HOW THE WESTERN WORLD VIEWS AFRICA
As we approach the millennium, with the triumph of the United States over Russia, capitalism over socialism and the market over planning, the depiction of Africa through the centuries has not changed considerably.
The euro crisis, double-dip recessions, Occupy protests and Libor corruption scandals aside, it seems that capitalism is alive and well – at least in Africa. Africa is 'Rising', westerners are often told these days, after decades of economic ruin, civil war and governmental mismanagement. Impressive economic growth statistics, the "burgeoning African middle class", mushrooming mobile phone and internet use – these things are all proudly trumpeted, "reminding the world of the capitalist way". But why all this 'good news' now?
The seemingly obvious answer is that things are indeed improving in Africa and the West's commentary are now, quite simply, reporting what is happening. But to properly understand the Africa Rising narratives, we also need to look at what they are a response to – the much older, and much more negative, Dark Continent narratives that have dominated western discourses on Africa for centuries.
The bad: the creation of a Dark Continent
Tellingly, we can trace these negative narratives to the beginnings of Western Civilization itself. In Histories, Herodotus (aka The Father of History) relates a cautionary tale about what happens in Africa. Five Nasamonians – "enterprising youths of the highest rank" – were off exploring southern Libya. After several days of wandering, they found some fruit trees and started helping themselves. Then, several "men of small stature", "all of them skilled in magic", seized and captured them, taking them for inscrutable and dastardly magic-dwarf purposes.
In this way, Herodotus suggested that Africa was not only different, but also more threatening, sinister and dangerous than Greece. Subsequent generations of European writers followed suit, substituting fantasy for fact in markedly antagonistic ways.
Europeans created an image of Africa that was the perverse opposite of Europe's – its mirror image. Europe's general superiority would, by comparison with and in contrast to this image, be self-evident. Europe's own idea of itself was thus predicated on its image of Africa (and other so-called backward regions).
From the 17th century onwards, debates over the slave trade, racism, and colonialism helped crystallize these negative narratives in western discourses. Abolitionists argued that Africa was a place of suffering because the slave trade provoked war, disease, famine and poverty; anti-Abolitionists said Africa was so forbidding as to make slavery in foreign countries a positive escape. Either way, Africa was full of "savagery" and constant war.
The good: emerging, rising, vindicating
But now, Africa is not only an emerging market; it's an emerging continent. Again, why now?
It is partly because some people think the best way to repudiate the negative stereotypes of Africa is to pump out wholly good news. An account on Twitter called @AfricaGoodNews is a case in point. Its handler tweets links to positive reportage of Africa: such "Angola May Produce One Million Eggs a Day..." and "Doing Business in Fast-Growing Africa - Europe Edition…”
It is one facet of a larger rebranding project. Whilst some observers may approve, seeing them as necessary correctives to the boilerplate journalism mentioned above, others are already finding them clichéd and boring or downright misleading; a facile PR exercise designed to encourage (mainly western) investment. See the latest issue of Money Week if you want to be bombarded with statistics and given some ideas about where to put your dollars, pounds or euros. That there are resonances between some of this writing and 19th century imperialist propaganda may be cause for concern.
It is important to stress that however you assess the Africa Rising narrative's relative worth, it should not be discounted because some of the statistics may be unreliable. We are seeing more and more Africa Rising narratives because it is. And the changes are not confined to economic growth – large-scale political violence and war has also declined sharply over the past decade, for example. Things are indeed changing on the ground.
Nonetheless, it is demand for the stuff underneath it – Africa's mineral and oil wealth – that is driving the economic growth behind all these narratives. The Bric economies, and China in particular, have fueled a commodities boom that has benefited state coffers across the continent, though questions remain over the actual extent (and the equities) of this boom.
But perhaps the central reason we are seeing all this "good news" in western media links back to the wests own idea of itself and of Africa. Africans are now, "finally", playing by the west's rules; the supposedly redemptive power of capitalism (pdf) coupled with the increasing adoption of liberal-democracy in Africa vindicates the Western Way. Moreover, feelings of decline in the west – stubbornly low economic growth (or collapse), the threat of social upheaval, the rise of China, and so on – have made all these Africa rising narratives all the more breathless. The Economist, Money Week, and the rest seem to see in Africa's rise hope for the west's recovery. Is Africa Rising, then, because the west needs it to?