value of space, against the sacralization of private property, and the exchange value of space, by reclaiming the right of inhabitants to produce [their own] space. It attempts to legitimize the idea of a collective, popular and autonomous production of space, against “conceived space” by “professionals” and experts in the service of private capitalist interests and the capitalist State, generally stemming from a petit bourgeoisie which is an intermediary of capitalism and allied with capitalism. This program of radical social and political transformation is very close to Lefebvre’s revolutionary ambition. Like his work, the right to the city has a conceptual critical use value that aims to install a revolutionary program of resistance to capitalism in its current neoliberal version.

The right to the city: the convergence of urban trajectories in the neoliberal context?

8In the South this approach to the right to the city has inspired a part of critical urban studies. The main attempt to transpose these debates to the South is the collective work Locating Right to the City in the Global South, edited by Tony Roshan Samara, Shenjing He and Guo Chen (2011). As its title indicates it mobilizes the critical apparatus of the political neo-Marxist economy in order to situate the debate on the right to the city in the South. It is about anchoring these cities in the debate on neoliberal globalization, rather than reformulating the debate on the right to the city starting from the South by proposing new directions of research. It emphasizes how the quest for urban competitivity has become the common lot of local government, North and South, and that urban policies in the South are strongly influenced by neoliberal globalization. In this extensive collective work, the overview of cities from all the continents reflects the concern to elaborate the convergence of urban trajectories, all characterized by neo-hygienist, elitist, entrepreneurial projects of modernization, bent on eradicating informality. The book is based on the reference work on the subject, in particular the work of David Harvey and the political economics of Harvey Brenner and discuss pressing political issues in these cities: the process of large-scale forced evictions, land capture and speculation, or neoliberal urban regeneration resting on futuristic visions of the city.

9This type of pioneering work is nevertheless the exception rather than the rule. Cities in the South are not particularly present in the theoretical debate on the right to the city presented in neo-Marxist literature. This conceptualization of the right to the city, linked to rising inequalities in the context of neoliberalization, has an unequal resonance depending on the context. In sub-Saharan Africa, it seems appropriate in cities in a state of economic emergency which is the case in all cities in South Africa. The construction of an agenda to withstand capitalism by applying the right to the city also makes sense in cities subject to social and political transformation accelerated under the effects of the “return” of international aid. For example, post-socialist cities (Mozambique or Ethiopia), where there has been a reform of key urban services (the arrival of private operators for example), and the emergence of a property-owning middle class, the implementation of neoliberal policies of urban renewal for city centers, and so forth.

10Nevertheless, in most of the cities of the South the issues of inequality are read via the issue of poverty (Parnell and Pieterse 2010). Furthermore, according to some authors the poverty that characterizes African cities is linked both to the historical trajectory of States with weak capacity to control urban space and to an alignment on neoliberal policies that leads to a strong social polarization of urban space (Parnell and Robinson, 2012). In the radical literature the nuanced reading of the urban trajectory of Cape Town since the end of Apartheid reflects this tension well. For Martin J. Murray (2012) it is the global and neoliberal Johannesburg that is being denounced. This is also criticized in the work of Samara (2011) who emphasizes the links between economic development and political security. Faranak Miraftab (2007) adopts the same analytical framework to denounce the exclusion produced by the scope of urban revitalization in city centers (street traders, beggars, the homeless and street children are all driven out), but she also questions the colonial continuity in urban planning, in matters of segregation and hygienism; a continuity which is also stressed by some historians (Fourchard, 2007). Indeed, in the cities of the South, inequality and exclusion have colonial roots, which brings us back to the question of heritage in the long-term, as well as to the specificity of modes of urbanization in these cities. This explains the immense amount of literature on questions of socio-spatial exclusion and inequalities in the cities of the South which mobilizes other concepts than the right to the city. These are based more on the weight of colonial heritage and are more effective when it comes to dealing with power struggles and inegalitarian structures in such cities, particularly the concepts of poverty, development or informality.

11In terms of urban time lines, the neo-Marxist analysis rests on national situations that have periodized and characterized the neoliberal turn around questionable sequences in the South. Thus, the State provision of welfare rarely exists, at least not in a form or scope comparable to that of the North, and this is particularly the case in sub-Saharan Africa. The retreat of the State, or rather the dismantled State with a role redefined in terms of the chronological sequence “roll back, roll out” (Peck and Tickell, 2002) is played out in slightly different terms. For example, these modalities of a mixed governance and the redefinition of public policies are often discussed in favor of recent democratic or postcolonial transitions. This refers to the debate on the political meaning of local public action and national action and to the difficulty of interpreting the developmental trajectories of Southern cities. Parnell and Pieterse’s manifesto (2010) in defence of the project develop of the state of South Africa, or the work of Mathieu Hilgers (2013) on Burkina Faso and Ghana calling for a political anthropology of the State in the South in order to study these forms of “neoliberalism in practice”, taking into account the specific elements of the State in these contexts.

