Writing about contemporary Africa with its diversity and realities in one comprehensive book is not easy to pull-off. Africa is, indeed, not a country.
While compiling their reports of travel across the continent, South African journalists Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak admit it was difficult to find a binding narrative for all these diverse experiences and developments on the vast land mass south of the Sahara.
How do you link what is happening in Unity State in South Sudan to the chapter devoted to the Nollywood movie industry in Nigeria? What is the connection between the Africa Rising economic boom in Ethiopia and a visibly crooked scheme to grow sugar for an ethanol plant in eastern Zimbabwe?
Bloom and Poplak write that they pondered on how to define the current state of Africa while visiting a border town in Angola called Kalay, near the Namibian town of Rundu. Here they both had a sort of epiphany, they say, realising that the massive growth of this little town since the end of the Angolan civil war in 2002 is a metaphor for the region. In turn, the region is a metaphor for the rest of the country and the country a metaphor for the rest of Africa south of the Sahara.
Things are happening at lightning speed; everywhere is change and development, albeit sometimes, it seems, after war and human suffering as in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or the Central African Republic (CAR). “In almost every sense that counted, our story had become one of paradoxes, of binaries of confounding realities,” they say in the introduction. Much of their reporting supports the fact that momentous things – transformative things – are done across the continent every day.
A little too dramatically, the writers say that Africa is at a crossroads, and the world – more than at any point in history – is depending on the continent's sense of direction.
Thus the title: Continental Shift – a journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes. Over 10 years, the two writers travelled to eight countries and conducted some of the most fascinating and revealing investigations in various places that are currently in the news. They tell, for example, how South African companies in eastern DRC are running gold mines, trying to do their bit to uplift the local population. This seems an impossible task, though, in one of the richest but most insecure places in Africa.
They talk to the managers of Randgold and Anglogold’s Kibali Mine – one of the richest gold mines in the world – about how they plan to relocate locals and secure the mine without employing local militias. In the end, the writers say that despite all the accusations against foreign mining companies in the eastern DRC, they had found some kind of development was being done and that the companies were, at least, trying to adhere to their social responsibility clauses.
What makes the book important and fascinating is that the writers took the time to crisscross the continent, travelling on difficult roads and no doubt spending much time at border posts or in airports to get to the heart of their stories.
In some instances, Bloom and Poplak risked their lives. One reads the dramatic episode of travelling in the war-torn CAR with a sense of dread. They not only stopped in the capital Bangui, probably fairly safe for foreign journalists because of the huge AU and French military presence there, but insisted on going to the countryside braving roadblocks with gun-toting child soldiers. Unfortunately, some of the reports by Bloom and Poplak are a little dated. For example, they travel all the way to Bentiu, the capital of Unity State to see the effects of South Sudan’s decision to cut off oil to neighbouring Sudan. The trip is fascinating and the descriptions are very interesting, but since their visit at the end of 2012, the fledgling South Sudan has become the terrain of Africa’s most deadly conflict this decade. The destructive civil war in South Sudan started in December 2013 and is now only showing signs of letting up, after a peace agreement last August. Again, as they say, these developments are part of the paradoxes that define a rapidly changing Africa. There is no guarantee, however, that South Sudan is going to emerge from the war and contribute to Africa Rising. In fact, this optimistic and catchy description of Africa in the last two decades or so has now almost become an anachronism. Only in places such as Ethiopia does this really still apply. Oil producers such as Angola and Nigeria are badly hit by the drop in the oil price and in West Africa, as well as in the Horn of Africa, the threat of terrorism has thrown a dark cloud over development prospects. Countries such as Zambia have also been hard hit by the drop in the price of copper.
Yet the book still remains very relevant. Indeed, Bloom and Poplak’s investigations and analysis go deeper than just IMF growth statistics. Those people making movies in Nigeria or working on constructions sites in Namibia, albeit Chinese-owned, have never really relied on the state to give them a push up. So if the oil price drops, the price of fuel might go up for ordinary citizens, but it is really the elites who have siphoned off the profits that are hurting.
In addition, the book also gives an overview of China’s role in Africa. Many of the chapters, especially those dealing with Namibia, Botswana and Ethiopia, are an eye-opener on how Africans have responded to the massive influx of Chinese firms. Still, the researchers find that there is indeed exploitation of African workers by some Chinese and that many of the big Chinese investments were a way for governments to put pressure on Western donors and the IMF.
Having read Continental Shift, one can conclude that this applies to the rest of the continent as well.
* Liesl Louw-Vaudran is a freelance journalist and consultant with the Institute for Security Studies.
** Continental Shift: a Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes by Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak is published by Jonathan Ball