Global Agenda: The African enigma

No country and no society can develop when those are its social norms. The optimists can quote GDP data until they are blue in the face, but they won’t help.

South Africa Flag and Kids (R370) (photo credit: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)
South Africa Flag and Kids (R370)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)
Africa is the new Asia, in terms of economic potential. That is the theme being pumped out by ever-hungry, ever-optimistic investment houses and venture funds across the developed world. The huge continent, so wealthy in natural resources yet so stubbornly underdeveloped, offers what everyone in the West, Japan and much of East Asia so desperately want.
First, of course, those raw materials – everything from precious to industrial metals, to an expanding list of onshore and offshore oil and gas fields, to vast expanses that could grow food of every sort, and so on down the list of what is in actual or potential short supply in the developed world and in the emerging Chinese giant.
Then there is the other great resource – people. There is already a vast population, most of it in various degrees of poverty.
But there is also the African youth bulge – the massive number of young people between the ages of 10, or 15, through to 20 or 25 – the exact opposite of what the population structures of Europe, North America and East Asia look like. Give them employment opportunities and watch the entire continent take off – that is the great hope.
This cornucopia of potential riches is enough to make anyone’s mouth water – not just greedy multinationals, corrupt local autocrats and budding global empires, the cast of the standard African books, films and even reality – but even sober and objective analysts. The result is the outpouring of hope, backed by impressive data and statistics on what might be, what is already taking shape, what is easily attainable – if some basic assumptions are made.
One of the most recent and one of the best such presentations is the Economist magazine’s recent special report, “Africa Rising,” which laid out all the reasons why Africa’s future could and should be so bright. Of course, it did not overlook the problems; nowadays, these are known in politically correct language as “challenges.” But the special report concluded that these could – and should, and therefore probably would – be overcome.
Any rational human being should not only agree, but fervently hope and pray that this will indeed be the outcome. That would be wonderful, first and foremost for the many countries, nations, tribes and peoples of Africa itself, but for the entire world. But rational human beings, especially those with no direct knowledge of the places, peoples and issues, should retain a strong measure of skepticism.
The first source of that skepticism is the historical precedent: Just read the blurb that accompanied the liberation and decolonization process in Africa during the late 1950s and 1960s. The story of the huge, unimaginable potential was uncannily the same, with a strong sociopolitical overlay of justice and the putting to rights of historical iniquities. The rest is indeed history, and it doesn’t read well.
But the real dampener is not what happened 50 years ago, but rather the reality of Africa today. If the Economist is this week’s poster boy for the new Africa and what might be, turn to Time magazine for an antidote. Time has no ideological or other preconceived problem with Africa. What it has is an outstanding journalist, Alex Perry, as its regional bureau chief, who has ranged over the continent covering all the big stories and then some.
The March 11 edition sees Perry contributing to the piece about the upcoming Kenyan elections, which serve as an opportunity to explore some of that country’s “issues” – including the usual African mix of ingrained corruption, tribalism and now, widespread political violence. He ends with a quote from a 24- year-old political activist – the kind of person who should be at the forefront of promoting their country’s future hopes and goals. But Ruth Nyambura “sees a more fundamental malaise,” notes Perry. “‘There is something absolutely wrong with the moral and social fabric of this nation,’” is her summary of the political outlook and much more beyond that.
Yet the bleak picture of Kenya painted on pages 12-13 of this issue looks mild compared to his detailed cover story on South Africa a few pages later. The “news peg” for this story is, of course, the tragic Oscar Pistorius story – how last year’s Olympian became this year’s killer. Of course, Pistorius did not intend to shoot to death his girlfriend in the middle of the night – or so, at least, it seems reasonable to. believe. That is precisely the tragedy, and not just of Pistorius and the dead Reeva Steenkamp, but of South Africa as a whole.
It is obvious to me that this was a story that had been building up inside Perry for a long time and that the Pistorius shooting incident offered the ideal opportunity for him to tell. It is a truly frightening and depressing tale, of a country that is the quintessence of all the potential of Africa and that has already gone far to destroy that potential along with its own future and that of its citizens.
Perry gets to the central question in the Pistorius version of events: that he thought he was firing at an intruder, in his apartment in a protected, gated, guarded complex, with the gun that he keeps under his bed as a matter of course.
What kind of society produces that kind of mind-set and hence, as a matter of course, that kind of outcome? Perry pulls no punches in presenting the shocking truth about South Africa: “Two separate surveys of the rural Eastern Cape found that 27.6 percent of men admitted to being rapists and 46.3% of victims were under 16, 22.9% under 11 and 9.4% under 6.” Read that twice or three times, because it’s impossible to absorb on the first attempt. It means, as Perry notes, that violence and sexual assault within the family – not on the street – is an established norm.
If those kind of data are even vaguely accurate, then the Africa Rising story has no legs. No country and no society can develop when those are its social norms. The optimists can quote GDP data until they are blue in the face, but they won’t help.
A country and even a region can have a good year, even a good decade, but these can be the result of fortunate circumstances – such as a prolonged global commodities boom, the source of previous and current African surges in growth. But if people live, eat and sleep in fear of other members of their family, tribe and neighbors, they don’t have a bright future, nor do they even have much of a present.