12In sub-Saharan Africa the local specificities of state trajectories generate tension with global dynamics, and thus rework the critical program of the right to the city in the South. These specific elements do not necessarily rule out neo-Marxist approaches, but instead mean the accommodation of other realities. Consequently, the transposition to the South, in particular sub-Saharan Africa, if the debate on the role of the city in political mobilization and on urban citizenship also mean remodelling the critical reading of the right to the city.

The Hybridization of the critical program of the right to the city in the South

Which ‘urban question’ in sub-Saharan Africa?

  • 1 In the wake of May 1968 we witness the politicization of the discourse on the “urban” that accompan (...)

13The notion of the right to the city reactivates the debate on the “urban question” that inspired French urban sociology in the 1970s.1 It is a question of knowing whether the city is a simple support for and arena of struggle, or whether what is at stake here is the transformation of “urban life” itself. In this second optic, “the urban” becomes an object of claims made as part of a global, anti-system critique (Busquet, 2013).

  • 2 This research group was set up in Berlin on the twentieth anniversary of the “Fall of the Wall” and (...)

14Yet this debate, formulated and expressed with reference to the political, social and economic history of Western Europe, has some limits, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. If some strongly industrialized and emerging countries, such as South Africa, share the problems of the post-Fordist transition, or at least of de-industrialization with the North, in many other countries industrial workers were never dominant. What we find everywhere is a large proportion of city dwellers who live off activities referred to as informal and which have become increasingly important since structural adjustments that often subject them to clientelist games or to informal State practices (Roy, 2011). Furthermore, the socio-economic fractures [long present] in urban societies of the South are intertwined with very marked racial, ethnic, gender or caste divides. The volatility and instability of individual economic and family trajectories, the pervasiveness of “informality” and of political clientelism thus change the possible forms of objective class alliances. Do the entrepreneurs of the informal, who account for an important part of the workforce in the cities of the South, stand alongside the exploited or, to use Peter Marcuse’s term, the “small entrepreneurs” (2009)? In Africa the sociology of social movements (Siméant, 2013) thus dialogues rather badly with appeals to convergence in social struggles around the urban, launched by the radical geographers of the North, for example with the project “Cities for People, Not for Profit” in 2009.2

  • 3 In 2018 this network of associations was present in 32 countries in Latin America, sub-Saharan Afri (...)
  • 4 This network of organizations of informal workers and professionals in research-development campaig (...)

15The process of political disaffiliation recorded in the North is in fact very uneven in Africa, and the situations are highly contrasting in terms of relations with traditional organs of mobilization (trade unions, political parties). Their influence has not necessarily diminished and could be reconfigured by democratic transitions. Political science boasts a rich literature on political parties in sub-Saharan Africa (Toulabor, 2000; Gazibo, 2006; Bayart et al., 2008; Bayart, 2009). Furthermore, if social struggles in Africa can have an urban dimension as they do in the North, their territorial anchorages are multi-scalar and often have a transnational character. This is due to the weight of international donors in shaping public policy that gives them a postcolonial turn, constantly relaying the question of dependency. For example, movements such as the SDI (Shack/Slum Dwellers International ),3 or Wiego (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing)4 mobilize in many cities in the South to promote the rights of the landless, ‘squatters’ or street traders.

16It seems that the issue of political empowerment is not a question of overcoming the choice between the authoritarian socialism of soviet regimes and the neoliberal capitalism of the liberal democracies, as presented by Peter Marcuse in Berlin (2009). It seems to play on a discussion of the nature of governments and political projects, between democratization, clientelism and corruption (Bayart et al., 2008; Bénit-Gbaffou, 2012) and within a postcolonial tension, where the ways of opening up the democratic game seem uncertain. In effect, the process of democratization is also recent, not yet realized and unstable in sub-Saharan Africa, the capacity of political expression has remained very unequal and speaking out in public or the presence in public space can be challenging. Thus, the issue is not only to rally together in order to struggle around a specific urban question, but to make such issues emerge and to give them life, thus countering forms of state repression which are sometimes very violent.

