The Economist's Africa

In May 2000 The Economist ran a cover story: “Africa. The Hopeless Continent.” People couldn’t stop talking about it for a long while afterward. It spawned countless op-eds about Afro-pessimism and -optimism. It even became the basis for “Contemporary African Politics” college courses for a while. Now last week, they ran this feature cover (above) –complete with silhouetted boy with kite running across the savannah– where the magazine predicts a more hopeful scenario for the continent’s 54 states. The feature is completed by a glowing leader (“Angola and Equatorial Guinea are oil-sodden kleptocracies, Rwanda and Ethiopia are politically noxious, Congo looks barely governable and hideously corrupt, South Africa is tainted with corruption” but “Africa is at last getting a taste of peace and decent government”) and a 3-page article. The most remarkable thing about this cover feature is that it was a non-event. Problem is, the media environment has changed. And no one is waiting for The Economist’s verdict any more. Not much new here from the stuff you can read on blogs or the countless boosterist tweets you have to mine through everyday. People who measure Africa’s progress by how many dollar billionaires it has will be happy to hear that “the richest black person in the world” is not Oprah Winfrey and her $3 billion fortune –that only makes her “the wealthiest black person in America”– but Aliko Dangote, the Nigerian cement king.



Sean Jacobs

Also goes by Hasan Wazan. Life President.

  1. Nice comparison! But I’m not entirely sure what the message is here. The media environment is different, yes, so do you mean that the piece from 2000 would have had a real physical and financial impact on the continent, but today it does not? And do you mean that judging the continent by its GDP macro-economic growth and the number of its billiondollaraires is the *wrong* way to judge it, and therefore that the *growth* lacks importance? Sorry… just want to unpick your ideas a bit more. Thanks.

  2. In some ways, the Economist piece is reactive rather than prospective which may be why it is not news to us. It is telling us what is already happening (growth, stability, investment) rather than what might happen and it is telling us the same one sided story. Also, although it is true that this isn’t generating the chatter that Afro-pessimism did, it IS getting a lot of attention especially from business. The number of private equity investors in property development, banking, telecommunications across Africa has exploded in the last decade. Consulting firms can’t stop talking about “Africa’s” middle class and these private-sector driven, city building projects like Eko-Atlantic in Nigeria and Tatu City in Kenya are all designed to target this group.

  3. @Lara Pawson: On your first question: Yes, if you go back and look at responses to that 2000 cover; it was taken seriously by various African and Western elites.

    Last week’s cover incidentally was not a cover in Europe.

    On your second question, I think @Anne P answers that better than I could in my dismissive lines about boosterist tweets and dollar billionaires.

    1. Sean, I also wondered why the cover wasn’t used in Europe. Especially a week after the Portuguese PM flew down to Luanda with the begging bowl. Clearly 500 years of looting wasn’t enough, but then again the European countries most in need have no ex-colonies to tap. Surprisingly, the Economist didn’t find my insights all that revealing and therefore did not condescend to reply to my email.

      1. I didn’t realise it wasn’t used in Europe. How interesting, and especially as Sbongile Mbiko says, when the Portuguese PM is wanting to borrow from Luanda.

  4. I interpret this as something of a postcolonial critique. What I gather from this is that in the early 2000s when the discussion was negative, thus prompting more paternalistic policies and opinions the coverage spread wildly from classroom to think tank but when the coverage is optimistic and points toward the potential for a continent of myriad countries to address their own issues their is less of a desire to spread the message. It is however there, as an appealing boost to predatory lending or imperialistic development programs as with the World Bank’s policies in Ghana. Of course, we should remember that the Economist has a large demographic of those who a century or two ago would have fit nicely into the hunting clubs and homesteads of colonial estates. Then again, plenty of other types read the Economist too.

  5. The cover is the best part. Then once you start reading you realize how little there is to say about “Africa rising” (They don’t even bother to capitalize the “rising” – if that tells you anything”). Nothing is covered in detail. By the end of the short 3 pages, we’ve learned that more Africans have mobile phones, more are voting and soon everyone will be on Facebook.

  6. @michaelcaster: good point; while it may have limited appeal among the chattering classes, but more to hedge fund managers and other investors.

    @brad B: my point about dollar billionaires.

  7. Africans should be VERY careful about the “good” publicity given by whites – aka Indian ALBINOS. They didn’t help Africa at all : if not for China’s uprising and thus China’s need to be fair to access raw materials, Africa would never ever has risen. Remember 500 years of impoverishment. Look to what they are doing in Iraq, Libya, etc…. That’s what they are waiting to do to Africa – depopulate it ( Aids), etc… My advice to Africans: make sure no westerners come to Africa unsupervised. They are there to LIMIT your progress. Africa is better off without them

    1. you hit it on the rock whoever you may be or from…….depopulate Africa with aids was the punch line…… all you are saying possible as literacy rate rise as well in africa to match that of the europeans….

  8. Good or Bad, the best and most important part of the piece is that most Africans don’t even believe in the economic revolution that’s happening on the continent therefore articles like this pinched Africans themselves to reconsider local opportunities awaiting right in their backyards, especially if you are skillful or a start up entrepreneur….forget the “westerners” for one second folks…. as mediocre or profound this article might be, its only a tool to remind or call on us to imagine, develop and sustain the rising growth in Africa, it’s about “US” to rebuild from the ground up…… its about us, black excellence….. us, us, us and nothing else…. think of it as rebranding Africa, Image is everything…. our Image….US….
    i love all y’all’s input out there…

  9. I have never forgiven the Economist for their 2000 cover page which was completely uncalled for (and very un-ubuntulike even for the Western media) and so ever since i have categorically ruled them out as being clueless about my continent. I will read their article (so long as I can do it for free) but I dont believe there has been any change in the premises they use for their analysis. I am not sure if they ever gave an apology for their cover, but a cover saying ‘we are sorry, we were wrong’ might be the only way to regain my (not so high anyway) respect. I am proud of Africa and Africans, rich, poor, men, women, urban, rural, young old). We defeated colonialism and apartheid, we overcame the debilitating racism that we have been subjected to for centuries. We are going to overcome all the problems that plague us and make a better place for our children, particularly by learning to treat each other better. 50 years since the end of colonialism, Africa has seen huge improvements (life was not better under colonialism and apartheid as some would like to suggest) and 50 years since the end of colonialism Europe is in decline. We continue to fight against all odds, for justice, for our rights, our freedoms, our institutions, our dignity, our sovereignty, our land, our future. For every one African who does bad, there are tens of thousands–no make that thousands of thousands– making our continent better. In every African country, we are embracing and celebrating our ‘otherness’, caring more about what we think and learn from each other, than worrying about what western establishment opinion thinks of us. That is the foundation of any success we are experiencing. I will be interested to see if the Economist acknowledges this fact. But if they don’t, I really won’t give a damn.

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