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Counterfactual Africa

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Africa before European arrival: Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon used historical sources to draw a map of Africa without European settlement or colonialism

Terra intactum: Nikolaj Cyon used historical sources to draw a counterfactual map of Africa  (Source:

What if Europeans never colonized Africa? What would modern-day boundaries of African countries look like had the Scramble for Africa never occurred? The short answer is that we will never know, but the thought-experiment is appealing. So appealing, in fact, that Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon decided to create a map of what Africa would look like today if borders of ethnic groups remained fixed from around 1600. The above map, showing the South on top (to subvert the traditional Europe-on-top orientation), draws on historical sources to show the territories of the major ethnic groups that existed in Africa prior to European arrival.

So what would a tourist, visiting this counterfactual southern (northern?) Africa, have seen? (If you really want the full experience of this post, listen to this song while reading.) If the Khoe groups of the Cape decided to unify politically, a country roughly the shape of today’s Western Cape including half of the Eastern Cape (up onto the Fish River) would have existed. Let’s call it Khoe-country. If I had to venture a guess, the landscape would have been dotted with villages – around Paarl, Swellendam, George, Graaff Reinet – with the capital of Khoe-country around modern-day Grahamstown: Gona. Traveling east, our tourist would have entered the land of the Xhosas and visited the capital Mthatha. Further up the coast, the kingdom of the Zulus, Zululand, the largest country in southern Africa, would have welcomed our visitor. Here the visitor would have seen the beautiful hills around the capital Ulundi and perhaps paid a short visit to the forgotten kingdom of the Basotho people across the stunning Drakensberg mountains. Traveling North, the visitor would have visited the lands of the BaPedi, and their capital, Phsiring, and from here back west into the BaTswana kingdom, the country of mines. Returning to the Cape, the traveller would have met the San-peoples of Komani and Xam, living in the arid regions of the Kalahari around the Gariep river.

What is most interesting about this map, perhaps, is the extent to how colonial boundaries cut ethnic boundaries. Consider the BaTswana, with their capital in Gaborone. Today’s Botswana only includes a fraction of the territory of the then BaTswana people. Had BaTswana been a country, it would have included large parts of South Africa’s Northwest province (platinum mines) and the Northern Cape. Even Kimberley (diamonds) would have been part of Botswana. But the haphazard colonial borders also benefited the BaTswana. Today, Botswana encompasses almost all of the Khwe en parts of the !Xoo and Khomane San territories, peoples that have lost their independence.

A number of recent papers in Economics attempt to assess the costs of these artificial borders on African development. In a recently published paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou use light density as measured by satellite images to investigate whether ethnic groups split by colonial borders exhibit different rates of development, and why. They do find significant differences between two ethnic groups divided between two countries like, for example, between the Tswana of Botswana and Tshwana of South Africa, but attribute this not to differences in national institutions (country-wide policies) but instead to ethnic-specific traits (like the role of chiefs, culture and pre-colonial institutions). Their paper is open to critique: their use of Murdoch’s ethnolinguistic map of Africa, a popular but controversial map of Africa’s many ethnic groups, is problematic. (The above map was presumably not drawn with Murdoch’s data, as the boundaries of the two maps do not overlap.) Nevertheless, their and other results provide quantitative proof that the artificial partitioning of African countries had a detrimental effect, causing conflict and lower levels of development.

Naturally, in our counterfactual world, it is extremely unlikely that borders would have remained fixed for 400 years. Ethnic borders in the pre-colonial were in continuous flux, and there is no reason that conflict over territories would have stopped suddenly. Take Johannesburg, for example, the location of the world’s wealthiest gold mines. On Cyon’s map, Johannesburg sits at the junction of the kingdoms of the BaSotho, Zulu, BaPedi and BaTswana. Is it not possible that the discovery of gold would have caused severe conflict over resources between these groups?

Two countries, of course, do fit the current map of Africa quite well: Lesotho and Swaziland. Both countries experienced little European settlement, and while the Basotho did lose territory to the Voortrekker settlers, the position of Swaziland on Cyon’s map is exactly the same size and in the same location as modern-day Swaziland. So how did these countries perform in the absence of colonisation? Not great. Swaziland has a GDP per capita of around $6000, ranked 116 out of 187 countries by the IMF. More than 50% of the country’s annual budget is paid by South Africa. Life expectancy is at 50 years. Much of the reason for this low level of development can be attributed to geographic and institutional reasons: both countries are land-locked and have tiny markets, and communal ownership remains widespread. In the counterfactual world as drawn by Cyon, it is highly likely that more of these small, land-locked and poor countries would have existed.

Counterfactual history is art not science, fiction not fact. (Or, if you trust Sheldon and Amy’s judgement, a board game.) And more importantly, asking what the map would have looked like, and what it should look like, are two very different questions. But counterfactual history does challenge the imagination and, more importantly, propagate the promise that the future is malleable.

Written by Johan Fourie

April 17, 2014 at 13:35

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