The right to the city and the debate on urban citizenship in sub-Saharan Africa

17The hybridization of the right to the city in the South is part of the debate on the political foundations of citizenship and the social contract that binds citizens to the State. Starting from the major re-actualization of Lefebvre’s work by Purcell (2002, 2003), the links between citizenship (citoyenneté) and citiness (citadinité) were questioned (the two terms being very close etymologically). Purcell suggests we “re-imagine” the bases of political citizenship in promoting the right of the inhabitant in order to build a notion of urban citizenship which is flexible, ephemeral and open to multi-affiliations. The last, which stands out from a blocked and narrow conception of national citizenship, based on jus soli or jus sanguinis, could be combined with it, but would be more inclusive, especially for migrants. It would in fact take all citizens into account in the same way, be they long-term residents or new migrants, in the name of their right to produce the space they inhabit, in the strong sense that these two terms have in the Lefebvrian lexicon. The aim is to overcome internal social fragmentation and to build inclusive societies based on the liberating value of local democratization, now increasingly understood as self-management thanks to Purcell’s recent work (2016).

18This project is not without its difficulties, or without risk, as highlighted by some works dealing with the cities of the South. For example, in India, the middle classes use the slogan of the right to the city to reinforce their control of the use of public space in affluent neighbourhoods, in particular by rejecting street trading (Dewaele, 2017). This is certainly the case everywhere where the right to the city allows a de-sectorization and a convergence of struggle but where the sociological evolution of urban social movements (surrounded by the middle classes) prevent this from becoming a global claim on the economic and political system. Beyond Purcell’s “local trap” and the shift towards a nimbyist interpretation of the right to the city, the latter remains an interesting scalar horizon for building a right of the inhabitant. Moreover, this allows us to make a distinction between the struggles for plural rights in the city, bearers of political fragmentation and exclusion, and the construction of the right to the city in the singular and collectively developed, for example starting from social and ethnic-religious fracture lines in Israeli society (Yiftachel, 2015).

19This reappraisal of the right to the city and of identity politics in the framework of a growing local democracy and of urban cosmopolitanism resonates strongly in the cities of the South, which are heavily hit by social fragmentation, cultural isolationism and xenophobia. Indeed, in the South, some city dwellers witness their legitimacy to live in the city brutally undermined, in particular, migrants but also informal workers, or inhabitants of unstable neighbourhoods. Some can be removed manu militari in line with an imagined rural identity, for example when the State justifies a mass evacuation in proclaiming the demolition of ‘houses’ and not ‘homes’ (homes instead refers to a person’s deepfelt attachment to place), in the case of Zimbabwe (Dorman, 2016). For others their right to stay in the city is simply prohibited, as was long the case in China. Here we find the tension between the potentially emancipating role of the urban, breaking with traditional patriarchal structures for example, and the alienation of modern urban life, condemned by Lefebvre.

20Moreover, the opportunity to build a shared urban-based political identity rests on a relatively linear concept of urbanization and planetary urbanization as asserted by Lefebvre (Brenner and Schmid, 2015). The explanatory power of the model of urban transition is weak when it comes to the strength of circular migration and the multiplicity of territorial anchorages between cities of the South (Spire, 2011), between cities and rural areas (Chaléard and Dubresson, 1989), or the specificity of motors of urbanization in the South as a historical process (compared to the importance of links between city and industrialization in the production of an urban society as Lefebvre describes it). The model of the urban transition can occult the force of the city-countryside cleavage in the imaginaires of city dwellers and in some practices by city dwellers in the global South. For example, at Kisumu in Kenya, the colonial city clashed with the “rural” peripheries in a complex political game (Mercurol, 2017). If we observe a rise of urban-based movements and claims and in the public space in Africa, strongly proclaimed by the “Arab Spring” or by “street parliaments” in Western Africa (Banégas et al. 2012; Boyer 2014), the urban is not a reference point everywhere. It can hide behind other issues such as land grabbing in rural areas, and what some, more generically, call the “right to the village”, to refer to legal issues (Landy and Moreau, 2015).

21This is not only a question of the scale or limitations of the city, it is also a question of articulation between the multiple anchor points, variables over a lifetime, that can nurture strategies or sentiments of shared, but ambiguous, belonging. The literature on citiness in the South reveals this ambivalence (Gervais-Lambony, 2003). When the question of knowing who is a city dweller, what it means to be a city dweller, or who is recognized by the State as a legitimate city dweller is also problematic, it is more difficult to outline a right of the inhabitant on the basis of an urban habitat. What should be taken into account: a place of residence, a combination of economic activities, engagement in a mix of social ties, political activism? At the same time, the notion of the right to the city allows us to reformulate these questions, and to re-politicize them.

22The notion of the right to the city is increasing in this direction in the literature on the cities of the South. What we are witnessing is an emerging debate on the right to urban life, heavily inspired by Lefebvre, but reformulated through the idea of a right to informality. With its paradoxical character this formulation considers what is at stake in the current revival of the right to the city in the South: it is a question of recognizing urban rights, alongside the foundations and political effects of this recognition. The idea of a right to informality faces a more strictly revolutionary re-reading of the Lefebvrian notion of the right to the city, around a discussion on urban rights. Yet these two, virtually antagonistic, approaches meet on the question of positive rights as we will see in the last section. Finally, the debate on the right to the city is structured around two paradigms which are still very prominent in the South when it comes to understanding urban dynamics: “development” and “informality”. We can question these in the light of the ambiguities intrinsic to the term “right”.

