Private Cities — A Smart Solution for Africa?

July 28, 2022 • 9 min to read • 🇺🇸 • Namibia
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Since the day I arrived in Walvis Bay I had that feeling that something is weird with this town. What irritates me is hard to describe. That part of Walvis Bay that is called "town" seems to me like I imagine an average city in the U.S. Apart from the layout of the town which is rectangular with straight and broad streets built for large cars and trucks, everything seems to be focussed on business. There are signs and advertisements for companies everywhere and everyone is talking about business. At 1 p.m. the siren at the municipality is signaling lunchtime for the working folks. Is it just a different form of capitalism compared to Germany? Traffic police officers are wearing high-visibility vests with the branding of the local electricity provider ErongoRED on it. Their slogan "Power to the people" sounds promising but shouldn't the police be independent? The entire coastline is occupied by the harbor. Would a city planned for humans not for business look the same?

One of many advertising paintings in Walvis Bay
One of many advertising paintings in Walvis Bay

Recently, I started listening to my podcasts queue which got quite long since last time I was actively listening to podcasts. I stumbled across the episode "#174 Privatstädte: Wo Unternehmermacht die Demokratie ersetzt" — Private Cities: Where Corporate Power Replaces Democracy of the "Dissens-Podcast". I absolutely recommend this lovely produced, very informative and slightly left podcast series (German language). In that episode Lukas Ondreka and Andreas Kemper present the book "Privatstädte. Labore für einen neuen Manchesterkapitalismus" — Private Cities. Laboratories for a new Manchaster capitalism First, I thought this is an interesting thought experiment but suddenly I was shocked when I realized how real it is and that there is even a reference to Africa — even to southern Africa! In this blog post, I just want to scratch the surface of this topic since it is very large and coveres many aspects.

What is a Private City?

The definition of a private city is not easy as there are multiple partially overlapping concepts related to private cities. Some refer to special administrative region like Hongkong or Shenzhen as "private city". Then, there are cities built for workers around companies, like Wolfsburg in Germany. Or even towns providing housing for workers and that are owned by companies, like Oranjemund in Namibia, which was opened to the public in 2017.1 There, it had even been necessary to show a permit to enter that town which is close to the type of private cities I want to talk about: What I mean when I say private city are cities where basically all the infrastructure is owned by a private company. The police is replaced by private armed security service companies. The public health system is replaced by private hospitals and ambulances. Public schools are replaced by private schools. Water and electricity distribution is organized by private corporations. Inhabitants of this cities have to pay service fees to the owning companies.

Often, the definition goes hand-in-hand with the concept of smart cities. This is caused by the necessity to make this new cities attractive to investors. Part of the concept is usually to build futuristic technocracies. Cryptocurrencies should provide the basis for trading.

Surveillance Camera (source: pixabay)
Surveillance Camera (source: pixabay)

All these things do not sound too bad, do they? But what else provide conventional cities and towns? They organize the way people are living together in a society. In most western municipality you will find democratic structures that allow participation. In private cities however, it is up to the owners to create to such structures or to drop this unpleasant part. In any case, the owners won't risk loosing the sovereignty over their property. If there are any democratic institutions they will reserve at least more than 50% of the votes. Democratic laws might be replaced by company ruled terms & conditions.

Everything is aligned to gain profit. Thus, the won't be any welfare system. In fact, unwanted, i.e., poor persons will be kept out. We know this concept of gated communities as one outcome of the Apartheit regime in southern Africa.

Advocates of Private Cities

When I first heard this ideas, I was wondering, who stands behind these ideas and who wants cities like these? I found three interesting names: Paul Romer, Titus Gebel and Peter Thiel.

Paul Romer (© Doerrb at English Wikipedia — CC BY-SA 3.0) Titus Gebel (© Free Private Cities Pressevorlagen — CC BY 4.0) und Peter Thiel (© Gage Skidmore — CC BY-SA 3.0)
Paul Romer (© Doerrb at English Wikipedia — CC BY-SA 3.0) Titus Gebel (© Free Private Cities Pressevorlagen — CC BY 4.0) und Peter Thiel (© Gage Skidmore — CC BY-SA 3.0)

Romer, an American economist and policy entrepreneur, is known as the inventor of Charter Cities. He describes them with the concept that a nation A creates a city in the country B following the example of the country C. Thus, a knowledge transfer and third-party investment should take place. This concept is criticized as neo-imperialist and neo-colonialist.

Gebel, a German entrepreneur, lawyer, political activist and publicist, modifies this concept in his book "Free Private Cities". He thinks that no Charter City was built before because of the unwillingness of governments to allow foreigners to rule in their own territory. He presents private cities as a possible way of dealing with migration crisis which is really shocking when we think of how close these concepts are to these high-tech prisons planned and built by private companies used as refugee camps in Greece.

