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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

“Africa Rising is Just a Slogan” – Martin Meredith Launches Fortunes of Africa with Ray Hartley

Fortunes of Africa Launch

Martin Meredith recently launched his new book, Fortunes of Africa: A 5000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour, at Exclusive Books Hyde Park. Meredith was in conversation with Ray Hartley, editor at large for the Times Media Group and author of Ragged Glory.

Fortunes of AfricaFortunes of Africa begins in Ancient Egypt. Meredith said he believes there is a modern tendency to divide northern and southern Africa, when in fact the history of the continent is deeply intertwined. The author started the launch with an anecdote from the Bible, in which the Queen of Sheba brought gifts to the birth of Jesus and inspired the imaginations of European explorers. 3 000 years later a group of adventurers led by Cecil John Rhodes set out to find the land depicted in King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard.

Rhodes believed that King Solomon’s mines could be found in the Zambezi area. A biblical story precipitated an expedition 3 000 years later that led to the discovery of Zimbabwe. Trade is the key factor that connects the history of Africa – European explorers had a keen interest in ivory, gold and slaves. Herein lies the paradox, Meredith said, for Africa has always been one of the richest continents, yet it remains one of the poorest.

Hartley commented on the exercise of map making during colonial times, which basically entailed taking the map of Africa and dividing up the land between the world powers. The “Scramble for Africa” started with the Belgium monarch, King Leopold II, who claimed the Congo for himself. Africa became a collection of trading stations and the regions were named after the resources they held – Ghana was the Gold Coast, Côte d’Ivoire the Ivory Coast and Nigeria the Pepper Coast. This created a terrible legacy of some 40 modern African states that were constructed by European powers and still gives rise to conflicts in the different regions today and continues to hobble African development and politics.

“It was thought that colonial rule would last for thousands of years,” Meredith said. The decolonisation period brought its own troubles; there was a lack of preparation when the countries were handed over to local parties. Meredith said the Belgians and Portuguese were terrible colonial leaders, while the British imprisoned a generation of leaders, for example Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta. South Africa did not come off lightly either. The country was granted its independence by the British, but then the greatest betrayal occurred when they handed power over to the white Afrikaans government, he said. Did the scramble for gold have anything to do with this decision?

Hartley asked Meredith what he makes of the “Africa Rising” narrative and the new surge of optimism. Meredith said the years after 2000 have been characterised by three factors: China’s decision to become involved in Africa, the resulting rise in commodity prices and western debt relief. “Africa Rising is a foolish idea,” he said, adding that like the idea of an African Renaissance it’s “just a slogan”.

So where to from here? “African countries are becoming a vast urban conglomeration,” Meredith said. He cited a United Nations report, World Population Prospects: the 2012 Revision, which predicts that Africa will see a massive increase in urbanisation by 2050. Meredith is not sure if African states will be able to handle an increased population in urban dwellings. “African states not only lack the means, but the will, to cope,” he said. The problem is not a lack of talent or charismatic leaders but a lack of competent managers who are capable of making decisions, he said. “African governments are bad at management.”

The evening ended with a brief question and answer session and afterwards Meredith signed copies of Fortunes of Africa.

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Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:


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