The twist of the right to the city: urban rights, rights in the city

The right to the city, relaunching the debate on its development and change in Ghana

23From the early 2000s the notion of the right to the city in the South was incorporated into the debate on rights or human rights in the city. This allows us to renew the debate on the intra-urban inequalities by giving it a more prescriptive turn (Zérah et al., 2011). Susan Parnell and Edgar Pieterse (2010) have seen a way to affirm the right to the city with the advent of a new generation of rights, urban rights (Attoh 2011). These add a progressive goal or reducing poverty to political, economic and human rights. This approach is meant to be post-neoliberal and developmental asking us to consider an “alternative to neoliberal aspirations”, and to substitute neoliberal “trends” in “a more radical rights-based agenda for cities”, in replacing the question of public interventionism and the role of the State at the centre of attention. It is to reinforce the regulatory capacity of the State, especially at the local level. This program reflates the intensity in the South, and the links between the scientific world and public developmental action.

24In the South, the notion of the right to the city resounds very directly with the question of basic needs and access to services and housing, a challenge made even more urgent and onerous by the pace of urban growth. This reading has been facilitated by the ambiguity of the term right. It fits well with the language of the UN and human rights’ rhetoric. It also rings well with the codification of quantifiable objectives (the Millennium Development Goals and long-term development targets set by the United Nations Development Program, UNDP), with the aim of consolidating socio-economic rights, such as access to clean drinking water, affordable energy, decent work, etc. The notion of “right” easily becomes porous with the discussion on the agendas to reduce poverty and inequalities or to improve living conditions. Finally, with its ambition to have a universal meaning the notion of the right to the city seems to correspond well to these approaches.

  • 5 In the North there is also a movement to establish such rights (see, for example, the charter for t (...)

25The assimilation of the right to the city into the developmental rhetoric of the United Nations has indeed been very rapid (see Insert 1).5 It progressed under the stimulus of counter-hegemonic social movements lobbying for the integration of urban rights into the international system of human rights. The UN has reread this notion through the liberal idea of the social contract, a corpus of individual rights coupled with duties and responsibilities. Here, where the counter-hegemonic movements campaign for an anti-capitalist reading of the right to the city, and challenge the exclusivity of national citizenship vis-à-vis social and economic rights and the primacy of private property, the UN has gradually depoliticized the idea of the right to the city (Kuymulu, 2013; Costes, 2014; Belda-Miquel et al., 2016), without ever really integrating it into the UN political agenda. In 2016, after challenging discussions at the United Nations Summit on Housing and Sustainable Development (Habitat III) in Quito, a rather vaguer notion of inclusion or of the inclusive city (“cities for all”) was preferred. The recognition of the right to the city in international law by an intergovernmental body, dependent on its members for financing, thus comes up against on the affirmation of the social function of private property and the risk of weakening the monopoly of national citizenship which is the bearer of this concept.

Insert 1. The UN formulation of a right to the city in the South

In the early 2000s, parallel to meetings of the World Social Forum which is where the World Charter for the Right to the City originated (2004, Quito), the UN created a working group to deal with the growing debate on this notion. The following chronology highlights the main steps in the integration of the right to the city by the UN.
1976: Habitat I, Vancouver: creation of Habitat International Coalition (HIC)

1995: HIC organizes an international Forum on the theme “environment, poverty and the right to the city”

1996: Habitat II, Istanbul: a debate on the right to housing was presented by the HIC

2005/2008: joint UNESCO-UN Habitat project on the form of electronic debates and meetings organized by UNESCO, UN-HABITAT and NGOs in Paris (2005), Barcelona (2005), Vancouver (2006) and Porto Alegre (2008).

The 4 selected themes were:
• local democracy and urban governance
• social inclusion and a decent life with dignity for marginalized groups
• diversity cultural urban and religious freedom
• the right to urban services

2007/8: the creation of two chairs on international themes related to on the right to the city to UNESCO, linked to a mission of networking with political municipal actors, senior local administrators, associations and universities. The UNESCO chair on urban policy and citizenship was awarded to Bernard Jouve (Lyon) and the chair on the rights of migrants to Marcello Balbo (Venice).

2010: the World Urban Forum in Rio focused on the right to the city, and UN-Habitat reported on the state of cities in the world recommended reducing the urban divide and giving a right to the city to all citizens.

