Ali Mufuruki, the Tanzanian business personality, spoke at TEDxEuston recently and the piece has been garnering some attention on social media. A friend of mine tweeted it to me and so I have been compelled to respond to it, in some way.
In the speech, Mufuruki tells of three stories about our beloved continent. These stories can easily be paraphrased as Africa is NOT rising, Africans are NOT changing, and that the next global fight is for fresh water, and Africa is perfectly positioned to harness/exploit this need given its abundant reservoirs of fresh water.
Mufuruki cites a lot of data, which for lack of time, I have not fact-checked, and for arguments’ sake I will take as given. The Africa Rising rhetoric, I agree is perhaps a bit too sensationalist, but the response should not be to completely disregard it and move to the opposite end of the extreme as Mufuruki would want us to. Beyond putting Africans into this monolithic group called Africa, which to be fair even Mufuruki qualifies in his arguments, is of course also not well advised. In our case in Tanzania, rising income inequality and persistence of poverty notwithstanding, Tanzania is rising.
Another part of his argument that I find uncomfortable is this idea that because the Africa Rising story came from outside Africa that it somehow nullifies its authenticity. This smells of an Africanist-nationalism that does not, like any other ideological movement, have a monopoly on the truth. Just because jeans were invented in Italy (and later popularized in the United States in the late 19th century), does not make them any less useful for the African, or Tanzanian, for that matter. If a gold miner in Geita in Tanzania’s Lake Zone finds utility in wearing jeans because of their durability, she cares not whether the fabric was invented in Italy or Mwanza. So, no Mr. Mufuruki, the fact that the Africa Rising story has come from outside of Africa is not necessarily, in and of itself, a reason to dismiss it.
In his argument on Africans not changing where he cites the (infamous Tanzanian) story of the Mwadui Diamond Mine in Shinyanga and how we, Africans, continue to be cheated by selling our resources cheaply without much knowledge about their worth. This argument I am most likely to accept of Mafuruki’s remarks. Yes, we were cheated in the past, and perhaps this trivial scenario continues to replay itself in our negotiations with oil and gas companies from outside Africa, but that lays all of our future hopes for growth in just one basket. I would urge Mr. Mufuruki, and my fellow compatriots (and fellow Africans) to focus instead on some of the other things more within our control that also have a contribution to growth like investments in education and improvements in our governance.
And in his prediction about resource wars, in particular the fight for fresh water, I dare not be as presumptuous as to predict the future. It may well be that in a Mufuruki future, fresh water is indeed the resource to be fought over, and that Africans will be best poised to exploit this, but I have no way of commenting on this and will commend his bravery in making such a prediction.
Mufuruki confounds rising, as in the present-continuous tense, with risen, in the perfect past tense. Citing that however impressive our growth rates may be, we are growing from small bases is not a refutation of our rising. I agree that we have yet to arrive at some risen point (whatever that point maybe), but to dismiss our rising because we are growing from a small base is being disingenuous to the little (to borrow his pessimistic language) growth we have achieved over the last decade or so. It is like saying a child is not growing, simply because he is starting from an early age, which means that only adults can grow! Of course, growing has nothing to do with the starting point of that growth.
Moreover, his argument that because the Chinese are growing more than we have collectively then it must be that we are not rising, like our Chinese friends clearly are. This again assumes a zero-sum nature to economic growth across countries and that if one economy’s growth is impressive then because of that, relative to all others, only this fast grower can be characterized as rising. This is ridiculous. If my colleague at work gets promoted to become Director, while I get promoted to become Assistant Director, my growth is not dismissed by hers, even if my relative jump is smaller than hers.
So, although I do not agree with Mufuruki about Africa NOT rising, I am also cautious of being too optimistic of our rising (however many songs are sung to move to wholeheartedly believe so), as he rightly cites that, in some places like in Tanzania, poverty stubbornly persists and income inequality is widening, but am also not too quick to dismiss our rising, even when we have not yet fully risen.