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Book review: Reflections on Africa’s Place in the World. 2020. Edited by Laurence Caromba and Y Abba Omar

AfricasPlaceInTheWorldCoverThe conference seeks to engage on several questions: is there a rebirth of Pan-Africanism, what does it look like, who are the future bearers and how do they deal with the issues faced by Africans in the 21st Century? Reading MISTRA’s most recent publication, Reflections on Africa’s Place in the World. 2020. Edited by Laurence Caromba and Y Abba Omar, these questions were debated.

This book situated Pan-Africanism in a context where actors are seeking pragmatism – seeking to alter the status quo while appreciating the structural conditions that exist. It is divided into three themes and 11 chapters that situate Africa in a comparative historical analysis. Reading the introduction, something that has stuck with me is that “…African states and societies have always been agents and active participants in the drama of international politics.” (Caromba, 2022: 25) And the discussion of African agency underpins this collection of chapters that have been reprinted celebrating former MISTRA works.

The first theme explores a historical reading of Africa’s place in the world it “…also serves to highlight the impermanace of existing balances of  power,…” and dare I say it, the impertinence of existing structures.

In Chapter 1, Karumbidza (2017) explains that the Africa Rising narrative, a necessary optimistic take of its potential, has been romanticised and that evidence of Africa’s rise needs to be reflected in economic history or its political economy, as other nations or civilizations have done.

In Chapter 2, Netshitenzhe (2020) explores the intersection between economic, ideological and psychological elements determining geopolitical dynamics, which is neatly summarised in the following global trend “It becomes subsumed under campaigns against terrorism, migration and issues of identity; an aggressive mercantilism and protectionism; the employment of sanctions as an instrument of domestic industrial policy by the powerful; and mutual blame shifting on a global scale.” (Netshitenzhe, 2020: 89).

Chapter 3, Bloom and Poplak (2015) discuss China’s engagement is Africa: pre-modern relations through the maritime silk route, China’s experiences of colonial subjugation, its support of liberation struggles, bringing in alternative finance through FOCAC and other business investments, and soft-power.

Chapter 4 provides the reader with a quality summary on the contents of Pan-Africanism, exploring the concepts of national freedom, independence, institutions, international relations and leadership. But makes a crucial point explaining why Pan-Africanism hits stalemates and why critics espouse that the idea is dead. Maimela (2017) explains that the point of paralysis, although “artificial and misleading”, is linked to the argument for how unity should be achieved. Radicals believe that supranational integration better serves the overall achievement of its goals and sub-goals. An approach preferring a gradual tone and focusing on the economic strength and contribution of the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) is the counter (Mailmela, 2017: 162). Making a choice would have influenced history. And perhaps the issues experienced by African countries today may have been avoided, if colonial histories were not reaffirmed. However, this kind of discussion finds itself under other competing pressures where institutions should be repurposed and leadership needs to be held accountable.

The second theme locates the fundamental shifts in international politics in epistemic changes in science, innovation and technology – how we experience progress in civilizations and how to approach global disruption through a leap-frog orientation to problem solving, while appreciating the wisdom of indigenous knowledge systems.

Ferraz (2013) writes about the global hydrogen economy and its strategic potential in the context of geopolitics. Readers may find themselves between the ages of New World and environmental geopolitics; where The End of History and Clash of Civilizations theses has been toppled (to varying degrees) by the coming anarchy of environmental disasters. Africa is key in this regard because of its potential to address the pressures of the growing environmental concerns of tomorrow, which will alter the geopolitical aspirations of greater powers fundamentally. South Africa is posited as a case study that shows the disruptive but necessary impact on a socio-technical landscape that is dominated by Platinum group minerals (PMG). As geopolitical actors find themselves fighting the shift in dynamics and global needs for an environmental orientation, African countries need to strategically position extractive industries to support green technologies.

In Chapter 6, Mazibuko and Mufamadi (2021) write about innovations in African medical technologies as a key to the health and economic development of the continent, and global South. Their discussion of nanotechnology links to a broader spectrum where Africans develop more robust programmes for Research and Development, accessible complex of health care solutions, and business solutions to a complete value chain.