In practice this integration of the right to the city leads to a dilution of the notion: very varied debates intersected one another (fight against poverty, the struggle against capitalism, human rights, Nimby affirmations of taxpayers) and all the lobbies expressed themselves. Dissenting postures become marginalized or at least balanced out by liberal points of view.

26This incorporation of the right to the city by the UN has helped construct a normative dimension of the notion as it circulates in development agendas in a reformed form. In West Africa, Ghana took part in spreading this depoliticized notion of the right to the city in reinterpreting the UN rhetoric in two key documents defining urban policies since 2012: the National Urban Policy Framework and the Ghana National Urban Policy Action Plan. In Ghana the urban agenda promotes better access to housing and the provision of services through orderly and consolidated development. This takes place in particular by destroying informal neighbourhoods and eradicating street trading in city centres (Spire and Choplin, 2017). At a time when half the population had become urban the metropolitan government of Accra in particular (Accra Metropolitan Assembly) developed its urban agenda under UN influence. It did this in order to elevate Accra to the rank of a ‘Millennium City’, that is, a competitive and ‘cleansed’ international metropolis (based in Ghana on the principles of beautification and decongestion). Yet the policies applied by local government in Accra met with resistance from collectives of city dwellers and NGOs (in particular, Shack Dwellers International) which mobilized around the slogan of the “right to the city” to demand citizens’ right to stay put when threatened with eviction, as expressed in the emblematic and historical case of the famous neighbourhood Old Fadama (Afenah, 2010; Farouk and Owusu, 2012). The right to the city is thus incorporated into local struggles, with political mobilization organized around a very clear objective, and with militants anchored in international political networks.

27The inscription of the right to the city in the agenda of the struggle against urban poverty and inequality in Ghana limits the re-appropriation of the potential critique of the concept in the academic sphere, to the extent where many researchers are associated with the incorporation of developmental issues under the UN banner of the right to the city. Despite calls for a “southern turn” (Robinson 2006), the developmental paradigm still feeds a great deal of urban thinking in some Souths for institutional and theoretical reasons. The quasi homology between the idea of rights, which has trickled down to UN rhetoric, and the concept of development has aimed at ways to adopt the right to the city in the South. To our knowledge, if the “southern turn” pursued notions such as development or neoliberalization, it did not lead to a rejection of the right to the city, but only to a reworking of that right, sometimes by the most fervent defenders of a “southern turn”, in order to adapt it to specific issues (e.g. Pieterse and Parnell).

28Orthodox neo-Marxists are very hostile to these reading of the right to the city which they consider a corruption of Lefebvre’s original intentions. According to them, these re-readings do no seal off the profile of Lefebvre’s work and formalize it since they conceive the right to the city as a practical path towards social change, a method of political emancipation, not reducible to a list of goals, and not measurable. They believe that codification and reliance on the critical scope of the right to the city in order to promote progressive political projects represents a reformist drift which should be censured in relation. Nevertheless, quite recently a debate has emerged in a field of urban studies and housing policy in the South that invites us to reconsider the relation between political emancipation and positive rights, through a debate on the right to informality.

Renewing the debate on informality: the South African input

29Simultaneously to this work of the UN to digest the right to the city, the notion has been taken back in the South, incorporated and adapted as part of radical urban and dissenting thought, that replaces the Lefebvrian debate of the production of space and informality. This debate developed in parallel to the first, and partly in reaction against it. Marie Huchzermeyer (2011, 2014), starting with the case of South Africa (in accordance with situations in Brazil or Kenya), speaks out in favour of a sort of right to informality. It encourages us to think of cities “with slums”. In her provocative formula, that takes the opposite side to the World Bank’s modernist program to eradicate slums (the program of “cities without slums”), we engage to work towards a real cultural revolution. Its goal is to denounce the State’s disinterest in the social functioning of inhabitants in neighbourhoods referred to as informal, as well as the social stigmatization involved with “informal settlements” or “squatter camps” in South Africa where the inhabitants are largely criminalized for their illegal occupation of land, and consequently, subject to potential eviction.

30For Huchzermeyer, by contrast, informality is a form of spontaneous and collective production of urban space. It is a way for “squatters”, namely inhabitants without rights, to produce their right to the city collectively by organizing politically. Informality should not be an obstacle to achieving the right to the city as affirmed by developmental interpretations of the right to the city. The latter argue that this reflects a failure of the governmental apparatus, its incapacity to control and identify, in order to guarantee urban rights. It reflects the structural failure of housing policy and the absence of satisfactory regulation of the property market by the State. Its failure is located precisely here, and it measures the incapacity to guarantee urban rights. Rather than perpetuate a repressive tradition of forced displacements inherited from Apartheid (Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act, 1954) or striving to build a “shack free city” through evictions (speech by the then President, Thabo Mbeki in 2001 and main goal of the Housing Minister), the Republic of South Africa should recognize the social function of informal neighborhoods in giving them the right to the city by consolidating “squatters’ rights”.

