Recently, there has been criticism that is countering the “Africa Rising” narratives. Critics have denounced this narrative for telling a single-story, ignoring inequalities on the continent, not being substantive or being largely speculative. However, this criticism needs to be contextualized and seen in light of Africa’s current realities and history.
When African nations first gained their independence in the 1960s, there was a mood of euphoria across the continent that Africa was about to rise. No one on the continent envisioned that Africa was about to enter into a new neo-colonial economic era that would be characterized by donor-recipient relationships, structural adjustment programs, and a plethora of development programs. By the 1980s an era of afro-pessimism had set in world-wide as the economic future of the continent looked bleak. In terms of social well-being, the continent suffered from poverty, poor education, poor infrastructure and new epidemics such as HIV/AIDs had taken their toll on the continent. This prompted many economists and governments to write Africa off as a place for aid. The Economist famously (but wrongly) branded Africa in a 2000 article as a ‘hopeless continent’ which further entrenched Afro-pessimistic sentiments about Africa’s economic future. During the height of Afro-pessimism the single overarching narrative of Africa as a dismal continent was embedded into the minds of Africans and non-Africans alike.
Yet, in spite of the international community’s pessimism and apathy towards Africa, Africa began to rise. The GDP of African economies increased, democratic transformations occurred, financial banking reforms occurred, job creation grew, and government debt substantially decreased. More Africans were being lifted out of poverty and into the middle-class. Much of the changes were as a result of the service industry in areas such as telecommunications (cellphones, computers) and banking. These changes were driven, in part, due to China became a major economic investor, countries such as Libya and South Africa (major economic players) beginning to invest in to the rest of the continent and Africans began to navigate the global political economy differently. Several countries also found new sources of potential wealth such as copper, oil, and gas deposits.
Less than seven years after the Economist article was written Africans and the international community once again began to see the promise of Africa’s future. Influential papers such as The New York Times, began to highlight the growth and ‘hope’ in the continent. A new narrative of the continent began to grow. The new narrative of Africa became one of optimism and hope. A new era of Afro-optimism began to emerge. Nearly ten years after it projected that Africa was ‘hopeless’, the Economist wrote a new narrative – it branded the future of African economies as promising in a 2011 article entitled ‘Hopeful Economies: The Sun Shines Bright”. Since then, many other economists and speculators began to jump on the “Africa rising” bandwagon. However, barely two years down the road people have begun to challenge this new narrative.
New Single Narrative Arguments
One of the primary reasons that critics caution against the new Africa-rising narrative is because they argue that this narrative also tells a single-story of Africa. They fault it for essentially doing the same thing the old narrative was doing – telling one story of Africa. However, because the ‘Africa rising’ narrative is not ubiquitous, this new optimistic story cannot and should not be conceptualized as a ‘single’ story. It is still very much the counter-narrative because a dominant pessimistic image of the ‘hopeless’ continent still persists.
African countries have historically been considered as economically and socially ‘backward’, ‘traditional’ or ‘primitive’ by the majority of the world. These sentiments are characterized by persistent narratives of poverty, war, disease, and anarchy. These stereotypes are still the foundation for how the majority of the world interacts with Africa. These sentiments are expressed in events like recent racist “African-themed” parties that featured people wearing “Black-face” and using ‘primitive’ costume props. Recently, there were Korean ads for a cigarette company featuring monkeys dressed as reporters stating that “Africa is coming” Oh, and yes, to many Africa is still a country! Additionally, Africa is still struggling with unfair trade agreements, high tariffs and other structural problems in the global political economy that are still being told. For those that work in or with the continent, the Africa Rising narrative may seem to be overstated, but everyone else in the world has not heard it. The new story of ‘Africa Rising’ can hardly qualify as a single or overarching. The narrative of a dismal Africa can still be found on every continent, country and village world-wide. Therefore, this re-envisioning of African economies for a continent whose dominant narrative is not one of advancement, is still a progressive counter-narrative. It is certainly not reached the stage of being branded as the new ‘gospel’ on how to talk about Africa nor is it the master narrative about Africa.
The new optimistic narrative is still in fact being advanced by a small minority on the globe for various reasons. Firstly, there are still many Afro-pessimists – many of whom haven’t heard the optimistic stories. Secondly, Africa’s underdevelopment is still an important reference point to contrast the rich, countries of the Global North. There are still people and companies that are profiting from Africa’s poverty whom are therefore invested in the pessimistic story of Africa. Therefore the new Africa rising narrative is still useful in many aspects.
How Can Africa Rise with all this Poverty Arguments
Many critics of the Africa Rising narrative have pointed to the rising inequality on the continent. In a recent article in The Guardian, David Smith and others aptly note that Africans “still often lack food, clean water or medical care”. Other critics argue that only a handful are benefiting from the economic growth and that the wealth is not trickling down. They point to the real issues of corruption, access to health, access to education and poor governance that have not been addressed for the vast majority of the population. They see this as evidence that Africa is not rising. However, Africa Rising narratives need to be understood in the context of the economic system that their growth is based on. Africa’s growth is based on capitalist economies in the neo-liberal era. What this means is that inequality is inevitable – it is the nature of the capitalist led economies.
