It really is difficult to be optimistic about South Africa’s future. While I laid down my basic thoughts about the country’s future six years ago, I focused mainly on matters political and economic and on society. While I wrote at the time that I had “no faith” in the country’s future, I want to focus now on “hope” and “optimism”, and the ways in which we (all of us) delude ourselves.
A good departure point is Mcebisi Jonas’s recent op-ed in Daily Maverick in which he said, “We need to remind ourselves that Africa is the continent of the future — by 2050 one out of three people under 24 on the planet will be Africans. African resilience and innovation stand to fundamentally change the narrative of global strength.”
While I have nothing but the utmost respect for Jonas, there are three things in these two sentences that are terribly Panglossian, and that project a false hope.
First, the idea that “the future belongs to Africa” has failed to inspire since the World Bank published its book, Can Africa Claim the 21st Century? more than 20 years ago. It is as if we live in a parallel world where China (and Asia in general) does not exist, and where there are no new conflicts, coups, piracy on the east and west coasts, rampant corruption, food insecurity, displacement and an African version of the ethno-nationalism and searches for purity that is mushrooming around the world.
Writing primarily about Pakistan, the writer Mohsin Hamed delivered a speech at PEN International Free the Word! at Winternachten 2018, in which he explained:
“Pakistan is not unique. Rather, it is at the forefront of a global trend. All around the world, governments and would-be governments appear overwhelmed by complexity and are blindly unleashing the power of fission, championing quests for the pure. In India a politics of Hindu purity is wrenching open deep and bloody fissures in a diverse society. In Myanmar a politics of Buddhist purity is massacring and expelling the Rohingya. In the United States a politics of white purity is marching in white hoods and red baseball caps, demonising Muslims and Hispanic people, killing and brutalising black people, jeering at intellectuals, and spitting in the face of climate science.”
That “by 2050 one out of three people under 24 on the planet will be Africans” is neither here nor there, least of all because thousands of desperate people are fleeing Africa across the Mediterranean every month, with millions fleeing countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
By one fairly reliable account, an estimated 32 million people in Africa are “forcibly displaced by conflict and repression” — which adds to the crushing hope that there is for the continent’s future. We haven’t yet discussed how we’re going to feed, clothe and shelter that majority of under-24s of 2050.
The idea that “African resilience and innovation stand to fundamentally change the narrative of global strength” is simply optimistic. “Resilience” can simply be interpreted as having endured a lot of misery without being wiped out completely. As for innovation — there is no doubt that we have very many, very smart and highly educated people in Africa. Those that have not left for better opportunities abroad — from medical doctors to scientists and businesspeople.
The facts tell a depressing story. The journal Nature found that “thousands of African graduates leave to pursue higher degrees abroad” every year. While their reasons for leaving the continent may vary, for some “the limited training opportunities at home and the chance to learn from the best in their fields” provide an incentive to go abroad for “better career prospects”.
Even those who return with the hope of helping address “the needs on the continent that they are so keenly aware of”, find great difficulty being back home. They “have to contend with masses of red tape and teaching demands — more than if they had stayed away — and some struggle to find a scholarly space that can accommodate their expertise. Many give up [which is a massive] loss to the continent, which needs one million new PhDs just to match the world’s researcher-to-population average”.
We have yet to add to the mix the rise of militant Islamists who, as far as we know, have a presence in Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. These disparate groups have legitimised (among themselves) cruelties like beheadings, public floggings or stonings, the denial of education to young women, the burning of books and the destruction of vital institutions and historical manuscripts.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about Africa’s future (there’s a veritable Afro-pessimism cottage industry), but it is hope and optimism that is crushed by the veneer of freedom. Africans have, for the most part, been freed from colonial and settler colonial governance and direct control. The conspiratorial among us may imagine that a group of white men sit around a table in Europe every morning and consider, “How can we f**k up Africa today?” That is their wont.
My understanding is that the crushing of hope is caused as much by internal and external factors — mechanisms and tendencies that are complex and layered — that can be better explained through an understanding of long-run capitalist development that includes European colonial expansion, extraction and accumulation. We can bicker over all of that some other time. It is hope that is dissipating…
There are times when it seems we don’t quite know how to be free — how to act, change the world and accept our role(s) in the wars, starvation, displacement and oppression that mark African political economy and society. Channelling one of my intellectual heroes, our freedom has turned to anguish and our condemnation.
The most positive note I can end on in this short essay is to paraphrase a passage that was originally attributed to Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor. Africa may not claim the 21st century, but that does not mean we should stop fighting to achieve that. DM