31This is about affirming a right to the city based on the use value of urban real estate (Harvey and other neo-Marxist approaches are explicitly cited), in contrast to a neoliberal reading of urban rights. We should also recall that the city is sometimes produced ‘against’ some of its city dwellers (e.g. the capitalist State against “squatters”), and to the benefit of others (investors with capital exploiting ground rents and property owners with a sacralised right to speculate). However, it is also about—and this is the most delicate point since it takes us back to the grounds of positive rights—calling on the State to recognize the legitimacy of these forms of urban production in order to allow the consolidation of such neighbourhoods. This research is located at the crossroads between a reactivation of texts where Lefebvre evokes the creativity of popular neighbourhoods in Latin America, a reflection on the role of the State in the cities of the South, and an updating of the debate on the self-production of the popular habitat, in a radical perspective. It thus takes into account a rather ambiguous intermediate position: access to urban rights is not considered as an end in itself, but the fight for these rights is perceived as a potential step towards emancipation, especially valid for the political process that it commits to. According to the Marie Huchzermeyer, this approach allows us to restore the importance of positive rights in the Lefebvrian sense (Huchzermeyer, 2018). This vision reflects the strategy of struggle in the social movement Abahlali BaseMjondolo (see Insert 2), to which Huchzermeyer is personally linked.

32The South African context is conducive to the development of this radical Lefebvre-inspired geography, to slightly unorthodox neo-Marxism, and to a reinterpretation of the right to the city. In South Africa, the notion of the right to the city has maintained its potential or radical critique and has not been incorporated into public policy. Policymakers prefer the concept of spatial justice (e.g. the National Development Plan 2030 (NDP) Chapter 8, p. 277), that resonates better with issues of urban disaggregation and is compatible with the recognition of social and economic rights in the context of the post-Apartheid neoliberal social contract. The notion of the right to the city can thus be mobilized by radical social movements and by scholars working alongside them. Moreover, they will be all the more willing to grasp that the notion of rights refers to a political project of post-Apartheid reparations and redistribution. The idea of urban rights is very much present in the public debate since urban policies were one of the lynchpins of colonial segregation and Grand Apartheid. Liberation movements which are strongly urban-based have thus built up part of their demands regarding urban issues since 1970-1980, and the 1996 Constitution contains a very progressive Bill of Rights which has an urban ring to it and which can support current social struggles.

Insert 2. Abahlali BaseMjondolo (AbM South Africa): political struggle or legal battle?

Abahlali BaseMjondolo is an anticapitalist movement in favor of “living communism”. The movement was born in KwaZulu-Natal but now operates nationwide. In isiZulu, ‘abahlali’ means resident and ‘mjondolo’ means squatter shack, the two together can be translated as “shack dwellers”. The movement mobilizes the notion of the right to the city to press its claims on the right to housing and the right to the security of land tenure. It calls on the public powers to exercise their right to expropriate private land in order to affirm its social value and to bring about its decommodification. One of its official objectives is "to recreate ‘Commons’ from below by trying to create a series of linked communes”. This is a popular movement engaged in a project of popular education (University of Abahlali baseMjondolo) and spreading the idea of the right to the city (through workshops), in a very Lefebvrian perspective, through the idea of a collectively produced space, breaking with capitalism.

The movement nevertheless combines tactics in a pragmatic way. It does not reject the idea of reinforcing legal rights and does not dismiss legal battles. It organizes land occupations (for example Macassar Village, a neighborhood that Cape Town wanted to demolish in time for the 2009 World Cup), occupation of public and private buildings, and of vacant public space (see the campaign against the 2010 World Cup in the Cape). It campaigns against evictions, against police violence and against the ANC (some of the movement’s members were killed). It also went to the courts (Huchzermeyer 2011). In 2009, the movement took the provincial government of KwaZulu-Natal to court, to contest its Slums Act on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. The case was lost in the first instance, but on 14 May 2009, Abahlali appealed the decision before the Constitutional Court, and on 14 October 2009 the Court ruled in its favor, declaring the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination & Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Bill 2008/9 unconstitutional.

According to Birkinshaw, 2007

  • 6 The DALVAA program (rethinking the right to the city from sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America) has (...)

