Across international politics, narratives and understandings of contemporary situations are constantly shifting and contested. In many ways, discussions of Africa exemplify this trend more than any other region. Africa is simultaneously understood as an international failure and the global future; a passive follower of modernity and a shaper of destiny. Delving into these narratives was the ambitious task of a recent Question Time event at University College London.
Part of a series of events entitled AfricanVoices@UCL, the panel attracted a range of professionals from across the continent. These included Adam Habib (Vice Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa), Ibrahima Thiaw, (Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar Senegal), Caroline Wanjiku-Kihato, (Urban LandMark, Southern Africa), Peter Waiswa (Makerere, University, Uganda) and the event was chaired by Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Their backgrounds remain as diverse as the narrative of the continent that connects them.
For that was one of the underlying messages of the panel (which explored a number of audience-posed questions); Africa has no single narrative. To this effect, Plaut suggested that the continent may share nothing but a ‘geographic entity’. The answers from the panel would suggest that though this may go too far, there exists a wide range of histories, cultures, pasts and futures across Africa.
In response to the classic question of the current ‘issues’ of Africa being a result of internal or external factors, the panel answered ‘both’. Wanjiku-Kihato suggested that blaming slavery and colonialism for current ills takes agency away from African citizens, whose biggest problem is a lack of self-critique. To use the literary term, blaming history risks double-silencing the African population. This is an issue that has long plagued populations, from women to slaves to minorities and beyond.
Habib further suggested that the issues in Africa lie in a lack of accountability, posing the question how do you give poor people power? For him, power is leverage, leverage is agency, and agency is vital to ensuring those in leadership positions are accountable to the people they represent. How does a system bestow power, he asks? Through votes, through collective mobilization, perhaps even through violence, though the latter is of course ill-advised. So power allows for accountability, which in turn gives agency.
As the discussion focused on another aspect of agency, employment, the panel discussed formalising the informal employment sector with diverse conclusions. Wanjiku-Kihato suggested that defining the formal economy as good and the informal economy as bad was to undermine the complexity of informal structures from the beginning. Waiswa added that much of Africa is built on the informal sector, particularly highlighting the importance of community health workers. Habib, alternatively, suggested that formalising the informal sector has increased equality and economic growth in places such as Brazil. He even suggested that a thriving informal sector indicates a failure of the formal sector. Perhaps, however, it should be considered an incompatibility of the formal sector with the pre-existing informal structure.
One cannot address economy in Africa without addressing South Africa, the only African country in the up-and-coming BRICS. But is this economic powerhouse good, or is it holding the continent back? As can be expected, the conclusion was mixed. Though South Africa has the second largest economy in Africa, it is built on ‘exploitative investment’, according to Habib. But it seems South Africa’s future lies with Africa, and that though there are many reforms to be made in order to see South Africa be the leader it can be, these reforms must happen within its continental context. Together they rise, together they fall.
The problems of Africa, the mistakes made, the lack of agency, inequality, corruption; these were all discussed during the event. However, the point was raised that the narrative of Africa should be changed. Why are all of the stories from Africa unhopeful? Is it due to the old rule quoted by Plaut that in media what bleeds, leads? Or could Africa change its own narrative through power and agency? Africa is also the continent that brought us Chinua Achebe, m-pesa and Nelson Mandela. Perhaps these should lead the story, if there is a united one, of Africa?
In fact, these differences make Africa’s future problematic to predict, even in the very nature of the statement: does Africa have a united future? The panellists spoke of an Africa community, strengthened with the inclusion of South Africa but differing in context and history. It could just be that through taking agency, changing the narrative, and holding actors, both political and private, to account that the future of Africa will live up to the capacity of its people. But, surely, that is the story for the world, not just this diverse continent?
And that surely is the story of the Commonwealth too.
Photo credit: © 2016 UCL / Jacqueline Lau