||Apparently, “one in three Africans is middle class” and as a result, Africa is ready for “take off” the way China and India were several decades ago. If true, it would be a marvelous surprise for civil society.
The utterly dubious line of argument was uttered by the African Development Bank’s chief economist, Mthuli Ncube last week at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town: “Hey you know what, the world please wake up, this is a phenomenon in Africa that we've not spent a lot of time thinking about.”
Ncube defines middle class as those who spend as little as R13/day, which includes a vast number of South Africans considered extremely poor by any reasonable definition. The number of people spending between R13 and R26/day constitutes a fifth of all Sub-Saharan Africans, while the range from R13 to R130/day amounts to a third, higher than a decade ago (27%) and than in 1980 (26%).
Below the R13/day level, 61% of Africans are mired in deep poverty.
Distortion-heavy Afro-optimism seems to arrive in waves. After 1950s-70s independence dreams soured, the early 1990s witnessed hopeful democratization tendencies, yet most subsequent elections were tainted.
By the mid-1990s, as Time magazine reported, “when a new generation of leaders emerged, Africans dared to hope that things could finally be changing. People like Issaias Afewerki in Eritrea, Laurent Kabila in Democratic Republic of Congo, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia promised a new style of leadership that focused on building economies and democratic nations instead of shoring up their power by force and ensuring that they and their friends got rich. When President Bill Clinton visited Africa in 1998, he touted this generation as Africa's great hope.”
Though all were soon subsequently unveiled as ruthless dictators, subsequent Afro-optimism spread with the 2001 New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) and its 2003 African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).
But the programmes’ champion, Thabo Mbeki, was fired by his own party in 2008, and the two other highest-profile African Union (AU) leaders were the tyrants Zenawi (the lead AU climate negotiator and APRM chair still today) and Moammar Gaddafi (recent AU president). Nepad and the APRM were written off,
The current Afro-optimist wave is a tsunami of macroeconomic propaganda, led not by African politicians and their northern helpers, but by resurgent multilateral development banks.
In February, the World Bank issued its strategy document, “Africa’s Future and the World Bank’s Support to It”, followed in April by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “Regional Economic Outlook” for Africa.
The latter report notes “a structural upbreak in growth encompassing 21 of the region’s 44 countries. Many of the strongest performers have sustained their superior performances for a decade or more through good times and bad and increasingly they exhibit characteristics associated not only with faster growth, but more sustained growth. For now, at least, the lions continue to roar. “
But once one corrects economists’ definitions of ‘growth’ by factoring in environmental destruction and non-renewable resource depletion, even a 2006 World Bank report (“Where is the Wealth of Nations?”) concedes a net ongoing reduction of African wealth.
One motivation behind this hype is a return to austerity and intensified globalization. The IMF Regional Economic Outlook’s ‘Main Findings’ argued that African countries’ budgets “should be moving away from the supportive stance of the last few years.”
And African central banks should raise interest rates, says the IMF, because “Monetary policy remains looser than desirable in many countries in the region, even before the recent surge in fuel and food prices.”
Yet such policies raise what the World Bank’s chief Africa economist, Shanta Devarajan, in 2009 termed “the specter of political instability and social unrest”. For Devarajan, “market-based reforms, which were painful in the first place but which African countries implemented because they could see the impact they were having on growth, are likely to lose political support because they no longer deliver results.”
Echoed the Bank’s Africa Vice President, Obiageli Ezekwesili, “It is precisely in a season of crisis like this that African governments must stay the course of market-based reforms.”
And last month, a journalist asked IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn about North African civil society protests: “Do you have any fears that there is perhaps a far left movement coming through these revolutions that want more, perhaps, closed economies? I mean, there have been a lot of pictures of Che Guevara there.”
Strauss-Kahn’s reply was telling: “Good question. Good question. There’s always this risk, but I’m not sure it will materialize.”
Given how disastrous globalization has been for Africa, that ‘far left movement’ had better materialize quickly, if we want to experience a genuine Afro-optimism. Until then, the global financial agencies’ desperation for an African success story should be taken with not a grain, but a calabash full of salt.
Patrick Bond is with the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.