Finally, Thiel is a German-American billionaire entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and political activist. He is the investor and founder of many (some will call them disruptive) companies, like Facebook, PayPal and Palantir and also of the first technocratic "Free Private City" projects.

Did you realize that all of them are privileged, white, rich and libertarian men? The more you read about these men the more you get the feeling that this might be a huge conspiracy complex (yes the Bilderberg Group is also involved). Good research is required to understand the complex entanglements. Thus, I don't want to dig deeper and better hand over to qualified journalists.

Is Walvis Bay a Private City?

No, definitively not. However, sometimes I have the feeling that being in Walvis Bay is sometimes a time travel. When you go to the library you find yourself in the 1980s (at least that's how I imagine a U.S. library in the 60s). When you compare the different settlements of the city, this is how Europe cities might turn into if the difference between poor and rich increases, gentrification and libertarian capitalism continues. While I didn't even find gated communities here (Edit: On my recent trip to Windhoek, I found even two private gated communities, Elisenheim and Osona Village. So yes, some kind of private cities also exist in Namibia), people in town are usually isolating themselves by building walls with barbwire (or broken glass set in concrete) or electric fences around their houses. Private security forces seem to protect this city. For now, I had contact with the police twice and in both cases I was shocked how unprofessional and improper they behave.

A "Right of Admission Reserved" sign at the entrance of a restaurant — a common measure in Namibia to keep unwanted people out
A "Right of Admission Reserved" sign at the entrance of a restaurant — a common measure in Namibia to keep unwanted people out

Are there any Private Cities?

In many parts of the world, privatization has been pushed harder than we are used to in Europe. With negative outcomes. Near Cape Town, the electricity supply is so unreliable, that it is turned of many times during the day (Load Shedding). However, even real private cities exist. One is Gurgaon in India and another one Rupayan City in Bangladesh. These metropolises are not planned and administered by the government but by private organizations. Three projects are currently ongoing in Honduras which are considered the first Free Private Cities or Enterprise Cities as defined by Gebel. In Africa, there is a cohort of private cities emerging across the continent: "Eko Atlantic" in Lagos, Nigeria; "Tatu City" in Nairobi, Kenya; "Hope City" in Accra, Ghana; and "Cité le Fleuve" in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

All of these projects seem to bypassing democratic debate and pushed by rich and powerful people in cooperation with corrupt governments. Especially in countries where government fails to provide reliable infrastructure, this concept seems to grant a high standard of living for the selected people allowed to live there. Speaking of global elites, Elon Musk's planned civilizations of Mars can also be counted as Private Cities.

Eko Atlantic

I did some more research on "Eko Atlantic" because, as you might have guessed, it is in Africa and it is known to be the Dubai of Africa. In fact it is a newly created peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean in Lagos, the former capital city of Nigeria. The city is struggling because of the maritime erosion for years destroying streets and water supply. The project was born out of the idea to build a massive dam around the city to protect it. To get enough funds for this million project some white right guy came up with the idea to sell the gained land behind the dam to private investors. Thus, Eko Atlantic, like private cities across the continent, signals a profitable opportunity for real estate capitalism. It is planned to be the new international commerce hub of the up-and-coming Nigerian economy. However, before the construction work could begin, the inhabitants of the "Bar Beach" on Victoria Island, which has a long history, had to be displaced forcefully. According to surveys some Lagosians feel excited about Eko Atlantic, while others are frightened or upset. The fascination might be caused by the fact that "they recognize their own economic exclusion and are questioning the role that geography, politics, and the global economy plays in that exclusion." 2

By the way: Eko Atlantic is advertised to be the most ecological city in Africa. However, a closer look reveals that the underlying concepts are not that well elaborated and are rather expandable. Unlike one might assume, "Eko" does not stand for ecologic, but for the old name of the city of Lagos ("Eko") which means manioc plantation in the language of the Yorube. 3

Conclusion

Finally I want to quote Katie Jane Fernelius, the author of the article I linked below, as she gives a fairly accurate classification of the issue: "Slum clearance and high-end luxury developments are the expression of the mechanics of global capitalism that have been reshaping African megacities like Lagos for decades. The advent of private cities is just the apogee of financial capitalism's liaison with real estate. Despite what their developers might claim, private cities represent not a fix or departure from the issues facing these cities, but rather a continuation of the very forces that caused them. In their literal concretization, private cities entrench inequality and affirm private rule."

Finally, I have to admit that this essay does not even try to answer the question raised in the headline as to my knowledge private cities in Africa do not even try to solve African issues. They seem to be just playgrounds for global elites. I can't even see any advantage of living in such a city from my German more-left point of view. Thus, I don't even understand why people are discussing about it. After all, I have at least understand where the idea behind "QualityLand" by Mark-Uwe Kling comes from.