Sethembile Msezane, Chapungu, The Day Rhodes Fell (2015)
On January 22, I attended a talk entitled ‘Africa in 2018: Prospects and Forecasts’ at SOAS. The panel featured Patrick Smith (Chief Editor, The Africa Report & Editor, Africa Confidential), Naznet Tesfay (Director, Africa Analysis, IHS Markit), Sethembile Msezane (artist, South Africa), Nanjala Nyabola (writer and independent political analyst, Kenya), and the chair, Afua Hirsch (writer, broadcaster & barrister).
As Msezane rightly stated: ‘One cannot possibly predict the future of a whole continent as it would play into a stereotype of homogenising a whole continent’. With this in mind, the panel attempted to examine the current state of Africa to predict some economic, political, ideological and cultural trends for 2018.
Naznet Tesfay provided a neat break down of the continent’s current economic condition. Focusing on the regional average for subsaharan Africa, Tesfay states that economic growth is expected to increase to 3.4 this year. Unfortunately, the three largest economies – Nigeria, Angola and South Africa, have brought down the overall average. For Nigeria and Angola, this was because of low oil prices which Tesfay predicts are unlikely to improve. For South Africa this was due to ‘distractions in leadership succession that affected policy orientation’.
Tesfay also outlines the lurking threat to the continent: debt. Percentage of public debt to GDP is over 53% on average. This will be a considerable drain on government finances. Concomitantly, because the Eurozone, the U.S. and Japan are showing growth, they will be less likely to accommodate monetary policy, meaning that interest rates are expected to go up. On top of this, fluctuating commodity prices may hinder Africa’s growth. Finally, Tesfay warns that political unrest could impact investment. Risky political situations lead to lower sovereign credit ratings which are used to determine whether African countries are worth investment. As she states, no African countries currently feature on the investment band grade.
Nevertheless, it’s not all doom and gloom. Tesfay predicts improved growth for the key export markets in Africa. Individual growth for high performing countries such as Senegal, Ethiopia and Tanzania is expected to increase above 6%. She also says that there has been greater recognition for intra-African trade, citing the fact that heads of state are holding a summit meeting in March to agree on a continental free trade agreement. She predicts that service industries will continue to lead in the economy, and expects growth in ICT-related sectors, transport logistics, tourism. There will be growth in manufacturing industries of base materials, an implementation of import substitution plans, a greater local production of food and beverages, and an increased focus on textiles, apparels and leather.
Going forward, Tesfay suggests that more work needs to be done for hard infrastructure (electricity and roads). She also stresses the importance of African investment in soft infrastructure; because 80% of African graduates struggle with unemployment, political leaders should focus on ‘retooling labour skills’.
Sethembile Msezane tackled the subject of the arts in Africa. She implores the audience to remain ‘skeptical’ of institutions which adopt artistic practices, because these ‘still assume heteronormative gender labels and commodify blackness and violence towards marginal groups as merely a hard trend’. Nonetheless, she still predicts an increased voice of marginal groups across the continent in 2018.
Msezane also spoke on the issue of identity for artists. She warns against viewing African artists as conflated figures with a collective identity, and urges people to recognise each artists’ sense of individuality even if they have united to serve a single political purpose. She believes 2018 will bring more spaces to ‘cater to individual issues which are often overlooked in society’. She believes art has the ability to influence politics;
‘Art is a mirror or reflection of what that society is at that time. […] What artists do is they observe, they analyse. If politicians started to have conversations [like artists] they could solve some of the problems that each society goes through’.
Overall, Msezane predicts that ‘There will a continuation of Africans producing and telling their own stories, an embrace of alternate realities whether it be in the spiritual realm or imagined futures, as well as an ascent and rule of women’s voices’.
Nanjala Nyabola’s focused on Africa’s political outlook in relation to its young population. She notes that despite the fact that Africa is the ‘youngest continent in the world’ it lacks the ability to facilitate consistent and productive dialogue with young people; ‘We really don’t know how to talk to young Africans. We know how to talk about them, we know how to talk at them, but we don’t know how to talk to them’. As a result, she expects more youth-led protests in 2018, as well as an increase in migration as younger people seek opportunities elsewhere. She hopes that during these moments of political unrest or transition, governments will reform to elect younger representatives. She says that because of its young population, ‘policy in Africa cannot look like policy in the West; it cannot look like policy in Asia’. It instead needs to be based on ‘youth-driven policy’. Afua Hirsch asked if promoting a youthful voice in Africa will be at the expense of including women’s voices. Nyabola responded, saying that the feminism and youth representation do not have to be ‘mutually inclusive’ so long as African leaders start envisioning how their policies would affect the experiences of young women, instead of always concentrating on appealing to ‘the big man’.
