Illustration by Luis Grañena of the African continent as a jigsaw puzzle
© Luis Grañena

Sometimes a politician’s accidental phrase can reveal a world view. The other night in Johannesburg, South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma was arguing for toll roads. They were a global standard, he said, and then added: “We can’t think like Africans in Africa generally. [Laughter from the audience.] We are in Johannesburg. This is Johannesburg. It is not some national road in Malawi. [Laughter.]” Zuma’s party calls itself the African National Congress but his implicit contempt for the rest of the continent signalled a truth: the word “Africa” has lost what meaning it ever had and should be binned.

When I was born in Uganda in 1969, it still just about made sense to talk of “Africa”. True, the continent was impossibly diverse, but most African countries above the white-run southern tip shared some basic experiences: recently decolonised, largely agrarian, poor and heading for dictatorship. For that generation, the fall of colonialism provided a real continent-wide bond. However, since about 2000 the experiences of African countries have diverged so starkly that it makes almost no sense to speak of “Africa” any more.

The very idea of “Africa” came from outside Africa, starting with Herodotus. The most influential African pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah, was inspired by black American and Caribbean thinkers such as W E B Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.

“Africa” stuck as a tag, because the continent rarely gets enough global attention to be discussed in more subtle terms. Typically the whole continent is labelled with a single phrase, supplied by Anglophone outsiders: Harold Macmillan’s “wind of change” in 1960, Bob Geldof’s “Do they know it’s Christmas?” in 1984, and The Economist’s “Hopeless Continent” in 2000. The global ruling class increasingly derives its conversation from The Economist and, in December 2011, the magazine’s cover proclaimed: “Africa Rising”.

But for many actual Africans the notion of a shared continent has little reality. Travelling to the next village is often hard enough, let alone to the next country. To fly between two African countries, the easiest way is often through London, Paris or Dubai. I’m told the Rwanda-Burundi border can now be crossed in 10 minutes, but that’s rare in Africa. No wonder almost all African countries do most of their foreign trade outside the continent.

Europe exists: its countries are crammed relatively close together, and you often don’t need a passport to travel between them. There is a European central government of sorts, and because of all this interlinking, the experiences of Poles and Spaniards, say, are becoming increasingly alike.

Africa, by contrast, is full of cavernous divides like the one spotted by Zuma. Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian economist, told me: “Francophone Africa versus Anglophone Africa versus Lusophone Africa – these are very different places.” Moyo says she uses the phrase “Africa” less and less: “I’ve moved away from that. I think it’s folly to put these countries in the same basket.” Nigeria’s economy, she notes, resembles other big oil exporters like Mexico and Indonesia more than it does Ghana or Zambia.

Indeed, African countries have been going off in different directions since about 2000, says Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, political scientist of Africa at Oxford university. Despite certain shared drivers – Chinese investment, cheap mobile phones, the end of the cold war – these countries have diverged sharply. Africa now has fast-growing democracies like Ghana and Botswana; repressive mini-Chinas like Rwanda and Ethiopia; corrupt oil states like Angola and Gabon; failed states like Chad and Somalia; and north Africa post-Arab spring. Not much connects these experiences.

One-liners about “Africa” shroud this diverse reality. Morten Jerven, economist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, told a recent Oxford Analytica conference that instead of asking, “Is Africa rising?” we should be asking things like, “Is Lusaka rising?” Some capital cities are booming, but anybody who goes around saying “Africa is rising” should be forced to read Michael Deibert’s new book, The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair.

True, the word “Africa” still expresses an emotional reality. Since the 1940s, many Africans have come to feel African. It’s one of the identities they have, beside a local and national and perhaps global identity. “African” can be a positive identity. Often, though, it is simply used to mean a victim, a member of the lowest economic category. If that’s the identity, then nobody wants to be African.

Some African countries may soon leave that category behind. The continent’s share of the global economy has risen in recent years to perhaps 3 per cent. Next the $40 smartphone may come along to boost this share further. If the continent remains a rare place where investors can find yield, then “Africa” will eventually get slightly more nuanced attention. That will allow us to ditch weak-minded generalisations such as constantly using a single Ethiopian shoe company, SoleRebels, to stand for Africa’s supposed manufacturing rise. Some geopolitical phrases obscure reality rather than reveal it. Like “the Islamic world” or “the international community”, “Africa” doesn’t exist.

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