Africa looks good today, but beware hope has turned to despair before

There has been a significant growth in philanthropy by wealthy Africans, with Nigerian billionaire Dangote donating more than $100m in one year.

There is a palpable excitement about Africa, about the economic opportunities the continent presents, perhaps more than at any other time.  

Small wonder the catch- all phrase “Africa Rising” has struck such a deep chord. But it is important to glance back on Africa’s history and realise that in the early sixties there was a similar optimism. Then it was about the arrival of freedom, uhuru, heralding the birth of the world’s newest nations. It is instructive to look at what became of that wave of optimism, because it has important lessons for how the Africa Rising narrative may pan out.

I think even the most hardened uhuru optimist would agree that for most Africans the returns on political optimism in the 60’s was dismal. Even as new flags were gracing the renamed capitals, wars, coups and dictatorship quickly became the norm.  The freedom dividend went to a tiny political elite; for the vast majority of the continent’s citizens, life was unbearably hard. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that total despair was replaced by flickering hope with the first defeat of independence parties in elections starting with Zambia in 1991, when Kenneth Kaunda lost the election and gracefully relinquished power. 

How we respond
The lesson for us from how quickly hope turned to despair is that it was the behaviour of Africa’s new rulers that dashed the hopes of millions. Similarly those of us who are genuinely excited about the opportunities that we see across a number of economic and social fronts must realise that it is how we respond and act on these opportunities that will determine the outcome. I think that given the emergence of private sector investors who are independent of political leaders, there is a sense that Africa is going to seize the new opportunities and translate them into tangible returns for millions of its citizens.  

Which brings me back to Africa Rising. Clearly there are those who believe that Africa Rising is just one new sexy phrase about the continent, and that it bears little resemblance to reality.  Whilst I disagree with them, I think they do raise an important point, and one that is particularly important for organisations like the Mail & Guardian.  I think their main point is that it is dangerous to talk about Africa as if it is one uniform entity, with the same risks and the same rewards. And looking at the heartbreaking scenes currently playing out in the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and other places, it is impossible to ignore their cautionary note.  

Significant shift
But it is also true that there is a significant shift in economic fundamentals that goes beyond mere rhetoric. As I have travelled across the continent, from South Africa to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana and Zimbabwe, I have realised first hand that entrepreneurs are laying the foundation for a truly irreversible economic turn-around for our continent.  Jobs are being created in new sectors, and innovation and hard-nosed business acumen are combining to give credence to the overwhelming sense of optimism.  

It is of course also interesting that this time around the excitement about the economic prospects of our continent is not limited to natural resources, important as these still are. Telecoms, technology, agriculture, infrastructure, tourism, media, fashion, education, healthcare are some of the sectors that are receiving attention.

Let me go through some of the most compelling indicators; these numbers underline the fact that ours is indeed a continent on the rise.  

• The sheer growth in the number of verifiably super rich Africans, Africa’s dollar billionaires who now number close to 60 far more than previously thought. 

• The incredible number of African professionals who have returned home from places like New York, London or Paris with key skills and capital in their pockets underlines the new opportunities back home 

• Over the past decade China has been the world’s economic powerhouse, but as its economic growth slows down, it is no accident that China’s key focus has been Africa. This surely says something about the economic prospects of our continent 

• Given dismal growth elsewhere in the world, the IMF and other bodies have identified Sub-Saharan Africa’s growth at nearly 5% over the last six years – by comparison, the growth rate in the developed nations has been at a paltry 0.5% per year. 

• Investors are setting up offices across the continent and foreign investment is flowing into infrastructure projects, private equity players are rushing to stake their claim. 

• Africa’s richest entrepreneur. Nigeria’s Aliko Dangote, with a fortune of over $20.2bn is now one of the world’s richest individuals and the source of all his wealth is AFRICA. 

• Urbanization in Africa has resulted in huge opportunities in the retail and infrastructure sectors. Sadly transport still lags behind, but no doubt entrepreneurs will seize these opportunities as well. 

• There has been a significant growth in philanthropy by wealthy Africans, with Dangote, donating more than $100m in one year to education, health and disaster relief in Nigeria. Other entrepreneurs like South Africa’s Patrice Motsepe who donated a significant portion of his wealth to charity and Zimbabwe’s Strive Masiyiwa who donates significantly towards education and training.   