A key subject running through this panel was Africa’s growing independence from the West. Patrick Smith was particularly strong on this point. While discussing Trump’s recent denunciation of African countries as ‘shitholes’, he states that this certainly broke any illusions of liberalism in the U.S. However, Smith also suggests that Africa had already faced this ‘wake-up call’ following the 2008 market crash which negatively affected African economies, as well as the West’s reaction to 9/11 which led to their invasion of Iraq and the subsequent implementation of policies in Syria and North Africa. He also notes the fact that the current Conservative government in the U.K. has been through four senior officials for Africa, adding: ‘and Rory Stewart – the only one who seemed to know where the place is – has just been sacked’. Collectively, this means that there is already an awareness in Africa that ‘the West is not a ticket to the future’.
From an economic perspective, Tesfay supports this view. Although the E.U. is important for trade, she notes that the Western influence on trade is ‘waning’; China, Japan and India are the key trading partners for Africa. She also states that there is ‘a growing acceptance that we can create that economic growth amongst ourselves’.
Nanjala Nyabola also chimed in with her view. The West is not necessarily a model for success. Nyabola states that Africans should not be placated by Western ideas of Neoliberalism which suggests that entrepreneurship can be a ‘prescription’ for all of Africa’s issues. Such views are too simplistic. She believes instead that the youth show a rejuvenated ‘hunger for ideological Pan-Africanism’.
So, what’s on the horizon for Africa in 2018? In summary, Africa shows the potential for substantial economic growth but an underlying a risk of debt. On the artistic front, marginalised voices will increase in volume and continue to have a wide political impact. Further, we can expect more frequent youth-led protests as young people fight for representation in government bodies. Finally, there is an advancing sense of Africa’s ideological and financial independence from the West.
If you are interested in reading further, here are some extra key snippets from the Q&A session:
On Africa’s growing debt and political corruption:
What is the current generation of African politicians signing up the next generation for? […] There is a lack of foresight around how debt is being used to finance development. – Nanjala Nyabola
The tenant on these loans/bonds that [African governments] are issuing is always much longer than whatever government term is in place. [There is an] unapologetic lack of accountability. – Naznet Tesfay
On the diaspora presence in Africa:
Diaspora connections between young people [on social media] have led to some of the most significant political moments in Africa in the last year. #BlackLivesMatter reverberates in Kenya, enabling conversations about police brutality. It gives people a theoretical framework. – Nanjala Nyabola
On Morocco’s coming ascension to ECOWAS:
If Moroccans accept free movement of people as well as access to the common market, then we’ll know that they are truly open to integration. – Naznet Tesfay
On space programmes in Africa:
The practical side of me says it’s stupid. But on the other hand, why don’t Africans get to be vain and stupid? Why do we always have to be practical? – Nanjala Nyabola
On whether the economic figures from the World Bank are authentic:
These numbers (GDP) cannot be taken at face value. They give an indication. It is metrics to understand what is going on, but you must dive deeply and augment it with other data sets. […] Try to pull information from disparate sources so that you can test [the figures] against each other. – Naznet Tesfay
I think they are complete racket […]. It is a subtle way for the World Bank to influence policy and ideology in countries in a way they can no longer do overtly. Instead of saying ‘We’ll give you money if you do the following’, they say ‘Well, if you don’t do the following, you’re going to be ranked really badly on our doing-business-index, and no one will invest’. – Patrick Smith
On international NGOs:
International and domestic NGOs are complicit in killing political activism on the continent. […] every hour that a person is filling in an evaluation form is an hour that they are not organising people in the streets. I have seen international NGOs punish people for not speaking the language of power by slashing funding […]. During the last election, 78 Kenyans died between August 8th and October 29th, most by the police, including a 6 month old child. And the NGOs were telling people both sides have to calm down […]. There is this idea that if you work for an NGO you have to be neutral or apolitical. What is that doing to political organising in Africa? – Nanjala Nyabola
In my experience, most of the funding that comes from international NGOs is geared towards Africans performing their black pain/resistance/struggle in Europe for a white audience. You explain to them what colonialism did, what apartheid did. And so it’s reliving this brutal history which I think should [instead] be discussed in black spaces. White people need to deal with their own white guilt. On the other hand, there isn’t enough funding in African countries for us to tell our own stories to other Africans. – Sethembile Msezane
On boosting funding for humanities education:
Please stop cutting funding to humanities programme […]. It’s another thing that is killing political imagination in Africa […]. People are unable to see themselves as a part of a broader kaleidoscope of history, time and space because all [African governments] can think about is advancing science programmes. – Nanjala Nyabola