Opinion: How to be an Africa expert and leave no cliche unsaid

by Duncan Clarke

Thinking Africa is complicated, requiring years of trawling through thousands of books on economics, history, social science, anthropology and politics. No mean task, but one luckily simplified lately by numerous self-styled “Africa experts”, political spin artists, sound-bite junkies, arriviste journos, think-tankers, policy wonks, random bankers, distant academics, market honchos, corporate suits, public relations acolytes and self-proclaimed politicians.

So, no need to take the hard road. New pathways exist in the search for Africa’s missing economic variables to explain the continent’s volatile track record or, if you prefer, recent apparent good news and presumed macroeconomics, and why this will continue for 50 years or more.

First things first: pick a theme of unrestrained optimism. Shed any Afropessimism or proclivity for realpolitik. Use terms like “dynamic”, “emergent”, “middle class” and “last investment frontier”. Remember it’s about unrestricted growth beyond history or capacity, since both are “adjustable”, the former by revisionism, the latter by “new technology”. Go for catchy sound bites: “Africa is rising”, the “African Century” or “Africa’s Moment”. Dwell only on what is going up, not what might go down. Remember, one’s political risk is another’s commercial treasure.

Refer to the great African economists: Geldof, Bono, Madonna, Clooney and Jolie. To sound “deep and historic” cite Niall Ferguson. Always genuflect before Nepad, Transparency, Good Governance, Inclusive Growth, Peer Reviews and Mo Ibrahim. Praise economic initiatives called local content, best practice regulation, “indigenisation”, empowerment, nationalisation and so on: they’re models of Nobel Prize-like perfection guaranteed to boost investment, foreign direct investment (FDI) and someone else’s economic growth.

Vote for “sustainability”. If you can’t, mention this in passing along with democratic, stable and “green”. Official buzzwords cement your authenticity. Be available to fly anywhere to indabas, lekgotlas, bosberaads, colloquia, assemblies, safaris or braais on “The Way Forward”, “Transformation” or similar godly endeavours.

Repeat conventional wisdoms: “it’s the fastest growth region” (ignore time scales here); “the top six (or is it seven) fastest-growth economies are in Africa” (do not question the significance); opportunities are “huge” (never attach contingent risks); project numbers growth is enormous (do not mention venture size or related capital volumes); and show sage wonderment at FDI inflows (unrelated to world market investment movements).

Never mention state inefficiencies, infrastructural mayhem, proliferating parastatal behemoths, repetitive government disasters, institutional dysfunction, energy outages, failed or failing states.

Punt aid shamelessly, even if it is the policy wave of the past: it’s now “social capital”.

Never overcomplicate Africa: it is “one” after all (the African Union says so). Unity is the inviolate leitmotif. One perfect size fits “Africa”. Interlocutors will appreciate your synthesis and profundity.

Remember, Africans are “entrepreneurial”. They would be more so but for colonialism, imperialism, Francafrique (add Eurafrique), “unequal exchange”, foreigners (except Chinese), apartheid, prejudice against the “global south”, or other harbingers of disadvantage and victimology such as anthropogenic climate change.

Pay homage to “leadership”, local governance, public-private partnerships, newly minted growth models, Millennium Development Goals, gateways to business, dynamic commercial hubs, changed realities, the “new normal” of 5% (or even 7%) annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth forever. Endorse linear pathways to Nirvana. Never mention troubling matters such as commodity cycles. Do not question the obvious: drink the Kool-Aid. It’s good for you, and Africa.

Some notions are verboten in economic discourse: like, Ubuntu may be skin deep, ethnicity may remain at issue, or that nongovernmental organisations have business models looking for a market.

Within complex economic landscapes, stress the blindingly obvious: Africa’s middle class is “huge, growing at electric pace” (despite the inconvenience of peasants and urban underclasses), the “demographic dividend” is massive, even if niggling problems of job creation will remain unresolved, and what goes up once, or for a few years (such as GDP), must always do so.

“Africans” should always be seen to prefer “African solutions” (and you too) even where no one knows what this might be. Speak “of them and to them” so they know they “exist”, as uniform socio-anthropological entities, notwithstanding a couple of thousand languages, 55 “nation states” in balkanising evolution, hundreds of fragile borders, multiple power brokers, and an unfathomable mix of ethnolinguistic societies and competitive entities seeking survival under Africa’s sun.

Pay respect to the spaghetti bowl of regional economic co-operation and trade agreements even if they barely function. Maybe they will one day, creating the fictional “Africa market” with its Afro-currency and African Monetary Union, along with the rest of the bureaucratic-cum-political paraphernalia.

History is essential to establish your savvy and emotional credentials. The “West” should be castigated at least once in your pithy analysis. Shift your mindset eastwards to the new fulcrum of the future, China and Brics, remembering that SA is its economic pivot, Nigeria is not to be trusted, while all others are inconsequential.

Make sweeping generalisations, such as “mobile telephony has transformed Africa”. Don’t mention that Africa is 2% of world GDP, its domestic savings record poor, the debt profile has been heavily engineered with write-offs, and its power industry approximates Spain’s. Ignore economic shocks that lurk ahead: that’s Afropessimism.

Bounce your favourite themes off the utterances of the cognoscenti and recently quoted celebrity economists, the parachute artists of economica that come and go as the rains in Africa, such as Joseph Stiglitz and random Harvard alumni.

Keep up with the latest clichés, the fast-moving bits and bytes of intelligence that signal depth of understanding. Invent one for your own use. Watch the Twitterati (they know what’s going on). Move with the social tides and do not get stranded on the beach of ignorance, branded with “old thinking”. Stick with platitudes, to offend no one: you may be invited back again. After all, you are the self-selected management of Africa. Your ideas should prevail, especially so you can take the credit and allocate the blame.

Your audience may disbelieve if you don’t signal unmitigated concern for rampant unemployment, informal economies of growing desperation and Africa’s fast-expanding slum-ridden megacities: these are opportunities awaiting social entrepreneurship, bottom-of-the-pyramid marketers, and innovative urban planners — maybe even you.

Refrain from politically incorrect concepts such as underdevelopment or economic backwardness. Stay eminently networked and ideologically fashionable: the alternative is anachronism.

Above all, remember that Africa is a construct of 19th century Europe’s imagination and Africa’s 20th-century mythologies: or is it the other way around ?

Sometimes it’s hard to recall.

• Clarke is the author of Africa’s Future: Darkness to Destiny (Profile Books, 2012)

* This piece was first published in BusinessDay

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Comments (3)

  1. "How to be an Africa expert and leave no cliche unsaid" is an amazing, poignant piece of art. To be looked at in contemplation.

  2. "How to be an Africa expert and leave no cliche unsaid" is an amazing, poignant piece of art. To be looked at in contemplation.

  3. This must be the most hilarious piece I've ever had the fortune to read. Africans are rambling in the dark, Harvard degrees and all. The greatest man of the 20th century, won a Nobel Prize for literature, did not attend university

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