issue 208 - June 1990
Ron Giling / Panos
Africa teeters on the brink of collapse.
But there is hope, as Sue Shaw explains.
The release of Nelson Mandela is something you will tell your grandchildren about. A smile will play around your lips as images flood back recalling where you were; who you were with; how you felt; and you will catch your breath, straining forward in your chair as if to glimpse again the living legend walk stiffly out of Victor Verster Prison in South Africa after 27 years imprisonment, down the road towards freedom.
It was that sort of event, you will say; more emotional than the first man on the moon, more impossible than the end of the Cold War. You had wished for it all your life and then it happened. Suddenly there was hope for Africa - and with it the world - because one man was set free.
With luck, your grandchildren will wonder what all the fuss was about, never having experienced an international shortage of hope. But you will remember.
Things looked grim for Africa, you will say. Africans overall were almost as poor as at independence. Incomes had fallen for the last decade, hunger had increased, unemployment was rising and Africa's foreign debt of $230 billion was equal to its gross national product - a proportion almost twice that of Latin America's - making it the most heavily debt-burdened region of the world. Worse was to come as the effect of AIDS added its weight to the economic load'. In South Africa white domination had survived decades of black resistance and international pressure. As we entered the last decade of the twentieth century, your grandchildren will hear in disbelief, there was still a country where people were denied the vote simply because their skin was black.
Then Mandela was released. Grey-haired and supremely dignified, he raised his fist in a salute and declared that the words he had spoken at his trial in 1964 are as true today as they were then: I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."'
He towered like a moral giant above other world leaders. And he fired belief that the human spirit could endure suffering and still remain intact; that integrity could survive; and that the liberation of South Africa was finally in sight.
What else you tell your grandchildren remains to be discovered. But one thing is certain. Internal and external pressures are preventing South Africa's apartheid system from ruling in the old way; hence Mandela's release, the unbanning of the African National Congress - along with 33 other political organizations - and the lifting of press restrictions in South Africa. The political and economic isolation of the apartheid state has brought an absence of new investment to the country and dried up its markets. With no easy sale for its exports South African firms have been forced to discount down - by 20 per cent in some cases.
Things are changing in neighbouring Namibia as well. For the past 60 years Namibia has been a colony and satellite of South Africa, with an overwhelming dependence on it as a source of imports, and a market for its own exports.
Now independence has given Namibia some control over its own considerable natural resources. The population has enormously high expectations which could prove hard for the new government to meet after years of apartheid rule. But the country got off to a promising start earlier this year, with a peaceful multiparty election that drew over 90 per cent of the population, and a constitution enshrining the best guarantees for human rights and democracy in Africa. With one of the continent's highest gross national products per head - around $1,272 in 19892 - and a government committed to ensuring an equitable distribution of wealth, Namibia's future looks promising.
But these positive developments in Southern Africa stand out all the more as beacons of hope because of the general gloom further north. The Namibian government's aim for self-sufficiency in food, for instance, suggests that it has learned a lesson from the desperate experience of other African nations.
Over the last 30 years food shortages have hit all but five sub-Saharan countries. More than two million Africans starved to death in 1985. Another four million currently face starvation in Ethiopia as a result of drought and war. South Africa's destabilization programme has brought hunger to Mozambique and Angola. But the shortage of food is continent-wide. At its heart lies insufficient food production.
Farming has been bled dry. In most African countries state marketing boards buy cash crops from farmers at unreasonably low prices. Farmers in the main coffee, cocoa and cotton exporting countries earned only about half the export value of their produce in l984. The other half went into state coffers. This is understandable given African governments hunger for the foreign exchange which might help them develop - but it is scant encouragement to the small farmer.
Yet even farmers producing crops for export are well off compared with those supplying food for domestic consumption - with the result that cash crops continue to be grown on land which could be used for growing food. When a drought hit the Sahel in 1983, food had to be imported. Yet the same year five Sahelian countries - Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Chad - harvested a record 154 million tonnes of cotton fibre. Food aid and cheap food imports conspire to keep food prices low so that farmers have little incentive to grow more than they need for themselves. When drought comes there is nothing left in reserve.
The only way to ensure that more food is grown is to pay farmers more for doing it and supply the back-up that they need. But raising food prices in the cities provokes dissatisfaction in the urban population with its greater political clout - so in practice it all-too-rarely happens. As one relief worker in the Sahel put it, 'Starve the city dwellers and they riot; starve the peasants and they die quietly. If you were a politician, which would you choose?'
The problem stems from colonial times. The imperialists levied taxes to be paid in cash which forced Africans to grow crops like cotton and cocoa that were needed by the distant factories of the imperial parent country. Meanwhile the colonial economy fostered in Africans a drive to consume: African colonies provided a new market for goods like clothing, shoes and bicycles manufactured by those same distant factories.
Independence did little to alter this colonial pattern. More concerned with the urban hunger for consumer goods than with possible future food shortages, fledgling African governments set themselves the task of trying to catch up with a West that had been industrialized for 150 years. On the advice of foreign experts, many newly independent countries started up industries which relied on imports of essential components from the West - thus keeping money flowing northwards. Industry was prioritized and agriculture relegated.
Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, was soon assembling luxury cars for its excessively paid officials. Countries like Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal manufactured beer, tobacco, textiles, flour, footwear and cement; Kenya made bulk, low-value consumer goods like soft drinks and canned products, while Zambia, Zimbabwe and Zaire produced light-engineering goods linked to their mining industries. Sub-Saharan Africa's industry grew at the dizzying rate of 15 per cent a year between 1965 and 1973.