Capitalism has led to uneven and unequal development wherever it has occurred. Under a capitalist system people produce goods for the “free market”. It characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods for selling on the market. It encourages unregulated growth of gigantic co-operations that act for their own preservation and self-interests. Therefore, capitalism discourages local production for consumption or “public good” services. Therefore, social safety nets or social welfare programs which would have helped mitigate the inequalities cannot thrive under this system. Economic disparities under capitalism limit the possibility for real social mobility. Thereby, it constricts people to certain classes, environments and opportunities. In the new neo-liberal capitalist era, this situation is unlikely to improve.
Neo-liberalism, in theory is touted to be about the “freer movement of goods, resources and enterprises in a bid to always find cheaper resources, to maximize profits and efficiency. (Shah)” However, in reality markets are not efficient and this creates social malaise. The Neo-liberal capitalism that African economies have based their growth on requires the removal of removal of Tariffs, and all regulations that restrict the free flow of capital and investments. In this system, the profits from the self-regulating market are expected to “trickle down” from private owners and companies in order for distribution of wealth to occur. This means that governments must take a hands-off approach to social welfare programs. Therefore it is not uncommon for multi-lateral organizations to encourage African governments to reduce public expenditure for social services, such as health, education or agricultural subsidizes. The idea is that the market will provide. In the case of Africa and much of the developing world though, embracing neo-liberalism means that African governments cannot adequately provide for their citizens. Therefore to expect neo-liberal capitalist led growth in Africa to not have massive inequality as it grows would be atypical of the system. That is, neo-liberal capitalism has results in uneven and unequal development by structure or design where ever it is adopted. So we cannot simply say that Africa is not rising due to the presence of poverty when other areas grew under similar conditions.
Let us recall that, capitalist led growth resulted in uneven and unequal development in the West. Currently, nearly one percentage of Americans own the vast majority of wealth in the United States of America (U.S.). This has been the case throughout its history. When the U.S. was building its economy, the U.S. had a system of slavery where slaves were neither compensated for their work nor provided social benefits such as education and healthcare. Then prior to the civil rights era, Jim crow-laws and misogynist laws meant that African-Americans, women and other minorities could still not receive a fair wage or access certain “public goods”. Today, there continues to be disparities in the U.S. economic system to which the “Occupy” movements were a testament to. Capitalist –led development in the U.S., Europe or elsewhere was certainly not even or equal. Yet, people continue to recognize the periods of economic growth in other nations as such – economic growth. Africa’s current economic growth is not different from any other capitalist led growth and even though there is poverty, Africa is still rising.
It needs to be said that this is not an argument advocating that neo-liberal capitalism is beneficial to Africa. Simply stated, my argument is that as Africa continues to grow, fully embracing neo-liberalism, we should expect the inequalities to not only exist, but also increase. Therefore, when we read reports that income inequality may be worsening in spite of growth in some of Africa’s largest economies (ie South Africa), we shouldn’t be surprised – that is how neo-liberal capitalism is supposed to work. All the ills that Africa is experiencing as it grows, are an unfortunate but normal bi-product of this system.
Speculation and Substance.
Some critics have argued that the Africa-rising narrative and the new wave of Afro-optimism is not based on anything substantive. That is, Afro-optimism is overstated or based on shallow indicators such as cellphone usage which are not real quality of life factors. However, in the midst of all the narratives, we need consider the real changes that have occurred in peoples lives because of technology. Access to technology such are cellphones provide a way for people to communicate in order to save lives. They can call hospitals, send money for schools food and other needs through technology. Furthermore, there has been real economic growth and job creation on the continent which is substantive.
In addition to the already realized growth, recent oil and gas exploration mean that there is a vast potential for wealth from unexploited resources. One needs to consider that even where speculation occurs, an Africa is Rising narratives is actually productive in a global capitalist system. Capitalism relies on a fair amount of speculation and heightened expectation of competition. That is, speculation is needed in order to attract investment or create a ‘buzz’ about the financial prospects of a nation. This encourages investment and a fair amount of speculation is needed to attract investors. If these new narratives that are countering the Africa Rising narrative are allowed to take form, this will result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, a situation where investors will believe it’s a farce and stay away from the continent thereby resulting in diminished investment.
The Africa Rising narrative is still useful and needs to be seen as a counter-narrative and not as the new dominant narrative to be attacked. Those that counter this narrative by trying to inject some realism in it, run the risk of being lumped in together with all the other Afro-pessimists that only see gloom. Whilst it is still important to ground the narratives in something tangible, it is no secret that Africa still suffers from an overarching image problem. This negative persistent global narrative of despair has real consequences for African economies and people. It is also very much alive! Critics that point out that the new Africa rising narratives are telling a single –story, resulting in poverty, not being based on substance, or being highly speculative need to consider these narratives in light of other dynamics on the continent. Africa is rising within the confines of neo-liberalism therefore, unevenness is expected. However, it is important that the Africa-rising narrative continues to take form so that Africa continues to rise or grow economically. The major challenge for Africa is going to be how nations will distribute wealth and create social safety nets while embracing a neo-liberal system that doesn’t allow for that. Instead of faulting the Africa-rising narrative, we should re-examine what role we want African governments to play in people’s lives so that they can realize the wealth and what economic system will get us there.