By Edward DeMarco
AT THE END OF 2019 I STOOD ABOVE FALSE BAY in Cape Town, South Africa, transfixed by water of such dazzling blue hues that Hollywood special effects would struggle to match the palette. Framed by dramatic mountains plunging into the ocean, this was the Africa of dreams, majestic and enthralling. No one could have imagined that three months later, a hard-charging virus would begin to wreak havoc on this country.
So lethal would COVID-19 become that South African authorities would be forced to close beaches to disperse crowds and slow successive waves of infections, including one that crested as I visited. Five waves of COVID – the last subsiding only six months ago – have killed more than 102,000 South Africans, 58 percent of the deaths reported to the World Health Organization for all of Africa. (Although undercounting of pandemic deaths across several African countries likely boosted South Africa’s share.)
In 2020, South Africa’s economy shrank 7 percent, the deepest recession since 1946 as tough lockdowns shut businesses and put hundreds of thousands out of work in tourism alone. The construction industry contracted 20 percent. South Africa’s government turned to the International Monetary Fund for a $4.3 billion emergency loan. And this was an economy barely growing before the pandemic, rated as an increasing international credit risk with a troubled electricity system barely able to keep the lights on. GDP per South African peaked in 2014 and has declined since.
Social unrest and joblessness helped to trigger widespread looting in 2021, and climate change contributed to the biggest floods in decades in 2022. Even South African Airways, once the proud flagship of the nation until grounded by COVID, is a shadow of its former self, a pilot for Airlink, the South African carrier that expanded to fill the gap, told me while waiting for coffee recently in the Johannesburg airport.
After years of battering, South Africa is weary and weakened.
At the top of my wish list for 2023, then, is a stronger and more confident South Africa. This should be a priority for anyone who wants to see Africa advance on all the fronts that matter including peace, security, democracy, green energy, inclusive economic growth and bountiful opportunities for young people.
A second wish involves finding harmony amid a global rivalry. From Taiwan to competition over minerals that will drive the green economy of electric vehicles and renewable energy, 2022 was a tough year in the relationship between China and the United States. The November meeting between President Biden and President Xi in Indonesia helped to smooth the edges of this great-power drama. In the coming year, Africa also could help.
While China and America will compete fiercely in Africa for decades, they also could work together for the good of Africans. In the China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035 issued a year ago, China pledged to help Africa advance its green and low-carbon energy sources and promote sustainable management of natural resources.
That goal coincides with U.S. aims and would help advance “net zero” global warming plans. Experts I’ve talked to say cooperation of the two largest economies is essential to spur action by the rest of the world and avoid sustained and catastrophic effects of climate change that we’re already experiencing in episodes of nature’s wrath.
Rapidly increasing Africa’s electricity supply is possibly the most important need for economic and social progress to pull more than 500 million people out of the dark. If the United States and China can use their green energy and net zero commitments to drive that, all the better.
Biden told Xi the two countries have a responsibility to “manage our differences” and find ways to address global issues. “And the world expects, I believe, China and the United States to play key roles in addressing global challenges, from climate changes to food insecurity” and “for us to be able to work together.”
Agriculture is another area that China says it wants to help further the capabilities of hard-working Africans. The main U.S. effort, Feed the Future, is already well advanced in that pursuit. Boosting the productivity of African farmers as the population of sub-Saharan Africa surges is of overwhelming value to both the United States and China as they seek to create a thriving market of consumers for their goods and services.
And China and America also have a common interest in seeing a more peaceful Africa emerge. China is getting more involved – an example is the Chinese ambassador who serves as United Nations envoy for the fragile Great Lakes region. Conflict in Greater East Africa and other regions impedes progress that both China and the United States want to boost economic growth and trade. “The cooperation on peace and security has become a new highlight for China-Africa relations,” the Chinese strategy says. If true, that’s promising.
War of Worlds
Africa’s voice on the world stage leads me to a third wish for the year. Russia’s attack on Ukraine last year exposed many African nations as unwilling to step up to the international responsibility implicit in seeking a permanent seat for Africa on the United Nations Security Council.
