Jean-Michel Severino
Jean-Michel Severino

I wanted to share with you a project that is particularly dear to me in this year 2010 that is marked by the 50th anniversary celebrations of African independence (symbolically, as this is an average). It is an essay entitled “Africa’s billions”, which I have written with my colleague Olivier Ray and that is published today in French by Odile Jacob (the English version is due to be published early next year).

This book was born out of amazement and arose from an encounter.

The amazement lay in the fact that we do not understand Africa, and that we are blind to the tremendous interplay of forces which give life to Africa. Is China’s arrival on the continent a good or a bad thing for Africans? Is sub-Saharan African over- or under-populated? Will the region be able to feed its fast-growing population? What are the effects of climate change to the south of the Sahara? Should we expect increasing outbreaks of civil war and wide-ranging genocide, like the one which tore apart Rwanda in 1994? Or is the peace process initiated at the turn of the new century likely to carry on in the long run? Should we fear hordes of African migrants? Or, on the contrary, is the economic growth of the last few years here to stay, turning Africa into the next emerging power? Does Africa have a place in a multipolar world?

Africa is the subject of countless works, but they speak of another place: historic Africa. Our key texts are now out of date, so much so that we are unable to make sense of the events that are transforming Africa before our very eyes. Two out of every three sub-Saharan Africans are under the age of twenty-five. Unlike our sclerotic European societies, the dynamic demographics of Africa are setting an unrelenting pace for change in the sub-Saharan region. In 1960, the Ivory Coast had a population density of just 11 people per square kilometre. That figure stands at 60 people today, and will rise to 110 by 2050. If France had experienced the same rate of population growth as the Ivory Coast between 1960 and 2005, today’s population of France would stand at 240 million – including 60 million foreigners!

Africa is experiencing vertiginous changes of scale and of direction. Given the speed and extent of those changes, we ought to be looking several miles ahead down the road to have a chance of following the right track. And yet, we are watching Africa hurtling along – in a rear-view mirror. We should not be surprised by our inability to follow its trajectory. There are profound differences between our view of Africa, one that has not changed since the last century, and the contemporary realities of the continent. Public debate has depicted sub-Saharan Africa as an accursed land that is marginalised and set apart from globalisation. The region is viewed as being worthy of compassion and evokes a charitable response at best. At worst, the region is viewed as a problem that needs to be contained. Its inhabitants face a dark future, one in which international solidarity, like a dose of pain-relieving medicine, does no more than attenuate suffering and reduce convulsions. Charity work has largely been sub-contracted to humanitarian and philanthropic organisations. Containment is carried out by UN bodies and by African states themselves. This view, whether it describes itself as charitable or “lucid”, is in line with the realities of an Africa that is emerging painfully from several decades of crisis. However, it ignores the upheavals affecting the continent, changes of which few grasp the extent or the opportunities today. Unsurprisingly, it is the “youngest” players of our global society – Chinese, Indians, Brazilians – who seize the opportunities of this incredible adventure. Is it known that since the turn of the century, African economies have experienced a rate of growth far higher than that experienced in Europe and the USA?

And yet, the time is not so distant when we felt we “knew” Africa, where our industrialised countries had identified “interests”. However, since the end of the Cold War, Europe has turned away from Africa: our large southern neighbour has fallen to the bottom of our list of public policies. The societies on the northern shores of the Mediterranean, especially their economic actors, largely turn their backs on Africa. At the start of the 21st century, Europe is abdicating its position whilst new actors on the stage of international relations take an interest in the changes affecting Africa and in their relations with the continent. We no longer have a strand of public thinking that is considered, coherent, and searching with respect to Africa. It is now time to get to know Africa afresh.

This book is an attempt at thinking through a subject that is at once complex and unsettled, one that challenges us to go beyond our standard reading grids. This thought process is based on a refusal to allow oneself to be trapped by past certainties. It relies on a process of observing changes that are happening before our very eyes. Finally, it locks on to the few landmarks that we have in the future. We already know that the population of the sub-continent will double in just a few decades. We also know a majority of the population will live in urban areas. The way in which Africans live, travel, define themselves, and interact with their environment will determine the path followed by their societies.

