03 Some single stories

For too long, the world has been in the business of telling single stories about Africa.

Africa Failing
This story has many versions, but it is essentially a repetition of the story told by the first colonisers: Africa is wild, Africa is dangerous, Africa is hopeless, and Africa belongs to those who take it.

Without outside help, Africa is headed for disaster and ruin as it is overwhelmed by population growth, conflict, migration and starvation.

In this narrative, no agency is attributed to African citizens. Africans are victims of our history and geography and are doomed to continue to be exploited by neo-colonial forces. The forces against us are so strong that our fate is inescapable. African citizens are unwise, lazy and uneducated and, when given agency, make bad choices. This single story is not true.

Who does it benefit? This narrative plays to those who want to keep Africa weak. It helps those who need to save Africa by enlightening “the savages”. It helps those who want to steal from Africa. A weak Africa is necessary for powerful forces to succeed in looting the riches of the continent and exploiting the people of the continent. If there is no hope for change then outside intervention, selfish accumulation and top-down control can be justified.

The hopeless continent. © The Economist Newspaper Limited, London, 13th May 2000.

Africa Rising
This narrative is based on some of the positive economic growth data emerging from Africa between 2000 and 2014. The Economist wrote in its “Africa Rising” cover story: “After decades of slow growth, Africa has a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia.” Africa could take over manufacturing that is becoming less profitable as Asian wages rise.

Africa Rising is, on the surface, a story of hope about a growth in wealth, stature and power for the continent. It celebrates the expansion of the global economic empire into Africa, grafting the continent onto the lowest rung of the global financial system.

The Africa Rising vision varies depending on whether it is told from the perspective of the USA, Europe or China. Either way, in this narrative we measure success according to the values of those who oppressed and exploited Africa in the past. Again, in this story there is little agency given to the citizens of Africa. Instead, it is the invisible hand of the markets that will exploit the natural resources of the continent to grow GDP, concentrating and controlling wealth, as Africa “catches up” with other continents.

It is based on the same global systems that have caused inequality and the environmental crisis – it’s a narrative of greed, power, violence, individualism and consumption without constraint. This single story is not true.

Those that gain from it are the beneficiaries of the global financial system, the African elites who control the income from natural resource extraction and the small middle class who facilitate these transactions. The economic growth celebrated by Africa Rising has not contributed to job creation and is driven by mineral and agricultural exports. Economic growth in Africa hasn’t increased wellbeing on the continent as much as it has expanded wealth and wellbeing elsewhere in the world. Elite consumption has increased along with inequality and corruption. A rising Africa makes the elites rich and keeps most Africans poor.