The right to a formal city

By Gemma Todd

When discussing cities in Africa, and 'African urbanism', the focus quickly turns to the state of informality. Such raises the question of how developmental is informality? Who benefits from informality and for how long? Furthermore how can a system whereby the formal-informal are intertwined work? The issue has been a burning topic in Mwanza over the past week. Mwanza is a small city located on the southern coast of Lake Victoria, inhabited by around 635,730 people (Mwanza City Council, 2014). With development continuing, land markets remain a crucial asset. Over the past few weeks the focus has been on land – measuring plots of land, providing individuals with land titles, and bringing all dwellers under the formal land system. Nationally, the Tanzanian government claimed all citizens who do not have a land title should be granted it within 21 days of having their land assessed, measured, and the boundaries drawn. The proposed deadline suggests the end of an invisible population, putting people on the formal map and recognising formal dwellers. However, the achievement requires understanding how the system of informal-formal works. At a local level informal actors are key in determining the right to formality and future of urban planning.

Take "Ben's" case. Ben has a number of plots located in one of Mwanza's now valuable locations. The plots were gained by buying them off farmers for a price, that today would not get you very far in ensuring an adequate urban life for a month, let a loan a valuable plot of land. The plots Ben now possesses are valued as property hotspots. However, in a recent community meeting current farmers and community members questioned the boundaries of one of Ben's plots. The members suggested his fence boundary had overstepped the plot boundary brought. The members demanded formal action - wanting compensation or physical reimbursement - calling upon a local land agent to investigate the land in question. The local land agent carried out a number of casual, separate meetings with Ben and the community members investigating who the legal owner is. Ben presented multiple documents to the agent, from land tax receipts to the original land purchase documentation – witnessed by some of the members raising the case. However, this was not enough, Ben needs a land title deed to complete the package, prove formality, and override the community members' claims. The community members befriended the land agent, speeding up the acquisition process.

Ben's case raises interesting points on achieving one's right to a 'formal' city, in analysing urban planning and rights. First, the important role local actors play in enabling the right to formality for urban dwellers. With an invisible, or selective state, local agents remain a channel to access formality, but also a platform to engage with individuals at multiple scales. However, the power of such agents raises concern - what is expected in return and when? Local land agents are often unpaid, with political motivations. The service is being provided and operated by the political party - CCM - as the 2015 elections draw close and political support is sought. Second, formality relies upon what assets you have to pursue the protection of your land. Thirdly, formal rights remain precarious. Finally, formality is based on evidence of land possession. Formality is political; comes at a price; and is interlinked through social capital.

However, what should be accepted as evidence to create a system of formality? Should legal documentation trump everything when deciding on formal rights? This all returns to the idea of 'formality'. Formality is intertwined with informality - mutually exclusive. Rights to the formal city depend upon rights to informality. But of concern are how informality operates and what power geographies emerge.

Photo 1: A plot of land with markings on the rocks showing that someone has brought the land. Photo 2: The town development. Photo 3: A squatter occupation.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.