Who are all those burly white Afrikaners one sees on any plane from Johannesburg to the capitals of sub Saharan Africa? Businessmen. South African business is booming in Lagos, Lusaka and Luanda and South African companies are eagerly expanding 'into Africa' as South Africans (black and white) often rather quaintly refer to the world north of the Limpopo River.
Economic growth rates in sub Saharan Africa are catching the eyes of international investors at a time when Western economies are stalling and stagnant. From 2005 to 2012, Nigerian GDP annual growth rate averaged 6.84%. GDP growth in Zambia in 2011 was 6.7%. Sierra Leone's 2011 growth was 5.1%. Compare these to Japan at 1.2%, the UK, which, says the Guardian, will 'either remain flat or decline' and the USA at 1.5%. Even China is struggling to maintain its high rate of growth in the face of a world of rising energy and raw material costs and European and American decline.
Of course many African countries are starting from pretty low bases. When you're recovering from decades old civil wars, as in the case of Angola, Mozambique or South Sudan, all you need is a reasonable period of peace and ordinary economic activity creates spectacular growth stats. The African Union's recent successes in stabilizing the apparently endemically chaotic Somalia have been eagerly seized by local businesses which are setting up shop again.
There is a mood of cautious optimism about African politics as well as economics, even in traditionally Afro-pessimistic circles. Governments and presidents now regularly get democratically replaced. Even in South Africa, where the ANC seemed set to rule, as President Zuma once boasted, 'until Jesus comes', there is a gradual attrition of the ANC's ratings. Presidents themselves have been changed, something that Zuma himself is painfully aware of since he was Thabo Mbeki's Brutus. True, there are still the Zimbabwes and Swazilands, but the feeling about such countries is that eventually economics will force them to present themselves at the democratic club.
The Americans are getting excited about new threats of destabilization from fanatics like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabab in the Horn of Africa. Well, yes, but India has scores of such movements and doesn't fall apart. As the Arabic saying has it, 'The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on'. Boko Haram is nothing compared to the civil war which Nigeria managed to survive without fracturing. In Somalia the surrounding countries are showing a new, more concerted resolve in the face of Al Shabab. Eastern Congo and the Great Lakes area continue to be a 'wild East' blighted by warlordism, but there too one senses a new determination to rid the region of outlaws such as the human predator Joseph Kony who has made a living out of terrorizing civilian populations and enlisting their children as fighters. Some people believe, and others hope, that he may in fact be already dead. There have been some notable peacemaking successes such as the enduring settlement in Mozambique and the recent conclusion of the fifty year old conflict between North and South Sudan. This is still shaky and there will be clashes from time to time, but both sides know that there is nothing to be gained in the long term by going back to full-scale war.
It's not just about the low economic base; it's also the youthful demographic. Having a lot of young adults makes for a dynamic economy with this energetic cohort creating businesses, buying houses, consuming more of the good things of life, educating their kids – all the lively activities that give an economy life. The contrast to the tired, graying baby-boom populations of Europe is rarely mentioned in comparisons with Africa, but it makes a difference. The Economist ran an article in 2000 on Africa entitled, 'Africa the Hopeless Continent'. I wonder whether their more recent piece in which Africa is now 'The Hopeful Continent', was written in part to pre-empt African economics journalists from asking acidly how hopeful Europe is at the moment.
The economic times are certainly tough everywhere, but actually Africans don't do badly at keeping economies going under harsh conditions. Boko Haram does not seem to be making much of a dent in the Nigerian growth rate. I am constantly amazed at how educated Congolese people are despite the fact that their country has been dysfunctional for practically the whole of its existence. Some economic life goes on somehow, despite everything, even in Zimbabwe. I once met a company owner there who told me that they decided to sell a heavy vehicle to pay for the workers' Christmas bonus.
One of the reasons for this resilience is the very simple one that developing world economies are more focused on the fulfilling of essential needs. More people are on the edge of survival. The unemployed young Englishman I listened to being interviewed on Aljazeera recently could clearly fulfill his basic needs through social security and the family network; he's not going to starve. In Zimbabwe or Somalia a young man may have to risk life and limb doing a dangerous job or becoming an illegal immigrant abroad, just so that he and his family can eat. He does what he has to do. Hunger is a brutal motivator but it does work, and when things improve a bit hard workers keep working hard to make hay while the sun shines.
Thankfully it's not all about survival. Nature has provided the wherewithal to enable the Continent to thrive. Africans just happen to have some commodities that are very desirable on the contemporary global market – Angolan and Nigerian oil, Zambian copper, South African platinum, Congolese hydropower and coltan, Tanzanian tanzanite, Mozambican gas – to name a just few. That's why one sees so many Chinese faces on the streets of Africa's towns and cities today. They're here for the natural resources. There is also a new 'scramble for Africa' going on in arable land. Rich countries – particularly desert oil producers with potential food crises – are buying up African agricultural land as an insurance against future famine. Obviously there are huge issues of fairness and the maintenance of sovereignty around this rush for resources, but the fact is that Africa is fortunate to have the raw materials that the manufacturing giants of the world currently want. We have valuable stuff to sell and prices are rising.
How to share out the profits fairly is a major issue of course. We also need to take 'beneficiation' more seriously, adding more value to the raw products before selling them on in order to avoid the 'resource curse' of primary producers. Botswana has prospered on its diamonds and tourism, but needs to diversify. South African manufacturing has taken a knock thanks to cheap Chinese imports. Zimbabwe's industries and agriculture have been devastated by the economic policies of the Mugabe regime and the inability to compete with South Africa and the country now makes a living largely on mining. However, a new breed of entrepreneurs is said to be taking up the many challenges and governments are beginning to understand that they have to work to create an enabling environment for them to work effectively. This new breed is part of the rising and growing African middle class, a potentially huge internal market and one that is also attracting the interest of importers of consumer goods. It is also a politically stabilizing force.
In South Africa there is a new confidence and independence of action in international affairs evidenced by the country recently having added an 'S' to the BRIC nations, the rising economic stars of Brazil, Russia, India and China. 'Exportation and importation between Africa and developing countries in Asia, South America, and the Middle East is on the increase' says Jean Philippe Stijns, Economist on the Europe, Middle Eastern and Africa desk at the OECD. If trade rather than aid is the way out of poverty, the diversification of trading partners has to be good, even if some of them may cause the West to sniff a little in disapproval.
Africa's much criticised heavy-bottomed conservatism has also played a felicitous part in the economic good fortune. For example it served it well during the banking crisis. African governments did not have to recapitalise their banks because they didn't go bust, having been traditionally regulated and not being prone to take the suicidal risks which became the norm in financially turbocharged pre-2008 Europe and the US.