33In this way the South African example translates the complexity of contemporary hybridizations of the debate on the right to the city starting from its re-actualization in the South, connected to issues of urban rights. The result was a debate in urban studies over Lefebvre’s position on positive rights (Huchzermeyer, 2018). The aim is indeed a battle of appropriation of the notion of the right to the city and the tension between a revolutionary agenda and a reformist “path”. This is implicitly contained in Huchzermeyer’s analysis, in a sense, probably very South African, but which resounds strongly in other African cities and the South at large. The latter thus seem to open up perspectives for another type of programmatic critique that involves relations between political emancipation and granting urban rights. This is what we have tried to initiate in a recent research program through the exploratory notion of the “actual right to the city”, in questioning the political effects of these processes of recognition of rights.6

Urban rights and the “actual right to the city”: a new critical path?

34The current polemic on the right to the city in South Africa invites us to go beyond the dual conception of power that dominates neo-Marxist approaches to the right to the city. These approaches tend to set the State (qua custodian of power) against city dwellers (struggling against power, trying to seize it) and to read the right to the city as a revolutionary program. Indeed, in the cities of the South the lives of city dwellers are more marked by informality and social and economic insecurity compared to elsewhere. Recognition by the State is thus a crucial issue for many city dwellers. It often occurs by a process of regularizing and granting urban rights that transform the relationship with space. This can take the form of transactions that lead to a legally installed electricity supply (Pilo’, 2017), residential displacement (Spire et al., 2017) or eviction of traders as part of the process of urban renewal (Morange and Quentin, 2017). All these operations transform the condition of city dwellers, for example, in regulating their relations with urban services, placing them in public markets, or rehousing them in middle-class condominiums in the urban periphery (Planel and Bridonneau, 2017). It is about a process of granting vertical rights by the State and often linked to neoliberal policies ordering space (Morange and Spire, 2017). These policies are all the more important given that urban societies of the South are not always massively in conflict (mainly in repressive or authoritarian contexts), and that this limit the contribution of the analytical dualism of neo-Marxist approaches to dealing with political empowerment.

35A new type of critical program is to consider the opportunities for political empowerment opened up by the struggle for urban rights and by the consequent process of granting rights. This would address the relationship between the state and its citizens, placing the emphasis on the time and space of interface, where one negotiates and establishes urban rights that evoke the tension between a dimension which is both emancipating and alienating of process at work. We have proposed to examine the subject of the “actual right to the city” (Morange and Spire, 2017). These new urban rights have a strong political dimension in the sense that they transform the lives of city dwellers. They reconfigure the city dwellers’ practices and socio-spatial orders, and beyond this they influence the idea that city dwellers will make their place in the city. What is at stake for example in granting a license to work in a municipal street market is also the material access to urban space and the right to work with a certain sense of security instead of the informality in the city, and the construction of a political and social figure, the street trader. Furthermore, the “actual right to the city” is built at the interface between public action (development and implementation of public policies, practices of state agents) and the practices of city dwellers, inscribed in the lives of the latter and used in daily life. Nevertheless, in so doing the “actual right to the city” is not the result of a direct and open ideological confrontation, politically formalized.

36With this exploratory notion we must thus take into account the process that produces social, political and spatial norms linked to forms of political recognition. These norms are articulated in the discourse and are expressed in daily practice, beyond or alongside the universe of political claims. This analytical perspective opens up an opportunity to reflect on the difficulties of empowerment. In fact, through the recognition of rights in the city, even if limited, some city dwellers are selectively included in processes of socio-spatial “tidying up” which shapes their desire and sharpens their capacity of resistance. To some degree, the spatial order identified with neoliberal policies (evictions, metropolitan revamping, urban marketing, commercial and residential gentrification, etc.) unleashes a process whereby some city dwellers, whose actions are governed, experiment a potential to either align themselves with or to challenge this spatial order. Considering the relation of city dwellers with this new urban order in terms of an “actual right to the city” is an invitation to recognize what it is in the daily experience of the city dweller, that leads to the formation of a normative conception of their place in city, and of what can and must constitute the urban, spatial, political and social order (Morange et al. 2018). It is through their practices of urban space that all city dwellers experience the process of social exclusion, relegation, marginalization, but for some of them this experience takes the form of political and social inclusion, as well as affirmation of forms of partially local citizenship whose content is difficult to interpret but which urgently needs to be deciphered.

37Indeed, we can also observe all these processes in the North. Nevertheless, we have formulated questions starting from diffrent fieldowrks conducted in the South, where the issue of rights, of recognition and of informality appear to be particularly strong. To this end we recall how much the differences in the interpretation and appropriation of the right to the city, between North and South, are linked to the way in which the notion has made inroads into these different contexts, echoing within the old debate more than with the irreducible specificity of two worlds. Indeed cities in the South have not significantly upgraded the concept of the right to the city. However, they may contribute to a shift in perspective, particularly starting from the concept of informality. This would show that the issue of a theorization by the South would require us to renew our theoretical concepts in urban studies less, starting from the latter, than to play on a capacity to shift the perspective to shared issues.


