The population of Africa is booming, but as long as productivity and employment remain unsteady, global experts and economists contend, African cities could descend into conflict and disorder.
From their perspective, activities like street hustling are seen to embody chaos and delinquency. Hustlers are assumed to be young, sometimes criminal, unemployed and enmeshed in the informal economy of the streets, living in informal settlements or slums and illegally occupying urban land that could be used more productively.
These portrayals have a long history, rooted in colonial attitudes toward informal workers and economic policies that have long overlooked the value street hustlers have created in modern African cities.
A successful hustler is embedded in the city’s social relations. To get by, hustlers connect people, provide services and enable economic exchange, in both licit ways such as retail, brokering transactions and providing electricity, water, transport and sanitation and illicit ways such as retrieving and fencing stolen goods.
Of course, the street economy is not all roses. Hustling can be predatory and criminal. But this is not the whole story, as my research on street lives in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa taught me.
Smartness in the city
Hustling has a special place in Addis Ababa, especially in Arada – a historic part of the city centre. Since the mid-20th century, Arada has conveyed a sense of smartness and urban sophistication, which generations of residents have nurtured and cultivated.
In the 1950s and ’60s, intellectuals, artists, government officials and members of the city’s emerging middle class described themselves as Arada to make sense of how the city, with its bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatre, shaped their lifestyles, sensibilities and social lives. To this day, being Arada signifies a proud local history of cultural and intellectual production among the city’s middle classes.
At the same time, hustlers and sex workers – poor men and women who lived side by side with the middle classes – also claim to be Arada. For them, the hustler’s ability to navigate the city and get by against the odds was a sign of smartness. Being Arada has been a way for these people to assert their presence in the city and achieve a sense of self-worth and respect.
Hit with evictions
Both the intellectualism of the elites and the street smarts of hustlers and sex workers transformed the neighbourhood of Arada into a social and cultural hotspot. But today, the very people who gave the neighbourhood its meaning and value are under attack. In the past decade, the Addis Ababa city government has initiated waves of evictions targeting inner-city areas, including Arada and neighbouring Arat Kilo.
Government officials I interviewed over the years are adamant that the cleared areas were unfit to live in, with dilapidated housing, poor sanitation and health conditions. The evictions are for development, they say – they make room for private investment and regeneration.
But in all likelihood, evicted residents won’t be able to return to the city centre. Those who can afford a down payment of between 25,000 and 180,000 birr, roughly $850 to $6,200, and monthly instalments of 2,000 to 3,000 birr, around $70 to $100 over 15 to 25 years, will relocate to the outskirts of Addis Ababa, where the government has been building large tracts of affordable housing. Those who cannot afford it – 20% of the city’s residents – will need to look for a cheap place to rent elsewhere.
Commercial spaces, high-end apartments, leisure facilities and office blocks will replace inner-city residences, alongside a few blocks of affordable housing for a lucky few. The old trope of the African city as a site which needs to be ordered and contained has struck again. And this time, it has hit longstanding residents hardest.
All about location
For elite economists, developers, investors and policymakers, hustlers have no place in the new, beautified vision of Addis Ababa and places such as Arada – with their dilapidated housing and informal economies – have no economic value. In fact, these very actors stand to profit from the cultural meaning and value generated by the residents that they evict from these historic areas.
One of these investors is Jonny*, an Ethiopian businessman in his fifties who I interviewed as part of my research. While holding a drink at the lounge bar at the Hilton, he showed me pictures of furnishings he had ordered from China. He was building a hotel in a newly cleared inner city area. It is an exciting business opportunity, he told me. “It was an old house, in an old area,” he said. “Very beautiful, very beautiful.”
The real estate motto “location, location, location” has as much to do with the historical and cultural significance of a place, as its proximity to local amenities or spectacular city views. But while developers like Jonny can now pursue their dreams, the people who made the area desirable in the first place are being pushed out.
“They want to get rid of the poor,” said Ibrahim, a former hustler and current car attendant in his late thirties, as we walked around what remained of nearby neighbourhood Arat Kilo after a wave of evictions in 2012. Others clearly agreed. Just a few days after the evictions, graffiti appeared on the remaining buildings. “Since they were jealous of us, they tore down ours,” one message read. Some parts of Arada are still standing, but residents worry that sooner or later, it will be their turn.
In research interviews, government officials emphasised to me that evictees are compensated and that being offered a place in the government’s affordable housing programme is a change for the better.
But Eden*, a mother of two who lives in a newly built housing complex on the Eastern outskirts of Addis Ababa, did not agree. “We live in these new houses, but there is not much change,” she said. “Now we have to pay thousands for the mortgage. Then your salary is cut, first by taxes and then by transport costs – it is not fair.”
Evictions in Addis Ababa will continue regardless, this time also with the involvement of international investment. In November 2018, Abu Dhabi-based real estate developer Eagle Hills and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched La Gare, a new development with shopping malls, luxury hotels and over 4,000 high-end residences. La Gare will replace Kirkos, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the inner city.
This April, Abiy Ahmed announced another milestone in his plans for the regeneration of Addis Ababa. His riverside project, Beautifying Shegher, will be supported by the Chinese government: a 12-kilometre redevelopment of densely populated parts of the Ethiopian capital.
As Ethiopia’s economy continues to grow, development is in demand and inner-city residents, including hustlers, expect it. But it should not be pursued at the expense of the very people who helped create value and meaning in the city. This value must be recognised: historically and politically but – above all – morally and monetarily.
The names of individuals interviewed as part of the research project have been changed.
Marco Di Nunzio is a lecturer in the Anthropology of Africa at the University of Birmingham.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.