Indeed manufacturing industry accounted for over 15 per cent of the gross domestic product in 18 countries by 1973. Future development along the Western industrial track still seemed at least plausible. During the 1970s however industrial growth dwindled. By 1981 it had started to decline. The party was over.
Sub-Saharan countries earned most of their foreign exchange by exporting primary commodities like cocoa, coffee and copper. When commodity prices fell and oil prices shot up in the 1970s, there was precious little hard currency left to buy essential imports. Borrowing heavily from Western governments and banks bridged the gap but it was a short-term expedient. Only oil-exporting countries like Nigeria could afford to maintain industrial growth.
In the course of the 1980s Africa's debt burden increased faster than anywhere else in the Third World. In sub-Saharan Africa the total debt rocketed from $6 billion in 1970 to $134 billion in 1988'. Western lending agencies benefited. Debt-servicing obligations swept approximately one billion dollars out of Africa and into the coffers of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) between 1986 and l987. 'Structural adjustment programmes' devised by the IMF and World Bank effectively an economic squeeze which cuts the public spending from which the poor benefit most - keep the money flowing out. And the stick that goads governments into repaying their debts is fear of no more loans.
In 1987 Tanzania's former President Julius Nyerere asked, 'Must we starve our children to pay our debts?' The question has been answered in practice. The answer is 'yes'. The World Bank itself now confesses doubts about the efficacy of its policies in tackling Africa's economic decline; it is currently drafting a new report tentatively titled Beyond Adjustment. Too bad for those who have suffered from such 'adjustment' over the last 15 years.
Straws in the wind
Better news is a recent decision by the French government to cancel all aid debt owed by 35 sub-Saharan countries - a sum amounting to two and a half billion dollars5. The amount is small compared to Africa's overall debt of $230 billion. But the move shows cancellation is possible. Those of us who care about Africa must press our own governments to write off Africa's debt to our countries. Extracting money from the world's poorest people is a crime against humanity.
Meanwhile other straws in the wind offer hope. Changes in Southern Africa have come at the same time as the rebirth of democracy in Eastern Europe. Though the latter threatens to divert traditionally Africa-bound aid eastwards, it also suggests that wars in Somalia, Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia will wind down. Superpower involvement is lessening. Cuban troops have already pulled out of Angola. Soviet aid to the militaristic regime in Ethiopia must decline, while East German experts cannot remain there much longer.
The upheavals in both South Africa and the communist world have fanned Africans' longing for social justice. To this end popular revolts have recently swept Senegal, Gabon, Niger and Benin. In Ivory Coast there has been an upsurge of demonstrations calling for multi-party democracy. Interestingly enough an official demonstration in Nigeria to celebrate Mandela's release transformed itself into anti-government protest.
The pressure for change is helped by nature's call to the grave: even the most omnipotent dictators are not immune to death. Presidents Mobutu of Zaire, Banda of Malawi and Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast are all very old men. Houphouet-Boigny is so senile that his periods of lucidity extend to no more than a few hours each day. Subsequent leaders may well serve their people better.
Ultimately, however, the continent's greatest hope lies in the initiative and resourcefulness of its people. Like the self-employed metal-workers in Kenya who make cooking stoves out of scrap metal. Or the firm which makes paper out of sugar-cane waste in Ghana. Africa's peasants labour together daily helping each other as they have always done.
In Burkina Faso a self-help group called the Naam movement has been quietly working since 1967 to make villages responsible for their own development. Their starting point is a respect for traditional peasant knowledge and technical expertise3. It works. Naam groups have built wells, set up vegetable gardens, planted village woodlots and built village shops and mills. They use whatever low-cost tools and materials are available, taking care to protect the environment.
Like ordinary people all over Africa they are engaged in the painfully difficult task of moving their continent forward. It will take years. But as one proverb says, 'When the short road is blocked you have to take the long road.' In Africa the short road to development has been tried. It led nowhere. Now the long road is all that remains. It will be taken. Africans are short of many things. But courage and determination are not among them.
1 Sub-saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth, The World Bank, 1989.
2 Namibian Finance Dept.
3 The Greening of Africa, Paul Harrison (Paladin, 1987).
4 African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programmes for Socio-Economic Recovery and Transformation, United Nations Economic Commision for Africa, 1989.
5 Africa Recovery, Vol 3, No 1-2, October 1989.
Worth reading on. AFRICA
Lords of poverty, Graham Hancock (Macmillan, 1989). Sharp, witty exposure of the 'aid industry'. Africa: What can be done? Ben Turok, (Zed, 1987). Thoughtful analysis of Africa's political and economic situation today. False Start in Africa, Rene Dumont (Andre Deutsch, 1969). A classic which continues to shed light on Africa's plight. The Greening of Africa, Paul Harrison (Paladin Grafton, 1987). Excellent account of Africa's problems and what can be done about them from an environmental angle. Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth published by the World Bank /The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 1989. Useful up-to-date account of Africa's contemporary situation which drawn some questionable conclusions. African Alternatives Framework to Structural Adjustment Programmes for Socio-Economic Recovery and Transformation published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 1989. Thoughtful reply from African Governments to World Bank report, posing an alternative strategy to the structural adjustment programme. Africa: History of a Continent, Basil Davidson (Hamlyn, 1972).
This special report appeared in the burden of hope - africa in the 1990s issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.