Full circle: Africa’s moment has come

Not long ago the same Polity Press that asked me to review Négrologie and contracted me to write my own book sent me another French book on Africa for possible translation, Le Temps de l’Afrique by Jean-Michel Severino and Olivier Ray. Severino was until recently Director-General of the French Development Agency. My review was positive and a translation will be published in August 2011 as Africa’s Moment.

Severino and Ray take off not from Africa dying but from its extraordinary population growth and the development implications of this. The latest projections put Africa’s population at close to 2 billion in 2050 or a quarter of humanity. They say with justice that Europeans (and North Americans too) are blind to what is going on in Africa. They are wedded to a retrograde vision of its past and know nothing of its present, even less of its future. There has never been anything quite like this book, in France or the Anglophone world.

The argument starts from demography and geography. It covers a good range of the hot topics: minerals, religion, democracy, cities, agriculture, media, energy etc. The method is to cite statistics (including many projections), quote random encounters with individual Africans, rely heavily on the Francophone secondary literature and ask a lot of rhetorical questions, while coming up with some striking metaphors and not many answers. The style is rather breathless: Is Africa cursed? Is it the lungs of the planet? Can it refuse development? and so on. Don’t expect to read about France’s appalling neocolonial record in Africa. But the message is clear that in the coming half-century the world will have to adapt to Africa rather than the opposite as before.

Expectation of rapid economic improvement soon in Africa seems counter-intuitive at this time, especially given its symbolic role as the negation of ‘white’ superiority. Black people have played this role for centuries as the stigmatized underclass of an unequal world society organized along racial lines; and never more than now, when American and European dominance is being undermined by a shift in the balance of economic power to countries like China, India, Brazil and, within its own region, South Africa. Rather than face up to a decline in their economic fortunes, the whites prefer to dwell on the misfortunes of black people and on Africa’s apparently terminal exclusion from modern prosperity.

Failed politicians and aging rock stars, such as Blair and Bono, announce their mission to ‘save’ Africa from its presumed ills. It all goes to reassure a decadent West that at least some people are a lot worse off than themselves. I was once explaining my book to a French woman and noticed her face hardening when I spoke of hopeful developments in Africa. So I added, ‘Of course Africa’s a mess in many ways…” and she said, “Yes! It’s a mess”. She had never been there, but it was important for her to know that Africa was backward.

It is a curious fact that China occupied a similar slot in western consciousness not long ago. In the 1920s and 30s, Americans and Europeans often spoke of the Chinese the way they do of Africa today. China was then crippled by the violence of warlords, its peasants mired in the worst poverty imaginable. Today the country is spoken of as a possible replacement for the United States as the world’s leading power, while its manufactures make inroads into western dominance on a scale far greater than Japan’s ever did.

This profound shift in economic power from West to East does not guarantee Africa’s escape from the shackles of inequality, but it does mean that structures of Atlantic dominance which once seemed inevitable are perceptibly on the move; and that should make it easier to envisage change. We are entering a new phase of economic possibility and constraint in world society.

Africa’s advantage in current upheavals is its weak attachment to the status quo. The world economy could easily regress to a condition similar to that of the 1930s, now that the credit bubble has burst and the USA fights to maintain its grip on global power against all-comers. In this case, Africans have less to lose; and the old Stalinist ‘law of unequal development’ reminds us that, under such circumstances, winners and losers can easily change places.

I like to tell my European friends who express concern about African poverty, “Don’t worry about them – they have only one way to go, which is up. You should be worried about your own decline.” This applies particularly to my own country, Britain, for whom postponing recognition of the loss of empire has become a way of life in itself. A recent poll reported that Africa has a higher proportion of hopeful people than anywhere else in the world, 30% if I recall. The New York Times couldn’t understand how this could be so, since everyone knows that Africa is the most hopeless place on earth. The idea of Africa as a basket case goes very deep.

Comments |7|

  • Thanks, Marzia, for the boost and for the link to your article. Both are reasons for taking this step of trying blog the writing of a book. I will read it with keen interest and come back to you if I have anything interesting to say.

  • Here’s something from this week’s Economist. It’s focused on projections, not the past, but I was really struck by the comment that in 1980 Africans’ average incomes were four times as high as those of people in China.

  • PS: more worrying, looking forward, is the point that reliance on commodities exports will not create enough jobs to make this growth inclusive, let alone sustainable. This seems to be the big choice South Africa faces, and also the major wedge between the nationalists and the left in its ruling party.

  • Thanks for the great link, Hylton. I dropped in on an OECD Paris meeting with some 600 investment companies. They came up with three global priorities for investment 1) Africa 2) Germany 3) France. I wasn’t surprised by the first two, although no BRICs made an appearance. It turns out that French capitalism, contrary to rumours, is considered to be a good bet, mainly because of state support for heavy industry. It seems to me obvious that South Africa is the main conduit of foreign capital into Africa.

    In a chapter of The Political Economy of Africa (Routledge 2010), Vishnu Padayachee and I argued what I think is a subtle case for SA to move from national capitalism to regional integration. It is a question, as always of exports vs the home market. The blog post after this one on convergence cites my favourite book on the subject by Lenin. But where is the home market? Nationalists are too fixated on their own country’s boundaries. South Africa would like to be the fifth BRIC, but it is a small economy with only 50 mn people, most of them very poor. The arguments within and outside the ANC are too parochial and backward-looking for my taste. But take a look and let me know what you think.

    A factoid. In 1960 Ghana had an economy larger than Indonesia’s and per capita income equal to South Korea’s. Go figure what happened next. So these growth rates are from a very low base which is in many cases lower than at independence. Angola was the fastest growing economy in the world a couplke of years back with 23%. This was partly because of the oil boom, but it was also because people were building roads and schools again after three decades in which a million people were killed.