by Boniface Mabanza
If one is to believe the assessments of the Africa experts from Germany and Europe – and there are many of these Africa experts – it should only be a matter of time until the great catastrophe in the wake of the Corona pandemic breaks out in Africa’s streets and Western countries, despite their own convulsions caused by COVID-19, are forced to organize unprecedented humanitarian bridges to Africa. These predictions were and are based on the assumption that if COVID-19 is bad even for “us”, this pandemic can only be worse in Africa. One problem is that many of those who dared to make these predictions speak of a homogenized Africa that does not exist in this way. The diversity and complexity of the continent is evident not only in the varying degrees to which it has been affected by the Corona pandemic, in the varying quality of the existing health care infrastructure and the degree of organization of the health care system, but also in the responses to the Corona pandemic. In addition to countries such as Tanzania, which did not consider it necessary to completely shut down public life, it can be observed that there are a number of African governments that took drastic measures relatively early on: international air traffic was interrupted, a national lockdown or comprehensive safety regulations were ordered. This explains in part why no African countries have yet been found among the epicenters of the pandemic.
Crisis as a revelation of vulnerability and omissions
But these low Corona numbers should not allow to obscure the fact that the protection measures mentioned above of all things rob many people of their earning potential. The fact that in many places Corona protection itself is becoming so life-threatening has to do with precarious life situations, the cause of which is not Corona, but other long-standing priorities and (wrong) decisions. There is a lack of social security systems and savings that would allow people to live in dignity in times of crisis without having to work every day. Particularly in the food situation, the vulnerability of many countries on the continent, “which produce things they do not consume and consume things they do not produce” (J. Nyerere) is becoming apparent.
Beyond the bare figures of those infected, which, at least so far, give less cause for concern compared to other parts of the world, it is the one multi-layered precariousness that is evident in many countries of the continent: for example national governments that in many countries have no reserves to finance the social costs of the measures adopted in the fight against Covid-19. In many African countries, the current crisis reveals that especially the resource-rich countries of the continent have relied too much on revenues from raw materials. For years, economic diversification has been invoked as an urgent common agenda at election times, when commodity prices are falling – especially oil prices – and at all the summits of regional groupings and the African Union. With the exception of a few countries such as Mauritius, South Africa and Botswana, which have introduced some interesting approaches, this development is still in its infancy in most countries. With the COVID-19 pandemic, global supply chains have collapsed, demand for raw materials has fallen dramatically and with it also the prices of raw materials. African countries rich in raw materials are suffering particularly badly and they turn to the same international financial institutions that have harmed them by their conditions. The Corona crisis reveals the structural crisis that these countries and their respective regional groupings have been experiencing for decades. For this reason, many voices are now making themselves heard on the continent arguing that the current crisis should be used as an opportunity for far-reaching changes.
Crisis as an opportunity for far-reaching change
In an article entitled “Crisis and the post-crisis period in Africa: what if change has to happen now?” Senegalese economist Linguère Mously Mbaye, who works in the research department of the African Development Bank, welcomes the measures taken by many African governments in response to the current crisis: “Crisis management is more necessary than ever,” she writes. But she warns against confusing crisis management with long-term governance. For her, it should rather be about drawing the necessary lessons from this crisis: “This crisis is a constant reminder that economic policy that does not focus on the essentials is not sustainable. The time has come for African countries to invest massively and, above all, efficiently, both in human capital through health and education as well as in the development of local and regional value chains in order to initiate structural changes”.
For L.M. Mbaye, this crisis should lay the foundations for the establishment of functioning systems in a wide range of areas: “In the health sector, for example, it is a question of financing the African pharmaceutical industry, coordinating its relations with the most advanced research centers, not forgetting to involve the local pharmacopoeia so that our researchers can carry out clinical trials and have their treatments validated using the most rigorous scientific methods. We often talk about the importance of food sovereignty, but this crisis also reveals the importance of ‘health sovereignty’. In the education sector, it is essential to invest in the quality of education that meets the needs of our economies. This is a matter of sincerely redefining our national and regional economic policy priorities”.
The current Corona crisis shows how important technical know-how and own production capacities in African countries can be in crisis situations. The dependence on processed products from other regions of the world has become clearly evident in the current crisis situation through the increase in prices. It is an integral part of an external orientation that has always stood in the way of the creation of robust national and regional domestic markets. To overcome this outward orientation, education as a place of minting of the mindset is of central importance. It is not only a matter of shaping education on the basis of local potential and local needs, but also of embedding it in an overall context of social redefinition. What is meant here is “the work of remembering, of working on history and of reconciliation with the manifold sources of one’s own identity. This work also includes dusting and sorting out. It is called for when one has re-articulated that relationship to oneself which has been disturbed by centuries of alienation“ (Felwine Sarr, Afrotopia, 147). The healing of the relationship to oneself is an essential task for “the restoration of trust in ourselves”, but one that has always been pushed ahead in Africa’s post-colonial history. Trust is the basis on which people in Africa can autonomously define what they are and in what kinds of societies they want to live. Felwine Sarr sees it as an urgent task for people in the South, “who live in forced barrenness”, to renounce the dream image of Western industrial modernity and his model of civilization” and to invent another one. And he sees the current crisis as an opportunity for this.
The other Africa in the making
This other Africa is not only a wish, it is created every day through the initiatives of numerous committed people, L.M. Mbaye believes: “Despite all the difficulties, there is an Africa that does not wait, that is already at work with willpower and self-sacrifice. We often don’t see it, and we don’t make it heard enough even within the continent, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. This Africa deserves to be put in the spotlight. It deserves policies that match its ambitions, but this Africa has also already launched remarkable initiatives“. L.M. Mbaye does not want to give the impression that the isolated initiatives that have emerged in crisis mode will already bring about the structural change that the countries of the continent need. She sees them merely as encouraging signs that “change is not only possible but has already begun”. She is convinced that the acceleration of the continent’s transformation can be accelerated if it is possible to translate initiatives that emerge on a small scale to the national, regional and continental levels. She is not alone in this, but in harmony with the voices of grassroots groups and intellectuals across the continent. One tragedy of many countries on the continent, however, is that, at least up to now, initiatives from the grassroots level for strengthening resiliencies and future prospects have been ignored or counteracted by elites at higher levels. It is to be hoped that the Corona crisis will provide the impetus for a new alliance between grassroots groups and governing bodies in the respective countries, which will put an end to the ominous alliance between the latter and global power centers.