A bright or dark future?
One of the fun things I do as an academic is to teach groups of visiting students about the economic history of my country and continent. This year I was again involved in our International Office’s Summer (Winter) School. Similar to last year, the assignment at the end of my part of the course asked each student to write a history of the African continent in 2050, i.e. to predict what will happen in the next 40 years. Or, to make it applicable to myself: If I happen to still be around in 2050, what will be the economic history of Africa that I teach to the students born in 2030?
What surprised me while marking their essays was their optimism. (I mentioned this last time too, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.) Yet the world today is very different than the world of a year ago. The current crises globally like the Air Malaysia plane shot down over Ukraine that might spill over into what Time Magazine calls Cold War II, the deadly conflict in Syria that seems to have no end, and the exchange of rockets between Israel and Palestine – the crises on the African continent like the disappearance of hundreds of Nigerian girls, the Ebola virus that is spreading fast, and an Air Algerie plane crash – and even the crises in South Africa like the wave of nationalism that seems to turn parliament into a circus and the continued crime that plague our beautiful land should be enough evidence that the future is not necessarily bright, nor that the path towards a better future is necessarily linear.
Yet, despite all these troubles, according to my students, the Africa of the future seems like a much nicer place to live. Here are their suggestions on how we’ll get there:
Nearly all students mentioned the role of better education. Stellenbosch University student Yonwaba Mfengwana noted that “Africa has invested considerable amounts of money and time in developing and training its youth and this has been evident in the increase in the number of skilled individuals who have entered the work force and have been studying abroad. This has assisted Africa into developing into a productive economy as the youth have become innovative, involved and educated.” Clemson University student Amanda Farthing ascribed the better education to “a minimum requirement of a bachelor’s degree that was implemented for all teachers of grades 1-12, with an additional requirement of a supervised practicum or student teaching internship.” Almero Coetzee of Stellenbosch University argued that better education was due to better technologies: “The availability of cheap, high speed internet connections as provided by satellites sent into space in the early 2020s and the drastic fall of the price in computing power with the release of graphene (sic) computing chips allowed for more widespread education.”
Katlyn Pauvlik of the University of Alabama emphasised that “Africa both strengthened current infrastructure and built new infrastructure. Bella Choo Su Leng of NUS in Singapore suggested that Africa’s success was due to the opening of borders: “In the span of forty years, Africa has become a lot more open to the world.” According to Sydney Pettit of the West Virginia Wesleyan College, “the advance in health care has allowed people to live longer and healthier lives”. And, says Carla Kroon of Stellenbosch University, the first ever African Olympics, held when South Africa hosted the 2028 Olympic Games, was a turning point in the fortunes of African countries.
Some students did mention setbacks. Stellenbosch University student Chris Reeders noted that “towards the end of the 2030s, other challenges started to arise, most notably a severe shortage of clean water.” Hudson Corbett of the University of Vermont noted the crippling effect of extremist wars in the Niger Delta and Kenya. University of Wisconsin student Jade Goetz noted that “fracking was a monumental and devastating setback”. (In contrast, Kensli Rollman of the University of Wisconsin saw fracking as the “most pivotal moment” in Africa’s post-millennial history: “After the initiation of shale gas projects throughout Africa in 2017, Africa witnessed a tremendous growth miracle until 2045.”) And several students mentioned the high fertility rates that continues to create a large pool of poor people in Africa’s mega-cities and results in persistent inequality.
I have no idea what the future will look like. No one has. As the American management consultant Peter Drucker once said: “The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.” But despite the recent events that have caused global alarm, the African future, at least if you believe my students, will be a better kind of different.