38The success of the idea of the right to the city is linked to the hybrid character of a notion which is both theoretically rich and politically loaded. This explains the scaling down of the echo chambers in which it resonates, in disciplinary fields, in academic milieus, militant circles and among public actors. This polysemy may well have led to difficulties in the dialogue between incompatible theoretical approaches, perhaps by feeding the scientific and ideological polemics between orthodox or heterodox readings of the right to the city. The fields of debate are many and are structured in such a way that does not produce a particularly unified discussion.

39Historically, these discussions are partly structured around a disconnection between North and South, both institutional and theoretical, in which the intensity of the circulation of ideas at the continental or regional level, plays an important role. The different appropriations of the right to the city have been partly guided by the impact of the political and academic context, partly national, partly transnational, which is linked to these flows. Depending on the context, the notion has thus taken diverging meanings and put to work on differing political or critical projects, largely based on inherited paradigms and debate and on strongly asymmetrical power relations between different types of actors, eager to control and to demarcate the debate. These effects of appropriation and change remain largely unknown and merit further research.

40In this essay we have not been able to explore all the dimensions and all the effects of the translation or circulation of the idea of the right to the city; far from it. Our objective was to throw light on the effects of structuring on fields of debate in the South, starting from situations in sub-Saharan Africa. This reveals two things. First of all, it confirms the force of the North-South disconnection in structuring this field. We find, on the one hand, an “orthodox” neo-Marxist approach, close to Lefebvre, resting mainly on the case of cities in Western Europe and North America. This prioritizes the question of value and private property and sometimes the question of the right to work and of daily lives, so dear to Lefebvre. On the other hand, we find a developmental approach to the South, turned towards the issues of urban inclusion, participation and local democracy, or of access to some basic social and economic rights. Yet, beyond this largely inherited cleavage this African illumination invites us to consider analytical bridges between these different worlds. If it is true that the force of the lives of informal city dwellers in cities in Africa prompts us to enquire into the process of selective recognition by the State and granting rights to some citizens, in order to question the resulting tension between empowerment and political alienation, it seems to us that these issues are also occur in the North. Analyzing the African appropriations of the notion of the right to the city we must emphasize the normative dimension of the notion and frame a research track around the “actual right to the city”. This is a slight shift in the debate on the right to the city, but we cite it in the hope that it can help to de-partition the North-South divide by critically facing up to the political dimension of ordinary lives.

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1 In the wake of May 1968 we witness the politicization of the discourse on the “urban” that accompanies the debate on political empowerment, the evaluation of awareness “of the vicinity”, the local, of experience, with the rise of urban political ecology (Busquet 2013). Alain Touraine (1978) sees in the rise of anticapitalist urban struggle and of demands relating to “the quality of life ”, the death of the labor movement and the rise of “new social movements”. Manuel Castells (1983) on the other hand considers this “urban social movement” as the image of the “urbanization of class struggle” since it could be the bearer of a powerful critique of political power and the capitalist State.

2 This research group was set up in Berlin on the twentieth anniversary of the “Fall of the Wall” and of the visit by Herbert Marcuse, philosopher and sociologist, to East Berlin. It was set up thanks to the energies of three great figures in radical urban anglophone studies: Peter Marcuse, son of Herbert, Neil Brenner and Margit Mayer. Twenty years later, Herbert Marcuse evoked the interventionist heritage of the State (in particular, the decommodification of housing) and the need for democratization in the socialist bloc and laid the foundations for a reflection on the search for a way out of the choice between authoritarian socialism and liberal capitalism.

3 In 2018 this network of associations was present in 32 countries in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia where it worked to give a voice to the inhabitants of poor neighborhoods.

4 This network of organizations of informal workers and professionals in research-development campaigns for women’s rights in the informal economy.

5 In the North there is also a movement to establish such rights (see, for example, the charter for the right to the city in European cities), coupled with for example the French ‘Politique de la Ville’ but this mainly reflects the dynamics of recalibration scaled up between levels of government. It is a way for local government to assert its role vis-à-vis the central State (e.g. in France on the issue of financing social housing and housing rights).

6 The DALVAA program (rethinking the right to the city from sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America) has been the framework of this research that opened up a dialog between the literature on the right to the city with studies of empirical cases in eight cities in the South. This program is financed by the program Emergences de la Ville de Paris (2014-2018). For more details see:

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Marianne Morange et Amandine Spire, « The right to the city in the Global South. African appropriations and adaptation », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Espace, Société, Territoire, document 895, mis en ligne le 20 mai 2019, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Marianne Morange

Maître de Conférences HDR
Université Paris Diderot, UMR CESSMA, France

Amandine Spire

Maître de Conférences
Université Paris Diderot, UMR CESSMA, France

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