It is not a case of predicting if the Africa of tomorrow will develop “well” or “badly”, or to decide whether to praise to the skies or play the blame game. The pages of the book are not part of the sterile debate between “Afro-optimists” and “Afro-pessimists”, who have long monopolised discussion on the topic. The time has come to consider the consequences of these seismic changes for Africa, her neighbours, and the world at large. By examining the present and looking into the future, we can detect the strategic re-emergence of Africa, with all the risks and opportunities that the continent presents.

Africa is complex, and perhaps never more so than at the time of its metamorphosis. Any prospective analysis of a subject in flux is fated to deliver crude diagnoses and erroneous forecasts. We take on these inaccuracies and mistakes, convinced that complexity should not paralyse the thought process. It is important to be in phase with this moment in history in which we find ourselves, otherwise we risk having chaos on our doorstep, chaos that no humanitarian aid would be able to contain. Africa, with its 1.5 billion inhabitants, will soon make its presence felt in the globalisation game. If we do not come up with coherent, flexible policies, we run the risk of having Africa barging in on our internal politics. The changes affecting Africa mean that radical choices have to be made in the field of public policy.

We met Ibrahim in a taxi in Johannesburg. The drive from the airport to the city centre was long, and took us through heavy traffic. We sympathised with the driver, a Malian of about thirty. When asked about the reasons for his emigration to South Africa, he told us of his journey after leaving the village of his birth, in the north-east of the country. After several years of scarce rainfalls, cereals were in short supply on the market. Speculators quadrupled prices during the lean period between the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season. Ibrahim’s father’s standing as one of the wealthiest men in the village counted for nothing: portions at mealtime began to shrink for Ibrahim as well as his six brothers and sisters. Unlike his cousins, Ibrahim refused to join the rebels, for he felt no anger towards the government. “What can the government do? It has no money in its coffers; it cannot even pay the village teacher.” Ibrahim’s story fitted: at the time, Mali was going through the lean years of structural adjustments*, and had borne the full force of the fall in cotton prices.

Ibrahim decided to leave, and began wandering through the principal cities of West Africa. He was in Abidjan when the crisis befell the Ivory Coast; it was not a good time to be a foreigner in that country. However, whereas his friends decided to set out on the long haul to Paris or London, Ibrahim decided to head South. He had heard of Mandela’s “New Africa”, bursting forth after the apartheid era. It was not immediately easy: Ibrahim found himself in a township, where he spent time doing odd jobs and living precariously. Ibrahim noticed that we were looking at the small rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror; he told us that he had changed religion. A small evangelical community in the township did a lot to help him when he first arrived. Money borrowed from churchgoers and from an American charitable organisation helped Ibrahim to set himself up in business. Today, he owns five taxis, each linked to the other four by a state-of-the art radio system. He was planning to buy a minivan to run a service between hotels and airports – “like the Chinese”, who have also entered the sector. Another few months and he should be able to give up driving and concentrate on managing his business from the small, fully equipped office that awaits him. What next? Ibrahim has big plans: he would like to get married and have children, but first he wants to move house: his priority is to leave the township and buy an apartment in the city center. And what about returning to Mali? His answer: “No. Africa is my country. I am at home here. What’s more, business is good in South Africa.” When questioned about the anti-immigrant violence that led to bloodshed in the townships during the winter of 2008, Ibrahim changed the subject.

To us, this seemed to be a tale of Africa in motion, an Africa that is anything but static, and not at all on the sidelines, perhaps even a tale of an Africa that works. The tale of a great migration, one that is unique in the history of the world. This book tries to tell the story of this African change, a change that is rich in opportunities and challenges of a new order. A metamorphosis that will affect the planet as a whole, and before which no human being can remain indifferent.

I hope that these initial thoughts will make you want to discover this book, and to join the discussions on Africa in the 21st century. We warmly invite you to discuss our intuitions, and share your own experience of Africa’s changing social, economic and political landscape, the challenges and hopes that it unleashes. You can do so here in the columns of ID4D and on the forum of the book’s website:

Interview de Jean-Michel Severino sur France 24

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