Where goes Africa?

Inside Africa frontispiece

Inside Africa frontispiece

In recent months I’ve been re-reading a chunk of John Gunther’s Inside Africa, mainly the chapters relating to what were British colonies. It runs to 960 pages (the index takes up 40) and recounts the author’s experience of travelling the continent with his wife during 1952-53. They visited 105 towns and cities and he took notes on conversations with1,503 people.

It was a time when nearly two hundred million Africans were ruled, for the most part, by five million white Europeans. But, as Macmillan would note in 1960, “the wind of change is blowing through [Africa]. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.

Gunther saw this this desire to shake off colonialism, talking to many emerging leaders, but on page 10 notes: “Many Europeans think that Africans, if they become free, will make a botch of freedom. But this remains to be seen. They also say that African exploitation of Africans could be worse than European …”.

But the desire for freedom could not be supressed. I just remember from my 1960s childhood seeing every few months on TV news another independence ceremony when a Union Jack was lowered, a new national flag taking its place, raised in a spirit of hope and optimism. As far as Africa is concerned the last sixty years, sadly, have proved otherwise.

At church we are currently studying the book of Exodus dating back more than three thousand years. Even if you’re not Jewish or Christian you almost certainly know the plot. The Israelites find themselves enslaved by the Egyptians, the ever-increasing oppression leading God through Moses to cry: “Let my people go.” And finally the moment arrives when they make their miraculous escape through the Red Sea on to a life of paradise in a land of milk of honey.

Save that it didn’t work out that way. No sooner were they free than the complaints started. People were telling one another that they’d be better off in Egypt [Ex.16:3]. Moses was worn out settling disputes between people [18:13-26] and when they were given a set of laws – the Ten Commandments [20:1-17] – for the better regulation of society they forgot them in no time. It would be decades before they (or rather their descendants) were able to enjoy a settled society. The 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness was for many a lifetime.

What of Africa? We’ve seen terrible things happen in so many African countries: thousands dead in the Matabele massacres, vast numbers dying as a result of the Biafran civil war, Rwandan genocide and other conflicts. Up to the 1970s South Korea  and Zimbabwe enjoyed much the same per-capita GDP. Now the ratio is something like 24:1. And that’s not because Zimbabwe has nothing going for it: it used to be called the bread bowl of Africa, has massive mineral resources, at independence was left with pretty good infrastructure (rail the legacy of Rhodes) and has one of the greatest sights in the world in the Victoria Falls. What has it lacked? There’s a good summary here.

But perhaps it doesn’t have to be like this. Check out this 2008 paper by Icelandic Economics professor Thorvaldur Gylfason:

Believe it or not: in 1901, Iceland’s per capita national output was about the same as that of Ghana today. Today, Iceland occupies first place in the United Nations’ ranking of material success according to the Human Development Index that reflects longevity, adult literacy, and schooling as well as the purchasing power of peoples’ incomes. Can Iceland’s rags-to-riches story be replicated in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world? If so, what would it take?

The author’s answer can be found here. The now 1.3 billion Africans were ‘freed’ from colonialism in the 1960s by the winds of change observed by Macmillan. They now deserve to be freed from poverty and bad government. “Formerly one of the world’s poorest countries—with a GDP per capita of about US$70 per year in the late 1960s—Botswana has since transformed itself into an upper middle income country, with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.” shows us what can be done.

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