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The Economist, March 29, 2007

Cities without limits

Struggling to cope with too many people

TWO years ago Zimbabwe's muscular answer to the informal shacks and markets proliferating in its cities made headlines. About 700,000 people had their homes or stalls destroyed. Most are still waiting for the replacements that they were promised by the government. The Zambian government is now threatening to tackle the same problem in much the same way. Earlier this month, some illegal houses were razed in Lusaka, the capital, and officials have threatened to intensify the “cleanup” and extend it nationwide.

These are two examples of a continent-wide phenomenon; African cities are struggling to cope with an unprecedented influx of people. Most come from the countryside; making a decent living ploughing tiny plots of land is hard, and cities offer more hope of a job. But some are refugees from fighting. Luanda, built for half a million people, is now home to at least 4m, many of whom fled there during Angola's horrific civil war. Shacks have popped up in the most precarious of spaces, and in slums such as Boa Vista, near the port, ancient piles of garbage are composting in the streams that run between the makeshift shelters.

Johannesburg, South Africa's business capital, is facing similar problems. Over 20% of the city's population are thought to live in shacks and the city cannot build cheap houses fast enough. In places like Alexandra, one of the city's townships, shacks have been built dangerously close to the river and people drown when it swells. Plans are under way to move some people to new houses elsewhere.

But what happens when the people do not want to move? That is the problem facing the city in the old central business district. For years it has been kicking out poor people who had moved into the many abandoned buildings, claiming that they are unsafe. But now lawyers acting for 300 people fighting eviction argue that the city must provide alternative accommodation, preferably in the same area.

The catch is that property developers are turning the decrepit buildings, abandoned when most businesses fled a crime-wave for the northern suburbs in the early 1990s, into swanky apartment blocks, and property prices have been rocketing. A court ruled this week that the city has to find them another place to live, although it does not have to be in the centre of town. The case may now land on the Constitutional Court's desk.

And evicting people—or providing new houses—does not necessarily mean that they leave. In downtown Johannesburg, those who have lost their homes often move to the next derelict building to stay close to their livelihood. In Luanda, people are coaxed to leave their shacks and move to brand-new houses built by Chinese contractors, but many move quickly back into town. The new houses are too far out, with no adequate public transport, and they are sometimes built before water, electricity or schools get there.

Until the countryside offers a decent living, the lure of the city will remain, however awful the shanty-towns. And regardless of their dreams of gentrification, African cities need to make room in their centres for cheap housing for the poor. Otherwise, the shacks won't go away.

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