Prospects for 2018

Tuesday, 30 January 2018
Nicholas Westcott
So, where is Africa going in 2018? 
The Royal African Society began its year, as always, with a look at the Prospects and Forecasts for the year ahead.  The panel (hosted by the University of London's Centre for African Studies at SOAS) brought together voices from London and the continent - Nanjala Nyabola, a political analyst from Kenya, Sethembile Msezane, an artist from South Africa, Natznet Tesfay, an Eritrean economist based here in London, and the peripatetic Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential. Afua Hirsch, author of BRIT[ish], chaired.
Our (mainly youthful and mainly female) panel focussed particularly on the challenges for youth: the challenge to find space and opportunity for political, economic and cultural expression.  Patrick underlined the big political changes underway in Southern Africa. Changes of leader in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola may not be generational, but they are responding to popular impatience with the old leaders, and public expectations of faster change are high.  Elsewhere, an old generation of leaders are entering the autumn of their careers - in Uganda, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Mali - and others, though younger, have passed their sell-by date - in DRC or Burundi, for example.  They may linger on, but at a cost to themselves and to their countries.  
So we look to this year's bumper crop of elections to help accelerate the process of democratic change in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, DRC, Sierra Leone, Madagascar and Mali.  In Egypt it looks like nothing will change; in South Sudan we sincerely hope it does, for the sake of the millions displaced or suffering from the seemingly intractable conflict.  Though the political trends are hard to predict, in several countries, without change there is a growing risk of conflict.
This is reflected in the economic prospects.  Politically stable countries with sensible economic policies look set to grow at over 6%, but those mired in conflict drag the average  for the African continent down to 3.4%.  There is a growing public debt burden which will be increasingly expensive to service and which threatens the funding available for private sector investment, which everybody wants to attract.  Investors are looking, but will be picky.  So while there is cause for optimism, more investment is needed to help create the conditions for growth, especially in soft infrastructure such as education and training.  But they also need to be free to go into business.  But there were different views on encouraging entrepreneurship: some see it as the essential variable to stimulate faster growth and create more jobs.  Others see it as a diversion from the political struggle and a Western recipe wrong for African markets.  But I am not sure what the alternative is?
Culturally, the vibrancy in southern Africa we see in South Africa and Zimbabwe is echoed in both East and West Africa.  But growing numbers of young artists want it to serve a purpose, to highlight the reality of power distortions and the lack of freedom in order to change it.  Art will always have an impact: the question is what impact the artist is seeking.
The view was expressed that if young people cannot find a way to force change in their societies, they will simply leave, they will migrate. So if "the West" wants to reduce migration, help the forces of change, not the forces of "stability".  In practice, though, it is often Western donors who are making the argument for change, and African governments that are saying 'leave us alone and leave it to us...'
We will see how this pans out in the course of 2018.  The RAS, at least, will provide plenty more opportunities to debate the issue - in the margins of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, at African Writes and Film Africa, at the ASAUK conference in Birmingham in September, and at a range of smaller, more specific meetings on our agenda. 
We look forward to welcoming you all again as the year goes on.
Nick Westcott