By Tatenda Chinondidyachii Mashanda – DRG Fellow
In his racist novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad points to the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization. His description of Africans as savage is unpalatable; at least to a conscious reader. Featuring images of emaciated children, Conrad set forth what would be Africa’s identity in the world and a continent – as the land of poverty, vulnerability and hopelessness. This notion of Africa’s darkness is being challenged by a new narrative aimed at rebuilding the African glory by positive qualities. While it is a project of reconstruction, it is also a restorative project that reincarnates memories, voices and stories of the past glories on the African continent.
Those behind this movement aim to highlight the vision, history, philosophy and aspirations of Africans, against the background of their misrepresentation in western media. As these new narratives emerge, they are making it clear that Africa is not hopeless anymore, but a continent full of economic opportunities and a rapidly expanding middle class. I speak of ‘helplessness’ with some incredulity. Africa as a continent has never been hopeless, but rather is a case of intentionally being starved of opportunities by current elites, who are assisted by colonial plunder and the promulgation of a global capitalist system that continues to shackle Africans. People are fighting those structural and mental shackles; we are only choosing to hear their raising their voices now.
But I digress. Proponents of the Africa Rising narrative often cite statistics on how economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa will outpace the world by 2.1 percent with six of the world’s fastest growing economies being on the continent. On the surface, this narrative has replaced single story of helpless with a projection of optimism. In many ways, however, one stereotype may have just replaced another.
But is Africa really rising? Has the alleged economic growth translated into improved standards of living? If so, then who is benefiting from the 48 percent of Africans that continue to survive on less than $1.25 a day? With almost half of the population living in dire poverty, evidence shows that Africa’s immense economic growth is being outpaced by inequality. Most African countries have failed to channel economic growth into economic development for their people.
Thus, this narrative and its consequent economic growth have mainly benefitted multinational corporations and local elites only. Therefore, to analyse if Africa is indeed rising, one should always differentiate economic development from economic growth. It is possible to have economic growth without development. Analysis of Africa’s rise can be deeply flawed, particularly when economic analysts talk about Africa’s rise based on GDP projections and power consumption. These indicators are based on Africans’ consumption of imported goods.
We need not adapt economic systems based on the acquisition and consumption of wealth but the creation of social equity and uplifting masses from dire poverty. GDP projections do not address fundamental social problems and Africa will only rise when her people realize the need to create own factories and consume own manufactured products. Africa’s rate of growth may have increased, but the structure of most Sub-Saharan economies remain unchanged as its economies narrowly linger on the production and export of raw materials. There is little manufacturing. In fact, the “Africa rising” narrative exposes another issue wherein economic growth figures conceal the fact that the growth is predominantly driven by the extractive industry.
This is consistent with the observations of decolonial theorists like Stuart Hall, who remind us that the economies in the Global South, and Africa in particular, are centred on mineral extraction, where processing and sales of the final goods happens in the former colonies. Centuries of capitalist development and colonial structuring of the global economy has created states and communities that fit either into the core of the global economy or on the periphery. The African elites who proclaim “Africa Rising” at every avenue are not dismantling the very structure that underpins underdevelopment, poverty and inequality but rather entrench it.
Throughout history, no country has sustainably advanced without developing a viable manufacturing sector. Development is through manufacturing and this is the era that Africa desperately needs to solve most if not all of its economic problems including availing jobs for the masses. However, Africa is primarily selling raw commodities while many of its markets are dominated by cheap products from abroad, goods with which local producers cannot compete with. Therefore, this narrative disguises both residual problems and inherent vulnerabilities. As the proportion of Africa’s population living in extreme poverty is falling, youth unemployment threatens instability and despite greater access to education, standards remain low.
A shift from the image of Africa as a hopeless continent is welcome, but if the new narratives of “Africa Rising” are not sufficiently interrogated then today’s trendy new stereotype may prove to be no less hopeless than the last. There is need to interrogate the fragility of Africa’s growth towards achieving genuine and inclusive development. To my African comrades: beware of half-truths. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half because there is more to be done as far as economic development and a sustainable future are concerned.