🔒RW Johnson: Africa is a growing global problem – slow economies, fast reproduction

Not just Naledi Pandor but the whole ANC cabinet seems sold on the notion of welcoming the new multi-polar world amidst the decline of the West. Indeed, they will do all they can to accelerate its arrival. This is arguably premature. Among the BRICS economies only India is currently growing at more than a snail’s pace. China is going backwards and the emergence of AI has again emphasised what an advantage America enjoys due to its unrivalled hi-tech companies. US leadership in military technology and in space is similarly unchallenged. The West is still the world’s dominant force.


The cabinet would do better to listen to Thabo Mbeki’s warning that South Africa’s stagnant economy is dragging Africa down and that this needs to be sorted out as a matter of urgency. And more generally the cabinet would be better advised to think hard about the state of Africa. It is no mark of distinction that all the aid organisations agree that with much of Asia having left the Third World, the bulk of the world’s poor now reside in Africa. Moreover, with so many African states sunk in conflict or economic stagnation, there is no sign of that changing. 

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More and more Africa seems to be “the hopeless continent”, as the Economist once named it. Everyone concurs that a good part of the problem is the chronic failure of African leadership. Africa’s leaders are mainly corrupt and are heavily responsible for the capital flight that weakens the continent. They are also prone to undemocratic behaviour and of too easy a resort to violence: hence the rash of military coups and the war zones which have engulfed much of Africa. The notion that the era of independence would usher in an age of peace and progress has been thoroughly dispelled. There is no African renaissance.

Moreover, it seems more and more that the really lasting revolution in Africa was that wrought by colonial medicine. The dramatic improvements in life expectancy and the diminution of infant mortality were justly celebrated but African families have been slow to adjust to this new reality so the result is an uncontrollable population boom. This is sometimes celebrated: Africans will be an increasing proportion of the world’s population and having so many young people will surely be an advantage ?

Maybe.  But the demographic explosion could well undermine all the progress made in other spheres. Take Tanzania. In 1963 it had 11 million people. By 2012 it had over 45 million. Moreover, on average Tanzanian women continued to have 5.4 children each, a higher figure even than Kenya and Rwanda (4.6 children each). The result will be that Tanzania will have over 100 million people by 2035. Since 1991 this female fertility rate has declined by 31% in Kenya and 26% in Rwanda as families belatedly adjust to the new reality, but in Tanzania the decline has been only 13%. Indeed, no less than 44% of Tanzanian women are either mothers or pregnant by the age of 19. In particular there is growth in the number of the uneducated. Women in Tanzania with no education had twice as many children as women with secondary education.

True, Tanzania has been growing fast since Nyerere’s socialist policies were ditched – continuing economic reforms are expected to produce a growth rate of 5.1% in 2023. Nonetheless, Tanzania’s economy and its institutions – like those of most other African states – are fragile. What chance is there that by 2035 Tanzania can provide enough jobs for a population of 100 million ? None, especially since many of those people will be uneducated. What chance is there of adequate housing, enough schools and enough hospitals to cater for such a population ? Effectively, no chance. Yet the late President John Magufuli shut down family planning initiatives in Tanzania, saying that women who used contraception were merely “lazy”. Another stupid, disastrous leader.

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What is true of Tanzania is echoed elsewhere. Nigeria, currently with 219 million people, is expected to have a population of 377 million by 2050. Ethiopia had a population of 120 million in 2021 but is expected to have 205 million citizens in 2050 and 294 million by 2100.  All of which is bound to mean trouble. Historians and sociologists alike have noted that the likelihood of civil wars, revolutions and other forms of internal disorder is directly related to the size within the population of the segment of unemployed young men and quite clearly this is going to be a very numerous class in the Africa of 2050, let alone that of 2100.

The surplus young in West Africa’s population will doubtless seek emigration opportunities to Europe and America, but Europe is less and less likely to welcome millions of black Muslims and America is unlikely to be much more receptive. And in any case there is already no shortage of West Africans trekking south towards us, rather than north. But they are likely to be joined by an even larger group from what will be the hugely populous countries of East Africa. In addition, of course, South Africa will continue to attract other incomers from Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe etc.

The greatest pole of attraction has always been Johannesburg. Today this remains the case despite the ruined state of that city: people plan such moves relying on the historic reputation of a centre and Jo’burg’s reputation will long outlive the decrepit reality. But already Cape Town’s rising reputation – not only much lower unemployment but unemployment which is steadily dropping – is drawing a cosmopolitan migration of its own. It’s a problem for the whole country. For we too are struggling to provide enough houses, jobs, schools and hospitals for our own people, let alone this army of newcomers.

The big point, then, is that South Africa lives in a difficult neighbourhood. It will have to take firm measures if it is not to be overwhelmed. It is already the case that immigrant workers are deeply unpopular in South Africa (it would be the same in any country with 40% unemployment), but imagine if there were five, ten or twenty times their number. It is already remarkable and deeply irresponsible that the ANC government has effectively operated an open borders policy for thirty years, but this cannot continue. 

Whether the ANC likes it or not – and quite irrespective of the question of which countries offered succour to the ANC in exile – South Africa has to recognise that Africa is nearing the climax of a huge and uncontrollable demographic surge, one so big that it will destabilise the entire continent. Happily, some of South Africa’s neighbours – Mauritius, Namibia, Botswana – are success stories but they are dwarfed by the DRC which has been a scene of war and tumult for sixty years now. And more of Africa is like the DRC than is like Botswana. Even if that were not the case, the African demographic explosion would alone threaten peace, stability and democracy in Africa’s southern cone. Any South African government – it doesn’t matter which party is in power – will have to exert strong control at its borders if the democratic gains of the modern period are to be preserved.

RW Johnson

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