If one casts one’s eye over developments in sub-Saharan Africa during the past few years, the prospect does, at first glance, appear to be bleak.  The observer cannot fail to notice the conflict that appears to consume much of the continent from Somalia in the east to Sierra Leone in the west.  The continent continues to be wracked by seemingly interminable wars in Angola, in the southern Sudan and in the inappropriately named Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Since the Egyptian revolution of 1952 there have been some 80 violent – or non-constitutional – changes of government in the continent in 31 of its 52 countries.[1]


Together with conflict and political instability we have recurrent images of drought and famine, particularly in the horn of Africa.  Africa also appears to be worse affected by disease than any other continent:  high infant mortality, malaria and tropical illnesses continue to plague Africa and have now been compounded by AIDS which is causing devastation to populations throughout the region.


The perception is that Africa is lagging further and further behind, in the global race.  Between 1960 and 1992 the human development index in the developing world as a whole more than doubled, from 0,260 to 0,541 on a scale where 1,0 represents the highest levels of development.  However, in Sub-Sharan Africa it increased only from 0,2 to 0,357 and now lags behind, not only the rest of world, but also behind the rest of the developing world[2].  Between 1980 and 1992 GNP per capita income in Sub-Saharan Africa declined by an average of 0,8% per year, compared with a an average annual growth of 1,2% for the rest of the world  during the same period.[3]


All of this has led to a situation where the rest of the world is increasingly inclined to write off the whole continent – despite their protestations to the contrary.  Nor can one help to escape the conclusion that behind many of these attitudes lies the unspeakable and unspoken perception that black Africans simply cannot make it in the new globalised environment.


However, if we look at the continent with greater discernment we begin realize how unfair this perception is.  To start with, much of sub-Saharan Africa has, during the past fifteen years made heartening strides toward democratic government. Freedom House, a New York-based organization which monitors the state of civil and political rights in countries around the world, now classifies 8 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 47 states as being ‘free’ multi-party democracies; another 22 are regarded as being ‘partly free’ and 17 as ‘not free’.    This compares quite favourably with the countries north of the Sahara, 4 of which are regarded as ‘not free’ and only one as ‘partly free’!


Nor is it true that Africa presents an unremitting picture of economic decline: 14 sub-Saharan countries registered average growth rates of more than 4% between 1990 and 1998.  It is misleading to generalize about a whole sub-continent: many African countries are making solid progress on the social, economic and constitutional fronts.


There are, indeed, too many countries that continue to conform to the African stereotype of poverty, conflict and tyranny. However, such states conform to the stereotype not because they are African, but because poverty, tyranny and conflict go hand in hand throughout the world and throughout history and not just in Africa.   The nine countries in Africa that are currently experiencing the bitterest conflict have one thing in common:  they are all poor.  The average per capita GNP incomes of these countries is only US$188.00.  On the other hand, few of the more developed countries in the region experienced serious conflict.


Poverty and the state of political development also go hand in hand: the average per capita GNP income of the sub-Sahara African countries that are classified as ‘not free’ is US$ 352; that of the countries that are regarded as being ‘partly free’ is US$ 552; and that of the free countries is US$ 2115.


The problem, accordingly, is poverty – and not Africa.


The challenge for the world should be to help Africans to address the root causes of the vicious cycle of poverty, conflict and tyranny in their continent.  The key to such success may, in my opinion, be found in the following simple premises:


Peace and stability are the first requirements.  Nothing can be achieved in the state of anarchy that has existed in recent years in countries such as Liberia, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia .


A prime requirement for stability is the establishment of representative governments that are responsive to the needs of their people.  Africa also needs governments that will be able to bind their usually multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies into coherent nations.  One of the main causes of instability in Africa – and elsewhere in the world – lies in the challenge of accommodating different ethnic and cultural groups within the same society.


Secondly, having established stability, African governments should create the environment in which economic growth can take place. This will require the implementation of policies that will encourage competition and the development of free markets; the development of human resources by means of appropriate education, health and population policies; the maintenance of fiscal discipline and frugal government; and the maximum reduction of unnecessary state regulation and intervention in the economy.


The international community can help Africa in the economic sphere primarily by continuing to encourage the implementation of appropriate economic policies bilaterally and through agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank.  Although these policies are often initially painful and politically unpopular, they are nevertheless essential for long-term prosperity.


African countries can be forgiven for sometimes thinking that the cards are stacked against them in the international globalisation game.   They have to labour under the burden of relatively enormous foreign debts, accumulated over the years by less responsible governments. 34 of the world’s 41 highly indebted poor countries are in Africa.  The cost to Africa of servicing its foreign debt of US$ 349 billion in 1997 amounted to 21.3% of its earnings from the export of goods and services. Fortunately, steps are now being taken by the IMF to address this problem – but much more needs to be done.


Steps should also be taken to increase Africa’s diminishing share in global trade – which is less than 2% of the total.   African exports need more favourable access to first world markets and consideration should be given to counter the increasingly negative terms of trade which most African countries experience.  Prices for many of Africa’s primary exports have stagnated or declined since 1980.  These products include maize, cotton, cocoa, coffee, sugar, copper and bauxite.  Africa also requires higher levels of foreign and domestic investment to achieve the 5% per annum growth levels that are necessary to break out of the grip of poverty.


The reality is that although European nations are quick to give lip service to the need to help develop African economies, they are often ruthless when their own interests are adversely affected.   Many of the European leaders who flocked to South Africa for photo opportunities with President Mandela, were rigidly uncompromising when it came to trade negotiations with South Africa which might have adversely affected the interests of their own farmers.   Earlier this year South Africa had an excellent chance of being awarded the right to host the 2006 Soccer World Cup.  This would have been a wonderful opportunity not only for us, but for the whole African continent. However, at the last moment our chances were dashed when one of the members of the panel whose vote had been committed to us, inexplicably abstained.  The result was that the event was given to Germany – which had already hosted the event.  South Africans – and Africans – could not avoid the conclusion that they had once again been unfairly treated.


I do not agree with the generalization that sub-Saharan Africa does not have a future.  Many of the countries in our region are making good progress economically, socially and constitutionally.   There are, indeed, too many others that have lagged behind – but their problem is that they are desperately poor – not that they are African.  What Africa needs is a fair break from the rest of the world – a fair break with its crippling debt and a fair break with access to first world markets and first world investment.


[1] Africa at a Glance, page 91,  The Africa Institute of South Africa, 1995

[2] UNDP Human Development Report 1993, New York: Oxford UP,1994

[3] World Bank Atlas, vols 1975, 1986 and 1995, Washington DC and the World Development Report 1994, Oxford: World Bank and Oxford UP, 1994