“Re-Branding Africa” and “Africa Rising”: Whose Africa? Whose Rise?

I just finished reading Afrolicious’ “An Open Letter to African Writers, Artists and Creators of the 21st Century” and I just had to share an excerpt.

“There is, however, a fundamental problem with striving to ‘rebrand Africa’. For the sake of this argument, in a contemporary context, we take branding to mean the set of stories that describes the problems an institution, organization, or individual solves, who they serve and how they solve and serve. A brand, therefore, is not merely a logo, but a coordinated effort to communicate multiple stories to multiple audiences in order to achieve a set of goals, usually financial. Historically, you can only brand what you own, and a brand announces to the community who owns the branded object. The questions now shift. Who owns Africa? To whom is the brand announced? Who benefits from the brand Africa as it stands now, and who will benefit from a rebranding?

Current rhetoric also falls under this line of questioning. The term now is that Africa is rising, which begs the questions: when did it fall? Who is responsible for its falling? From where is it rising? And to where is it going? Again, we see a shifting in the narrative. Africa’s rising is a subjective one, relative to one’s relationship with Africa. If you are able to locate yourself in a temporal, spatial, economic and academic position that is above Africa, then you’re quite literally looking down on Africa and commending it for its efforts in rising to your level.

Are you, African, insulted yet?” (Really, go read the whole thing here)

This has me thinking about what it means to be a descendant of enslaved Africans, how “branding” has changed meanings in historical and contemporary contexts. It is a mark of ownership, a shaping of a ‘thing’ that is owned. So, what does it mean when some of us Afro-descendants claim to “re-brand Africa?” Do we divorce it (Africa-the-thing, the (flattened) concept) from a historical context of colonial relations, enslavement, extractive and supplementary economies designed to be ‘inferior’ to the Metropolis? Do we ignore the continuing effects of these extractive relations?

I have borne witness to the conferences, the rhetoric and the deliberate politicking in the name of “Africa rising.” Not one of the heads of states, politicians, delegates and businesspeople present addressed the implied “fall” of Africa. I wrote of it in blogposts entitled, “Initial Impressions on the Sullivan Foundation Summit in Equatorial Guinea” and “More Musings on the Sullivan Foundation Summit in Equatorial Guinea: What Does ‘Africa Rising’ Mean?” In August 2012, I noted, “It was all very strategic political theater- image rehabilitation and deal-making in the name of “Africa Rising.” Meanwhile, the Equatoguinean women, men and children outside of the conference center in Sipopo danced all day for the entertainment of Summit attendees, only to go home to communities that did not match the “modern” image projected by their government.” I then went on to ask:

  • How many conferences, summits, delegations, backdoor meetings can we have until “Africa rises?”
  • How do we measure “Africa Rising”? Do we measure it by GDP? By the continued export/exploitation of natural resources? By the continued application of Western models of development upon postcolonial states?
  • Does “Africa is Rising” refer to the growth of middle classes in African countries? Or the rise of The African Consumer™?
  • Does “Africa is Rising” mean that the neocolonial restrictions on postcolonial state expenditures in the public/social sector are lifted?
  • Does “Africa is Rising” mean more jobless growth in a continent with a very young population, and is on the verge of its population doubling?
  • Does “Africa is Rising” mean the continent makes up more than 1% of global internet traffic exchange?
  • Does “Africa is Rising” merely signify a discursive shift in representations of Africa that mask the continued exploitation of its resources?

And the question that underlies nearly all of the above:

  • What is the end of Development? What does “Sustainable Development” actually sustain?

I still don’t have the answers to those questions. Instead, I find myself reflecting on my own engagement with self-identified “Afropolitans” and “Afro-pessimists.” The cosmopolitanism and eager social-climbing of the former grated my nerves as I was constantly cognizant of the impoverishment in communities inhabited by Afro-descendants in the Diaspora and on the Continent. “Whose Africa?” I’d ask. Most of the time, that question would be brushed off casually like a pesky mosquito. “Don’t be so serious.” It’s easy to say that when you can easily go to another metropolis where you’ll produce more images to counteract (and perhaps, reinforce or fossilize) dominant representations of Africa-the-concept. It’s easier than confronting the fact that as social and class-mobile Africans and Afro-descendants, one is often caught in a holding pattern. Discursively, there is no ‘middle ground’ for the much-vaunted middle-class.

In my previous writing, I’ve covered urban population growth and slums, desertification, water shortages, resource exploitation, extractive neo/colonial relations between African states and corporations and other bodies. I’ve written with a sort of trepidation. I imagined the voices of the readers in my head- “Another article about malaria? Didn’t we already send nets?” or “Who cares about conflicts over water in East Africa when we have Development (big D)?” I wrote with an ever-constant awareness that I might unwittingly reify constructions of Africa as impoverished/unmade/the-fallen-which-must-rise and so on. Why write about famine when you can write about progress? Why write about the grinding everyday realities of life as a smallholder farmer facing dispossession at the hands of landgrabbers? This takes us back to the question, “whose Africa?” What does it mean when smallholder farmers cannot retain their communal land use rights in the face of hedgefunds, agribusiness and the statesmen who politick in the name of “progress and development?” What happens when the narrative of “development” and “progress” means side-stepping and dispossessing the poorest, most marginalized among us?

Indeed, the unasked question is, “why do we treat these differing experiences as though they are disconnected or disjointed somehow?” There are overarching, structural factors that underpin the increasing visibility of the “African middle class” and the continuing visibility of impoverished, dispossessed and food insecure Africans in the Western media. The lack of a middle ground is deliberate. This liberal insistence upon focusing on individuals obscures the structural realities that shape our lived realities. We see this in lists that tout the “top 10 richest Africans” or “the top African start-ups” and showcase the exceptional cases, but ignore the ways in which many Africans are excluded from formal banking systems and do not have the same access to capital as their counterparts on those lists. Indeed, not all economies rely on currency- regardless of how globalized our worlds may be.

The answer is not to ‘flatten’ difference. It is not to showcase the urban metropolises of East Africa, West Africa, North Africa, Central Africa and Southern Africa as though they are interchangeable or as though their residents do not have their own syncretic and distinct-in-some-ways cultural, religious and social identities. The answer is not a further polarization of the lived experiences of Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora, nor is it a false flattening of ‘difference.’ Difference is not what divides us. It is a lack of understanding in regard with the ways that we are interconnected (human beings as social beings, not mere individuals) that divides us. If there’s one lesson we can draw from “Ubuntu” it’s the most cursory lesson of all- “I am because you are.”

I write this on the eve of my next visit to the continent (South Africa again). This time, I hope to overcome my timidity about visiting townships whose history is rooted in Apartheid. I hesitated when I was in Cape Town because I did not want to be a ‘poverty tourist.’ (I didn’t even have to leave the city to witness it for myself- the pitched makeshift tents at the foot of Table Mountain were a stark reminder of the gross inequality that dogged post-Apartheid South Africa.).

Related:

AllAfrica: “Africa Isn’t Rising, Say Ordinary Africans

African leaders, foreign investors and formal indicators of economic growth may say that “Africa is rising” – but most ordinary Africans don’t agree.

A pioneering new survey of public opinion in 34 countries across the continent suggests that the relatively high average growth in gross domestic product (GDP) reported in recent years is not reflected in the experiences of most citizens.

An average of one in five Africans still often goes without food, clean water or medical care. Only one in three think economic conditions in their country are good. Fifty-three percent say they are “fairly bad” or “very bad”.

The survey suggests that either the benefits of growth are being disproportionately channelled to a wealthy elite or that official statistics are overstating average growth rates (or possibly a combination of both).

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