Given all the optimism, the rosy indicators, and the widespread euphoria about the continent’s prospects, what then are some of the things that need to happen to make this sustainable?  I strongly believe that the new generation of African leaders, be they entrepreneurs, technocrats, civil society or politicians have an important role to play. Each of us has a responsibility to act boldly but in ways that do not ignore the key social issues such as joblessness, poverty, poor education and neglected infrastructure. 

New generation
I know it’s a big ask, but unless we think seriously about these problems, the vast majority of Africans will watch from the sidelines, condemned to poverty and despair.  I think there is a greater chance of accountability right now because we live in a significantly more transparent world. Where in the past the elite could act with impunity knowing they were accountable only to themselves, I think the new generation of Africans has little patience for leaders who are a law unto themselves.

But above all I think that a new breed of African leaders is rising to the challenge of redefining this continent that has for so long remained inexplicably poor and underdeveloped. There is a rise in public sector and private sector partnerships, telecoms innovation has lowered the costs of banking, and Africa’s entrepreneurs are increasingly venturing beyond political borders to establish a new economic frontier. This can only bode well for government-to-government co-operation, showing that business and politics need not be at loggerheads.  

But perhaps most importantly, as Africans  we have to tell our own story. I think nothing is more emblematic of how little influence Africa has wielded in world affairs than the fact that even Africans themselves still rely on non-African media to know what is going on in their own backyard.  Even the Africa Rising Narrative is usually referenced using two cover stories by the Economist, one in 2003 and the other one in 2013. If you go to the lobbies of Africa’s best hotels, chances are the TV is tuned to CNN, the BBC or Sky. This is  untenable for a continent with serious ambitions. So I do think that as we become masters of our own destiny as a continent, we have to invest in media that is independent, credible, visible and globally influential.  In the past government media was simply a mouthpiece for incumbent politicians, with little credibility. 

Reduced to binaries
Now we all know that there are of course significant investments required to operate at the level of Al Jazeera, but without it Africa will continue to consume rather than produce the narrative that defines it. I am encouraged to see the emergence of globally respected Africans across so many fronts, such as architect David Adjaye, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, entrepreneurs like Dangote who can all become the backbone of a compelling narrative about the new Africa. Many of the continent’s best stories are still told by foreigners and overseas, and I think it is time that Africa became the home of its best stories.

This is vitally important also because it will lead to a much more dynamic telling of Africa’s story, so that it is not reduced to binaries, torn between those who believe that this continent is set for an irreversible boom, and those who think this is pie-in-the-sky. There will never be a single Africa, just like there is no single Europe, but when the continent is aligned in the way that Europe is aligned, with economic integration, seamless borders and a connected infrastructure, it is possible to speak with one voice. 

I would like to leave you with two thoughts on the power of framing. Instead of us Africans proving how smart we are by talking about “new African narratives”, the real test perhaps lies in how we grab the opportunities the new optimism presents us.  The real measure of how Africa has risen won’t be found in conference halls but will be reflected in hard socio-economic achievements bedded down during this period. 

We are launching  M&GAfrica.com because we have faith in the continent’s future and we believe we have a role to play in Africa telling her own story. But we are also aware that we stand on the shoulders of many brave children of this continent, like Amadou Mahtar Ba, the outgoing CEO of Africa Media Initiative (AMI), who nearly 15 years ago started AllAfrica.com.

Secondly we believe that nobody but us as Africans can tell our story better. Expecting foreigners to tell the African story is expecting too much as it has clearly not happened over the past 100 years. Foreign media tell the African story with one agenda in mind mainly to satisfy the prejudices and curiosities of their audiences in London, New York, New Delhi, Beijing and so forth. 

However, we don’t change the African narrative by pleading with the Western media to stop the African stereotypes but by behaving differently and telling our own stories. These are stories of how we live and not how we die. These are stories of how we triumph against all odds. These are stories that share the good and bad in Africa. Stories of hope and despair, and stories that celebrate the tremendous strides that we are making as a people.  

•Adapted from a speech by Trevor Ncube, Executive Deputy Chairman of Mail & Guardian Media, at a breakfast conference for the launch of Mail & Guardian Africa, in Nairobi, May 20, 2014


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