The state of Africa – report from a 23 country road trip (and I’m in South Africa for a couple of weeks)

March 11, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I’m in South Africa this week, speaking at various events, including a panel on the developmental state and inequality at Wits in Johannesburg (Tuesday 12th), a book launch in Durban on Thursday 14th, a panel on active citizenship and food justice at the Sustainability Institute in Cape Town on Monday 18th and a lecture on ‘which matters more, poverty or inequality’ at the University of the Western Cape on Wednesday 20th. In between, I’m definitely open to offers of beers, coffees etc in Joburg, Durban and Cape Town – often hard to fill the evenings on these trips, although I do have a box set of series 4 of The Wire…….

As I queued to get through immigration yesterday, I read the Economist’s recent special report on Africa by Oliver August. It’s a really nice piece of econo-wonk travel writing, travelling by land across 23 countries (see map) and mixing impressions with analysis. It’s very much an outsider looking in, but that can be interesting too.

economist africa road tripIt gets a bit close to a Panglossian ‘gee, look at the GDP, isn’t everything great’ tone at times, but overall, offers a readable, geographically-based commentary on some of the big issues – war and conflict (Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone); corruption and good governance (Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria); poverty and civil society activism (Niger, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Sudan); state v market(Ethiopia and Kenya); managing mineral wealth (Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana) and a separate section on South Africa. Some random snippets to give you a taste:

‘At the end of the cold war only three African countries (out of 53 at the time) had democracies; since then the number has risen to 25, of varying shades, and many more countries hold imperfect but worthwhile elections (22 in 2012 alone). Only four out of now 55 countries—Eritrea, Swaziland, Libya and Somalia—lack a multi-party constitution, and the last two will get one soon.’

‘The journey covered some 15,800 miles (25,400km) on rivers, railways and roads, almost all of them paved and open for business. Not once was your correspondent asked for a bribe along the way, though a few drivers may have given small gratuities to policemen. The trip took 112 days, and on all but nine of them e-mail by smartphone was available.’

In Nigeria, ‘The transformation of Lagos is worth trumpeting. Its economy is now bigger than the whole of Kenya’s. Tax revenue has increased from $4m to $97m a month in little more than a decade. Tax rates have stayed the same but the amounts being collected have risen dramatically thanks to the deployment of private tax “farmers” who get a commission.‘

‘Climate change is a further worry. No inhabited continent will be more affected by it than Africa. Deadly droughts, flash floods and falling water tables are recurring themes in conversations across the continent. South Africans are especially worried. “In 20 years this will all be desert,” says the owner of a vineyard near the Cape, standing among verdant vines.’

And his conclusion?

‘Africans rightly worry about unemployment, inequality and a host of other problems. But over the past decade winners have outnumbered losers, and the view from the road suggests they will go on doing so. Your correspondent reaches Cape Town in a hired car on a rainy afternoon, finding the waterfront alive with once-rare tourists from other African countries. “Soon our home will look like this,” says an Angolan father of three, pointing out a cluster of high-rise buildings to his teenage children. “I brought them here to see their future.”’

So, who’s on for a beer then?

March 11, 2013
Duncan Green