Africa’s time has come, but let’s not be complacent
This year Africa Day has a special significance for South Africans as dignitaries from around the world join us at the Global African Diaspora Summit in Sandton to proudly celebrate African unity and work out a concrete plan of action to help uplift people of African origin everywhere.
In just over a month we will celebrate another historic milestone, the first 10 years since the founding of the African Union, an occasion to take stock of progress, and reflect on the challenges and prospects for the continent.
After a number of false starts in previous decades, there is now a growing consensus that Africa’s time has come.
What is different this time around is determined leadership, political will and effective institutions to support African leaders in creating the right conditions for development.
These include ending conflict, improving governance and strengthening regional integration.
According to the International Monetary Fund, regionwide GDP growth has averaged 5.5% between 2000 and 2010, a stark reversal of the stagnation of previous years.
Importantly, Africa’s growth acceleration has been widespread, with 27 of its 30 largest economies expanding more rapidly after 2000, and also fairly inclusive, with the poorest seeing significant increases in real consumption.
The Africa Progress Panel, chaired by Kofi Annan, noted that “for the first time in a generation, the number of people living in poverty has actually fallen – and many countries have witnessed strong progress towards the millennium development goals”.
Steady progress has been made in getting more children into school, reducing child mortality, bringing down the rate of HIV infections, sanitation and empowering women.
Almost two-thirds of governments are now democratically elected.
Leadership is essential. The Southern African Development Community has put forward Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who has the qualities and experience for the position of chairperson of the African Union commission.
There are long-term trends that suggest that this economic momentum can be sustained.
Far-reaching demographic changes already under way will fuel long-term domestic growth.
By 2050 the continent will be home to one in five of the planet’s young people and will have the world’s largest work force – 1.2 billion.
In that year, one in four workers in the world will be African, compared with one in eight from China, reversing today’s balance.
They will also be highly competitive, as labour costs in places such as China continue to increase. While other regions rapidly age, in Africa the ratio of workers to the old and the young – the so-called dependency ratio – will improve.
As these trends unfold, Africa will enjoy a “demographic dividend” of young and energetic workers to power the continent’s services and manufacturing sectors, provided that they are equipped with the right training and skills.
One of the main factors inhibiting regional integration and future growth is inadequate infrastructure, particularly transport links and electricity supply.
The growing diversification of Africa’s economic partners will also provide a significant lift to growth as the enormous geographic reconfiguration taking place in the world economy gathers pace.
Emerging economies now account for half of sub-Saharan Africa’s total trade, whereas Western Europe’s portion has shrunk to 28%.
The wider range of choice of potential business partners, as well as the intensifying competition among them, is giving African governments bargaining power, which they are skilfully using to negotiate better terms to capture more value for the continent.
As the world’s population heads towards a likely peak of about 9 billion in 2050, it is likely that the continent will become a major food exporter.
Tapping this potential would have an important multiplier effect, as more than 65% of the population works in the agricultural sector.
Africa has come a long way since the “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s. But there are still formidable challenges, so we cannot afford to be complacent.
There is no doubt, though, that Africa’s economic takeoff is well under way. And there are compelling reasons to believe that it is likely to continue for decades to come.
» Ebrahim is the deputy minister of international relations and cooperation