Africa: Cities as International Actors

Johannesburg skyline

Chris7cn (talk)/Wikipedia



By Hluma Luvo Ralane

The African Centre for the Study of the United States is hosting the Africa-U.S. Cities Conference from February 15, 2023 to February 17, 2023 in Johannesburg, with the Sister Cities International, a U.S.-based non-profit organization as a key partner, among others. This piece lays out the factors that are making Africa-U.S. city relations an important avenue for diplomacy between the two regions.

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a rapid growth of city and regional networks as the new vehicles to protect and promote local and regional interests in a globalising, yet politically still largely state-centric world. The international realm now looks very different from the static mosaic that defined international relations during the Cold War years. Essentially, the international transformation of cities as international actors took a definite trajectory from the early 1990s with the end of the Cold War and as part of greater democratization globally. These developments have seen cities gaining a foothold in international policymaking. They are developing and growing confidence in articulating their own political agendas beyond the borders of their nation states through city-to-city diplomacy.

Through an urban lens cities are understood as systems made up of people and places, often experiencing rapid changes. Cities are the locales where economic and demographic influence reside, where innovation is most likely to take place, and where leadership can potentially solve international cooperation challenges, at a pace and in a way that the interstate system carries neither the flexibility nor same incentives to pursue. The built environment disciplines and practices of architecture, building economics, engineering and urban planning have come to be an integral facet in an unrelenting international political landscape.

While African cities still have some way in fully embracing their international roles, they have – like their counterparts in the Americas, Europe and Asia – grown in stature, not least because of their demographic expansion. According to World Atlas , there are at least 10 African cities with populations of over 4 million: Lagos (21 million), Cairo (20.4 million), Kinshasa (13.3 million), Luanda (6.5 million), Nairobi (6.5 million), Mogadishu (6.0 million), Abidjan (4.7 million), Alexandria (4.7 million), Addis Ababa (4.6 million), and Johannesburg (4.4 million). The sheer sizes of these cities means that they are the epicentres of international commercial, socio-economic opportunities and challenges, serving as governance centres and focal points for technological innovation.

A recent major boost to African cities as international actors is the city-focused policy that the United States has adopted. The new U.S. Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa that was launched by the U.S.   Secretary of State Antony Blinken in August 2022 in Pretoria, South Africa. For the very first time, cities were identified as a crucial cornerstone on foreign policy, this setting a new tone for Africa-U.S. city relations. The strategy made it visible that the world is keenly aware of the importance of African cities. It furthermore, recognizes the tremendous positive opportunities that exist to advance shared interests alongside African cities. The strategy projected the power and the dynamism that South African cities have in aiding to write the future of the African region and the world. It thus affirms African agency, amplifying and including South Africa’s voice in the most consequential global conversations.


The African Centre for the Study of the United States is hosting the Africa-U.S. Cities Conference from February 15, 2023 to February 17, 2023 in Johannesburg

In the global context, the megatrends that affect cities include climate change, urbanisation and globalisation. However, we may have seen how the COVID 19 pandemic changed the face of cities, recasting urban life globally. From a regional frame of thought, the disturbances faced by cities range from chronic stresses in the infrastructure fields to acute economic shocks. The Resilience Cities Network  defines these two disturbances as follows;

  • Chronic stresses weaken the fabric of a city on a day to day or cyclical basis; for example, high unemployment, inadequate public transport systems, endemic violence, food insecurity and substance abuse.
  • Acute shocks are sudden and sharp events that threaten a city, for example drought, fires, floods, disease outbreaks and infrastructure failure.  

On a broader scale these disturbances range from issues of energy and climate change, migration and refugee challenges, and economic challenges. Through the above outlined shortcomings cities have come to be on the front line in addressing these issues. To observe the ascent of cities in this regard is to understand that systemic change will require fundamental shifts in our understanding of multilateralism. Interstate cooperation is limited by a lack of knowledge of local realities. Local realities must, therefore, be part of a new framing of global governance.

The African Centre for the Study of the United States at Wits University is providing a platform where a wide variety of academics, scholars, government officials, and corporate practitioners involved in municipal, regional, and national government activities will be able to converse around the theme of cities as international actors. Together with other themes around the urban agenda, this will take place on the 15-17 February 2023, Johannesburg, South Africa. The conference is in partnership with Sister Cities International, South African Local Government Association, Development Bank of Southern Africa, Word Bank, Invest SA Gauteng, Centre for Learning on Evaluations and Results Anglophone Africa, Bennet College, North Carolina Central University and Center for African Studies, Howard University.

The conference outcomes include the promotion of collaborations that will lead to concrete partnerships whereby universities can interact with each other and with funding agencies, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and the business community in Africa and the United States. Furthermore, produce knowledge on the means and ways in which African and U.S. cities can strategically engage as international actors. Engage in knowledge production involving both scholars and practitioners. Connect African and U.S. scholars, policymakers, practitioners, funding agencies and professionals with an interest in city relations, city diplomacy, and related sustainable development goals.

The author is a Research Associate with the African Centre for the Study of the U.S. at Wits University.