Chapter 7 explores how indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) fit into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Oguamanam (2021) explains that the ten-year policy document the AU wrote on its ‘Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024’ does not take a particular IKS interest, but there is emphasis to provide the correct and nurturing environment for community driven solutions and African values and the need to develop infrastructure that deliberately supports IKS. The cases Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa show progress in regional leadership, and allow for recommendations to be made for international implications through intellectual property laws, trade, biodiversity and environmental conservation, and cultural, heritage and human rights preservation.

Theme three, ‘Towards a pragmatic Pan-Africanism’ positions aspirations vis-à-vis historical discussion and realistic conditions of the world.

Fagbayibo’s (2020) Chapter 8 explores how the continent may achieve more autonomy in a more meaningful way. Firstly, by galvanising the source of agency as an internal one and making use of institutions with a clear purpose. Secondly, navigating the dynamics between East and West, and West and East, and increasing genuine interest in African issues. And thirdly, encouraging a strategic hybridisation where Africans and their partners find synergies in agendas and each pursue their interests with plain pragmatism, but activate their agency in ensuring their interests are not derailed by the other’s actions.

In Chapter 9, Le Pere (2020) considers the implications of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in the context of the global trade regime. The chapter touches on the potential of the AfCFTA. While the AFCFTA is still under development and negotiations are yet to be concluded on several issues, the chapter relays the importance of creating a sustainable regional integration and developing African value chains against the backdrop of political instability, rising environmental refugeeism, and heightened levels of urbanisation and food insecurity.

Makhalemele’s (2017) chapter describes South Africa’s destabilizing ambitions during the apartheid regime, which aimed to thwart any liberation movement efforts from South Africans and those in support. Post-democratisation, South Africa should be encouraged to play its middle power role (or hopeful emerging middle power) and its use its identity as a human rights concerned bridge builder, but focus its bridge builder aspirations to economic integration. However, these pragmatic actions to make progress will meet an accusation that South Africa’s intention is to maintain a hegemonic status. This negative perception is key, as South Africa’s neighbours are vital to its own prosperity.

Lastly, Kornegay Jnr and Mthembu (2020) consider what is necessary for African stakeholders to shift their perspective. The concept of “Island Africa” appreciates the quest for autonomy, but also realities of how Africa cannot delink or isolate itself from globalisation. Africa’s development is linked to its leading economies that need to be celebrated and encouraged to take proactive steps that ensure the security of the continent and maritime space. Additional themes like key territorial questions Western Sahara and the Horn of Africa and the potential for international institutions to take on a different structural and procedural engagement also feature as fundamental elements to achieving the AU’s Agenda 2063. Finally, the chapter devotes a significant amount to how Africa should engage future landscapes of vintage geo-politics (which still divert the imaginations of leaders, today) and multilateralism.

This book provides an academic contribution to understanding the implementation of Pan-Africanism, in the context of Agenda 2063, ten years into the aspirational project. This book also offers a more artful explanation to a diplomatic practitioner wanting to understand why certain decisions are made by the African Union and African governments in the name of Pan-Africanism. Whether one finds themselves an academic, practitioner or critical reader of Africa’s future, this book offers ideas for all to appreciate.

Debates about Pan-Africanism are striking and polarising, celebrating a richness and non-homogeneity of Africans, more volumes should aspire to broach. And debates such as “whose Pan-Africanism we are talking about”, “who has the ‘right’ to call themselves an African and benefit” contribute to the discussion on pragmatism. This book does not set out to unpack that entirely and takes a broad approach to discussing Africans’ futures. But perhaps that in itself is an important question to Africa’s international relations vis-a vis international trends of populism and nationalism – where will Pan-Africanism find itself addressing population visions while manoeuvring various operationalisation quagmires and persisting pressures of continental political fault lines and corridors of power? With chapters written over the years, the book stays true to its methodological intent of comparative history, and while I have a feeling it may inspire readers to look to history to understand a particular journey – I’m not sure how far policy makers will feel academically revived to push for progress and innovation that makes greater leaps as opposed to taking incremental steps. What does Africa need more; bolder decision makers for strategic pragmatism to take centre, or impeccable strategic bureaucrats to implement a Pan-African vision?

Review by Arina Muresan, Senior Researcher, Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA

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