Illustration: DOROTHY KGOSI
Illustration: DOROTHY KGOSI

At the sixth Financial Times Africa summit I reflected, over a sumptuous dinner, on a day of panels and keynotes in which elite business and political leaders debated how to solve the continent’s many challenges — such as poverty and inequality — against the backdrop of the extravagant opulence of Claridge’s hotel in Mayfair. It’s all been a little “Davos on Davies Street”.

The 2019 theme has been Africa in Motion, and one can only hope, given how persistent the challenges have been, that efforts to improve key development indicators move faster than Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge in perfect conditions in Vienna.

However, despite Africa’s many challenges, the mood at the summit was celebratory — buoyed by news on the weekend of Kipchoge’s stunning sub-two-hour marathon and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel peace prize.

The continent’s dynamism and resources present many opportunities to do more than overcome its challenges — it is also a second chance to overachieve on the world stage. Not least because 2012’s Africa Rising narrative proved to be largely hubristic, as many of the continent’s developmental problems have proved sticky despite some meaningful advances. But in 2019 there is real change in the air, and it is for the better, despite the headwinds of a turbulent global economy. This peppered the trajectory of much of the debate at the summit, with the UK firmly in ground zero of Brexit.

The day began with President Cyril Ramaphosa unable to resist a little dig at the not-so-United Kingdom’s Brexit travails in talking up the recently implemented Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTFA). The day ended with Lord Mark Malloch-Brown simultaneously lamenting British decline while celebrating African ascendancy.

Indeed, the panels between Ramaphosa and Malloch-Brown’s addresses were infused with debates on the shifting geopolitics of a world seemingly gone mad, and how that shift is reconfiguring Africa’s place in the world and driving its rapid ascendancy. Brexit and Trumpism have brought home the inconvenient truth that political risk is not idiosyncratic to Africa and so-called emerging markets, but rather that political risk features in markets everywhere. Suddenly Africa doesn’t look so risky in the hunt for safe havens and alpha anywhere.

These factors, along with the US-China trade war amid a wider China-led slowdown, and a disintegrating, more populist Europe, has seen all three regions fight for global political, cultural and economic dominance, with Africa increasingly strategic to their plans.

One panel chaired by the FT’s Gideon Rachman explored “why US president Donald Trump had this year more than doubled the budget of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation with an explicit aim of combating what some in Washington describe as China’s ‘predatory’ action on the continent”.

Investment destination

But it is not only China that is spending aggressively in Africa — a subject on which I have written widely with not-a-little irritation about the Sinophobic undertones framing such “concerns”. Chinese engagement in Africa is by no means perfect, but the Chinese blazed the trail, often providing capital back in the days when Africa Ltd was viewed as too high risk.

This view of the continent as an investment destination is changing fast. In September 2018 China and the EU committed substantial sums to the continent. China pledged $60bn to African partnerships at the Forum for China-Africa Co-operation, while the EU pledged $45bn to the continent in the  state of the EU address to help deepen economic relations, boost investment and create jobs.

In addition, in September 2018, on the first visit of a UK prime minister to sub-Saharan Africa in five years, then prime minister Theresa May announced an ambition for the UK to become Africa’s biggest Group of Seven investor by 2022, alongside $5bn in foreign direct investment (FDI) commitments.

With the moral panic over China’s role in Africa, Japan’s not insubstantial influence is often overlooked: African Business Magazine reported in July that Japanese overseas development assistance to sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 comprised 15% of Japan’s total global spend, with commercial FDI at about $9bn in 2018. Not to be left behind is Russia, which announced ahead of the inaugural Russia-Africa summit on October 23 that its commitments to the continent had quadrupled to $20.4bn since 2015.

Though substantial relative to GDP, the UK’s Africa war-chest of $5bn seems paltry in comparison to these aggressive global flows. The UK will have to spend it wisely, given the key role Africa will play in its post-Brexit “Global Britain” economic strategy, while negotiating a careful balancing act dodging bad karma from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s many gaffes about UK-Africa relations. That is if by Halloween he is still prime minister ...

The financial and political overtures of so many willing suitors has not gone unnoticed by Africans, who, sensing the balance of power tipping in their favour, are increasingly “leaning in” to the terms and conditions of these trade and economic partnerships. The AfCFTA will be a key strategy to make the most of Africa’s moment by leveraging a combined bloc of 54 nations, 1.2-billion people and a $3-trillion market. It will be particularly fascinating to see if this trade and economic bloc coheres while, and perhaps because, the EU bloc is atomising.

How this plays out on the continent domestically will be equally interesting. Though Ramaphosa gave the keynote address at the summit this week, SA’s pole, and often overweening, economic and political position on the continent is no longer guaranteed. SA will have to aim to be more collaborative and less exceptional in its relations with other African countries, especially given that it is still reeling from the state capture fallout and the dire condition of its own fiscal space.

That said, Ramaphosa himself said this week that Africans will, in implementing AfCFTA, learn from the mistakes and successes of others. Hopefully, it has also learnt the lesson of the Africa Rising era — not to waste the goodwill towards the continent and to ensure it sets the perimeter of the debate.

To riff off The Economist covers once more, despite it being an FT conference, the second “Scramble for Africa” is all for Africans to gain. One way to ensure this is for Africans to exert control over the narrative in the international political economy and refuse to have their interests ventriloquised by self-motivated international actors.

The continent’s youth may lead the way — they have already been especially adept at presenting themselves as norm-makers, not just norm-takers, in the increasingly digital global economy.

• Dr Masie is a London-based economist who advises public and private bodies on the international investment environment. She is a fellow of the Wits School of Governance and a former senior editor of the Financial Mail.