There was no ambiguity in this international crisis of choice: after accepting Ukraine’s sovereign existence for three decades, Russia under Vladimir Putin decided to grab its neighbor in brutal Soviet style: the empire strikes back, version 2.0, with cruise missiles. In the United Nations General Assembly, African nations roughly split on the question of whether this was an outrage even as collateral damage of the war – inflation and constricted imports of grain and fertilizer – hurt Africans across the continent.
Kenya, sitting on the Security Council for a two-year run, saw Vlad the Conqueror for what he is: a bully intent on shredding norms of international security. And Kenya had the clarity and courage to state that bluntly for all the world to hear and see. Other countries waffled, because of economic interests or antique fealty to Mother Russia or grumpiness over a lack of attention shown toward outrages in their neighborhood.
While an African family of 54 members is unlikely to speak with one voice or see a crisis issue quite the same way, the glaring lack of consensus over a war that horrified much of the world needs fixing. In this year, which marks the 60th anniversary of independent African nations shepherded by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie forming an African organization promoting unity, a pause and reflect assessment is in order. And make sure a copy of the UN Charter is at hand.
On one issue African nations agree, from east to west, north to south: it’s time for developed nations that caused global warming to start supporting the green energy and industrial transformation of Africa. My fourth wish is that an important effort along these lines makes headway.
Zambia’s “CEO” President Hakainde Hichilema and Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi want to be part of the electric vehicle revolution, and not merely conveyer belts delivering their countries’ vital metals (including copper and cobalt) to EV factories in the United States, Europe and Japan.
At Biden’s gathering of African leaders in December, the United States signed a memorandum of understanding with the DRC and Zambia to support their vision for EV battery manufacturing. “The plan to develop an electric battery supply chain opens the door for U.S. and like-minded investment to keep more value added in Africa,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the signing.
If these two countries get this manufacturing going, Africa would have a compelling model for breaking the raw-commodities export pattern that deprives African economies of added value from its natural resources. The goal is ambitious – neither country is tech-oriented or experienced in advanced manufacturing. But you must start somewhere, and this step make sense, and not only for supplying America and other developed markets. In time, Africa will need an efficient “green” supply chain to satisfy African demand for EVs. This is the year to start that journey.
Youth in Waves
New pathways also await the citizens of Africa’s two most populous countries, Ethiopia and Nigeria. My fifth and sixth wishes are for the youth of these pivotal societies. On February 25, Nigerian voters will elect a new president. The relatively youthful Peter Obi, 61, is the favorite, according to a Bloomberg poll. Nigeria’s next president will need to respond to the youth wave because it is coming fast and strong: 63 percent of the population is 24 years old or younger, according to a UN study.
In Ethiopia, the still young Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is gaining a second wind, with renewed American support, to put the country on a path toward peace and stability. It will be neither easy nor speedy, yet Ethiopia’s future depends on finding a basis for the solidarity of its young people across regions and ethnic groups.
My seventh wish returns us to the green theme, with leaves. Africa’s forests are under threat. The Congo Basin rainforest, a carbon-absorbing wonder, is getting increasing attention as the world tries to slow global warming caused by such greenhouse gases. In impoverished Malawi I’ve witnessed up close a frightening race to the bottom: as population rises, demand for wood fuel and farmland decimates forests. And that shrinks water supplies that forests help retain, which raises the risk of drought, hunger – and more poverty.
In west-central Africa, Gabon may offer a way out. As reported by The New York Times recently, Gabon wants to responsibly exploit its rainforests for Gabon’s benefit – not to send logs to distant markets for others to reap profits without bothering about ecological consequences.
Carefully managed logging, tracking of felled trees and a domestic wood products industry in Gabon combine to create a potentially sustainable model somewhere between tree-hugging and clear-cutting. That’s an African solution to an African challenge. In the year ahead, let’s wish to see more of that.
Cape Town, South Africa’s Table Mountain by D Van Rensburg / Pixabay. Gabon rainforest by Land Portal Foundation, used under Creative Commons Attribution.