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Urbanization: Causes and Characteristics

Urbanization is a relatively recent phenomenon in Zaire, and in the early 1990s Zaire was still a predominantly rural nation. Since the 1940s, however, the population has increasingly shifted from rural to urban areas, especially Kinshasa. An estimated 39.5 percent of the population was classified as urban in 1990, up from 30.3 percent in 1970 and 34.2 percent in 1980. Between 1940 and 1970, all urban centers had grown in population by a factor of ten. Growth has continued at a relatively high rate since then. Indeed, the average annual urban population growth rate has been estimated at almost 4.7 percent for the 1985-90 period, as compared with an average annual rural population growth rate of less than 2.3 percent during the same period.

Kinshasa remains, overwhelmingly, the nation's largest city, with a population estimated at nearly 5 million in 1988. More than one-third of all city-dwellers lived in Kinshasa in 1988. There are, however, a number of other large cities as well, several of which (including Kananga, formerly Luluabourg, and Lubumbashi) had populations of nearly 1 million by 1985 (see table 7, Appendix).

The concentration of resources in the cities has long drawn migrants from the countryside. Civil strife following independence intensified the shift of population to urban areas. Most recently, the chaotic economic and social conditions of the late 1980s and early 1990s have aggravated existing disparities between urban and rural standards of living. Urban residence has thus grown increasingly attractive as the conditions of rural life have deteriorated even more rapidly than the conditions of urban life.

In the colonial era, influx controls kept large numbers of people from migrating to the cities. The controls also allowed more men (as workers) than women into the cities, resulting in a skewed urban sex ratio. But since independence, government attempts to discourage urban migration, including periodic roundups and deportations of the urban unemployed to the countryside, have failed. Ample evidence of the failure is provided by the numerous squatters' villages that have sprung up on the outskirts of Kinshasa and other cities.

Indeed, state policies over the years actually accelerated the rural exodus to the cities. State investment funds were almost entirely targeted toward cities and the mining areas, further aggravating the resource disparity between rural and urban areas. State-fixed prices for food crops produced by villagers were kept deliberately low in order to keep urban populations quiescent. The state also continued the colonial-era policies of compulsory agricultural production quotas and of heavy direct and indirect taxation for cash crops such as cotton. When indirect taxes, such as turnover and export taxes, on cash crops are added to direct taxes, Zaire specialist Crawford Young has estimated that as much as 50 percent of real and potential village income is routinely extracted by the state or its representatives. Moreover, the exactions levied by the state and its agents generally increase in severity in proportion to distance from urban centers. Rural public employees and soldiers frequently use their official powers to live off the land, or for extortion, particularly when their salaries are either delayed or not paid by corrupt superiors. Given the scale of legal and illegal state exactions on the rural population, the flight of villagers to the cities can be seen as absolutely rational.

Several particular aspects of the growing urban population are also noteworthy. Since independence, women have been particularly quick to migrate to cities and exploit the opportunities of urban life, in particular the opportunity to engage in economic activity in the informal sector. In the 1990s, women generally equaled or outnumbered men in Zaire's urban centers, in sharp contrast to the colonial era. Migration of the young to Zaire's urban centers in search of postprimary education has also been a strong factor in urban growth.

Another striking feature of Zaire's urban populace has been the low number of wage earners in the formal economy relative to the total population. The most extreme known case is that of Kananga, which was reported to have only 10,000 wage earners out of a population of 429,000 in 1973. The survival of most urban households has been founded on activity outside of the formal economic sector. Much of the populace makes its living in the large and thriving informal sector (see The Informal Sector , this ch.; The Informal Economy , ch. 3).

Data as of December 1993

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