SOAS University of London

Department of Politics and International Studies

Political Life in African Cities

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 2

Cities are fascinating and central sites of political life, often at the sharp end of new political ideas and movements, struggles between order and disorder, violence, resistance and creativity. This course focuses on political life in African cities as a way to understand core aspects of modern political life across the continent. The course is organised around three themes:

Cities as sites of contested imaginations of the state. We will discuss how people think about how cities express state personality or identity, including ideas about pre-colonial city states and their incorporation into modern cities; the often uncomfortable ways in which colonial architectural and planning legacies shape existing cities; and experiments in starting new post-colonial cities from scratch.

Cities as sites of intense and often conflictual state-society relations. We will explore the tensions between bureaucracy and informality; the history and effects of coups and military control; and the origins and outcomes of popular protest.

Cities as sites of creative political life. We will examine the effects of migration and contests over space; the nature and political expression of cosmopolitanism; and the politics of art and music in cities. The course ends with a final session exploring modernist dreams of African cities.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • Understand a range of historical, theoretical and empirical themes that have shaped political life in African cities since independence.
  • Applied some of this understanding to a study of at least one African city (chosen and developed by the student).
  • Developed critical analytic and communication skills in running class discussions, presenting complex arguments orally and in writing.


2 hours Seminar per week

Scope and syllabus

  1.  Imagining precolonial city states
  2.  The architectural legacies of colonial cities
  3.  Starting again: moving the capital
  4.  Bureaucracy and informality
  5.  Coups and control
  6.  Popular protest
  7.  Migration
  8.  Cosmopolitanism
  9.  Art and Music
  10.  Imagining ideal cities

Method of assessment

10% lead a classroom discussion; 90% essay (3000 words) exploring one or two themes covered in the course applied to one African city.

Suggested reading

This is a preliminary, indicative list:

  • The History Of African Cities South Of The Sahara Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch , 2004
  • Citizen and Subject: contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism, Mahmood Mamdani, 1996
  • Rogue Urbanism: emergent African cities Edgar Pieterse and Abdou Maliqalim Simone, 2013
  • Associational Life in African Cities: popular responses to the urban crisis Arne Tostensen and Inge Tvendten, 2001
  • Guarding the Guardians: Civil-Military Relations and Democratic Governance in Africa, Mathurin C. Houngnikpo, 2010
  • Johannesburg: the elusive metropolis, Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttal, 2008
  • Architecture and Power in Africa, Nnamdi Elleh, 2002
  • Class Struggles in Zambia, 1889-1989 and the Fall of Kenneth Kaunda, 1990-1991. Hamalengwa, Munyonzwe, 1992
  • ‘Operation Murambatsvina and the Politics of Street Vendors in Zimbabwe’ Francis Musoni Journal of Southern African Studies, 2010 36(2): 301–17
  • ‘The Afropolitan idea: new perspectives on cosmopolitanism in African Studies’, Sarah Balakrishnan, History Compass, 2017, 15(2)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules