CITIES: Cairo (Kerstin Pinther), depicted in Afropolis.
CITIES: Cairo (Kerstin Pinther), depicted in Afropolis.

IN NOVEMBER last year, a teenager at Phineus Xulu Secondary School in Vosloorus shot and killed a fellow pupil. It was an all too familiar tragedy, complicated by allegations that the victim was a notorious bully and by the nature of the weapon used — a service firearm belonging to the shooter’s mother, a police officer. But making sense of it requires more than just the bare facts.

Media coverage of the event pointed to a consensus that the shooting represented not only a trend of violence in schools, but also the wider phenomena causing this violence: an education system in crisis, informed and made worse by socioeconomic factors beyond the school walls. But such diagnoses, although accurate, are too simple. One small detail in the reportage suggested something much more subtle but no less significant.

While Alex Eliseev of Eyewitness News was interviewing the mother of the shooter, a bystander’s cellphone rang. It was an instantly recognisable whistle: the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. That tune, from that film, in those circumstances — coincidental though it may have been — poses some intriguing questions.

In what ways have Clint Eastwood’s cowboy swagger and the seriocomical machismo of the spaghetti western valorised gun violence? In the US, the political implications of this association are clear. Eastwood’s speech at last year’s Republican National Convention invoked his famous roles in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Dirty Harry. He is also strongly associated with the National Rifle Association, a right-wing organisation that lost further credibility after its risible responses to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

This massacre is the most recent instalment in a long history of mass killings at US schools. On the surface, it would seem the events in Newtown and Vosloorus took place in utterly different contexts. But that ringing cellphone suggests considerable resonances. What if we try to understand the Vosloorus shooting not only as a consequence of factors that we deem to be specifically South African, but think of it instead in global terms?

The impulse behind such a question, which undermines notions of South African (or African) exceptionalism and instead affirms the continent’s immersion in processes of international exchange, is one shared by the artists and writers who have collaborated to produce Afropolis: City, Media, Art (edited by Kerstin Pinther, Larissa Forster and Christian Hanussek, Jacana Media). Technically an exhibition catalogue, but a much more substantial volume than that description implies, Afropolis was rereleased in English last year after a German edition was published in 2010.

These origins are worth noting: the Afropolis project is an initiative of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne and the Freie Universitat in Berlin, with funding from the German Federal Cultural Foundation. It is tempting to see the study of five African metropolises — Cairo, Lagos, Nairobi, Kinshasa and Johannesburg — as an old-school anthropological exercise, the "outside" looking "in", or vice versa, trying to learn something new from Africa and apply it to Europe. After all, the funders’ preface emphasises their interest in "contrasting current urban development in Germany and Europe — in particular the experience of shrinking cities and migration — with the wealth of urban strategies in the growing African metropolises".

Yet approaching the text with such scepticism would be too easy and, ultimately, would prove inadequate. First, among those who participated in the project and contributed to the book, scholars and artists from Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa comfortably outnumber those from Germany. More important, however, the content exposes the shortcomings of a nationally or nationalistically oriented mind-set.

As Katharina von Ruckteschell writes in her capacity as regional director of the Goethe-Institut: "Afropolises are places that, in the context of the new age of globalisation, are blending their postcolonial structures with postmodern influences and ultimately also supplanting them." One could take issue with the suggestion that globalisation is new — people, goods, ideas and images have been moving around the globe for centuries — but the notion of "supplanting" is a useful one.

The African metropolises represented in this book cannot be defined according to the old categories of coloniser and colonised. It is not simply that the European/western "centre" has a continuing cultural influence on the African "periphery". It is not simply that people in African countries have appropriated aspects of global popular culture and integrated them into otherwise stable African identities. Rather, cultures and cultural artifacts are mutually informing and continually shifting, undermining claims President Jacob Zuma is wont to make about "African culture". The material in Afropolis constitutes a timely riposte to Zuma.

Even the African metropolis per se does not exist. The editors express a debt to Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe (who first used the word "Afropolis" to describe Johannesburg), but the book also implicitly challenges the characterisation of Joburg as "the exemplary African metropolis", for there can be no such thing — there are only various distinct African cities, such as the five chosen here.

They offer different focal points: Cairo has antiquity to match its modernity; Lagos, the curious geography of islands, peninsulas and swamps; Nairobi, the historical ethnic mix of Indians and Somalis, as well as its current status as East Africa’s political hub; Kinshasa, the haunting shadow of Leopoldville and its acute colonial past, alongside its status as a centre for music production.

And then, of course, there’s Jozi. The names of the contributors and the subjects explored in this section of the book will be more recognisable to South African readers. We know about Johannesburg’s "artificial" location, its mines, its heritage of racial segregation and its remarkably pan-African inner city. But we have as much to learn from these pages about our own place as we do about the other four — not least that, in an urban environment so readily defined by immigration and emigration, "an elsewhere is always present" (an evocative assertion by the artist duo, Deadheat). This applies as much to the Oswenka, labourers from KwaZulu-Natal who hold nightly fashion shows in a rundown hostel on Jeppe Street, as it does to the Ethiopian community thriving in the old Medical Arts Building down the road.

These are examples of what sociologist AbdouMaliq Simone calls "people as infrastructure", a concept that certainly counters Afro-pessimistic interpretations of infrastructural decline and fragmentation. But some may feel Afropolis is a little too Afro-optimistic, too celebratory, too sanguine in the face of evident urban suffering. Here, Ismail Farouk’s "Trolley Project" (aiming to legalise the downtown entrepreneurs who use shopping carts to transport heavy luggage) is instructive; instead of indulging in a lyrical paean to flux and inventiveness, Farouk sought both to assess and to constructively intervene in the life of the city.

Afropolis is a fascinating book. The register veers from the academic to the colloquial, just as methods shift from rigorous research to anecdotal accounts; occasionally the translated prose is a little clunky. But it is carefully conceived, beautifully illustrated and rich in content, and (for me at least) its message is clear: don’t believe what politicians, historians and economists tell you about Africa.