Reality has a way of coming back to haunt those who try and ignore it. Nestle recently announced the cutting of 15% of its workforce in 21 African countries. Too much optimism lay at the root of this. Nestle was sure that Africa ‘would be the next Asia’, before realising that ‘the middle class here in the region is extremely small and it is not really growing.’
Nestle’s announcement puts the debate around the size of the African middle class back on the table. But it also by implication raises questions about the relevance of the pervasive idea of Afro-Optimism. The number of articles on the subject has exploded; experts are tearing each other apart. Some whip out statistics to back up the existence of the middle classes while others counter them with other numbers that contradict.
Relying on statistics is practical; it lends the appearance of objectivity to a debate that is in truth ideological. Before the financial crisis of 2007, the consensus was that African countries may have had problems but they also had significant potential. This potential supported a kind of optimism that was reasonable but also prudent. This was Afro-Optimism 1.0.
Afro-Optimism 1.0 was mindset. Afro-Optimism 2.0 is a doctrine.
The crisis of 2007 rocked this consensus. The economies of the West and East had broken down and international investors were in search of a ‘growth area’. Suddenly countries on the continent became appealing. The script had to be revised. This marked the arrival of Afro-Optimism 2.0.
Afro-Optimism 1.0 was mindset. Afro-Optimism 2.0 is a doctrine. Afro-Optimism 1.0 saw the glass as half full. Afro-Optimism 2.0 has decided that the glass is full. Reality apparently can be created.
With time, Afro-Optimism 2.0 has become a commercial product. The suppliers? International institutions, influential media networks, and a variety of groups with differing interests. And what about the buyers? The educated members of a diaspora desperate to see the continent progress; multinationals thirsty for growth; and African leaders happy to boast about progress that is sometimes pure illusion.
Privileged youth are often Afro-optimistic while the deprived are often Afro-indifferent.
On the continent, the concept has a sociological dimension. Privileged youth are often Afro-optimistic while the deprived are often Afro-indifferent. Few countries have set up meritocratic systems. Privileged young people have often benefitted from the corruption of dysfunctional systems. In this way, Afro-Optimism bears witness to a form of blindness.
My African friends and I were Afro-optimistic (version 2.0) while students. We were Afro-optimistic in the same way that young people were communist in the 1950s. That was what one did. Doubt was unfamiliar. Mass Afro-Optimism prevailed. The reports we consulted, the newspapers we read, the intellectuals we respected, the programmes we watched all agreed: Africa’s moment had arrived.
Contact with reality had a limited effect on us. While travelling in Africa, I ignored what didn’t please me and focused on what suited me. I made hasty generalisations. An international brand opening a small shop in the middle of a town became proof of the existence of a middle class. Little matter that I had no idea how short the queues for the till were.
In place of citizen participation in public affairs, Afro-Optimism 2.0 prefers online activism.
In version 1.0, Afro-Optimism stood firm on two pillars: clear-sightedness and hope (which was justified). There was a recognition that finding solutions for deep-seated problems wouldn’t be easy, like building institutions, forging national identities and creating active civil societies.
Afro-Optimism 2.0 is perched on one: dubious statistics. In order to overcome complex challenges, it offers simple solutions. Instead of strong local institutions, it chooses supranational organisations. Rather than building one national identity, it likes pluralism better. In place of citizen participation in public affairs, it prefers online activism. Afro-Optimism 2.0 is the sign that a culture of convenience has triumphed. And this version might be the most dangerous.
This article first appeared in French in Jeune Afrique.