Africa is not one country

The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it – George Kimble, geographer, b1912.

I took a screenwriting course last year. We were told: In Hollywood movies, you don’t specify that your characters are black, unless there is a Reason – in the plot or character – that makes them need to be black. White is neutral. Black carries meaning. Black implies underdog, underprivileged, marginalised. Black cannot be neutral. Hollywood, I thought. Americans, I thought. And then I came to Britain, and discovered that a similar set of assumptions apply.

Last night, I was asked what road safety is like in South Africa. And when I’d said that I thought it had improved in recent years with stricter laws around drunken driving and speeding, the next comment was: “But there can’t be much traffic, can there? I mean, most Africans can’t afford a car.”

It’s not the only comment I’ve had like this. My partner tells me repeatedly that the most valuable thing he’ll ever give me (aside from his undying love and devotion) is a British passport. “Africa is fucked,” he likes to say; “HIV and Aids are decimating your workforce, which is going to screw up the economy. Your crime rates are off the scale. And if that doesn’t finish Africa off, global warming will do the job.”

It’s as though “Africa” (the world’s 2nd largest continent, by the way, at 30,065,000 sq km) – all 54 countries of it – is actually one homogenous problem that can be summed up in the image of a single, starving, disease-riddled child. It inspires a mixture of pity and resignation in the British, who love solving the problems of others, but can’t come up with a solution. Do we feed, clothe and treat Africa? Or do we leave it to die? Whatever we do, we don’t take a closer look at the fact that the “Africa” brought to our TV sets and newspapers is NOT the one experienced daily by most of the people on the African continent. I’m not denying that Africa is home to a lot of suffering. I’m just saying that’s not all there is.

Moreover, what the British seem to find difficult to grasp is the fact that South Africa has been – and continues to be – a country of continuous, if gradual, change. The government currently in power may have many flaws (their embarrassing views on HIV prevention; their refusal to take a stand against Robert Mugabe), but there is no denying that they have brought substantial improvements to the lives of millions of South Africans over the last 13 years.

So here, for the uninitiated, are some of the facts and figures of my country. I’m not seeking to answer big questions here, just to give a few basic facts, the ones I’m afraid I can’t quote offhand without checking online databases. I can’t help thinking that the information below tells you very, very little. Much less than a photo essay or film might. There are a lot of people living here. A lot of different people. The figures will tell you a little, but meeting some of the people would tell you a whole lot more.

Population: almost 48 million
Race demographics: Black African 79.6% (38 million); White 9.1% (4.3 million); Coloured 8.9% (4.2 million); Indian/Asian 2.5% (1.2 million)

Don’t be fooled by the homogenous appearance of that pale purple section of the graph. Within that black African population, there are distinct linguistic and cultural groupings. If we look at the population in terms of language groupings, it looks like this

(“Coloured” is a contentious term still used for people of mixed race descended from slaves brought in from East and central Africa, the indigenous Khoisan who lived in the Cape at the time, indigenous Africans and whites. The majority speak Afrikaans.)

Facts in brief about South Africa at November 2007

SA has about 12 million learners, 366 000 teachers and around 28 000 schools, including 390 special needs schools and 1000 registered private schools. The government has allocated 5.4% of its 2007/8 budget to education.
Total adult literacy rate (2000-2004) 82
Net primary school enrolment/attendance (2000-2005): 89
Phones per 100 people (2002-2004): 47
Internet users per 100 population (2002-2004): 8

% of infants with low birthweight (1998-2005): 15
% of under-5s suffereing from underweight, moderate and severe: 12
% of under-5s suffering from underweight, severe: 2
% of under-5s suffering from wasting, moderate and severe: 3

Life expectancy at birth (2005): 46
% of population using improved drinking water sources, total (2004): 88 [99% of urban populations; 73% of rural populations]
% of population using adequate sanitation facilities (2004, total): 64 (79% of urban populations; 46% of rural populations)
% of routine EPI vaccines financed by government, 2005, total: 100
% of 1-year-old children immunized against (2005): TB 97%; DPT 98%; Polio 94%; Measles 82%; HepB 94%
Estimated adult HIV prevalence rate (15+ years), end 2005: 18.8%
Mother-to-child transmission, estimated number of people, all ages, living with HIV, 2005 estimate 5 500 000

Economic growth, as measured by GDP, has increased from around 3.3% (1999-2004) to around 5% per annum.
Employment has risen by about 2.7% per year since 2001. By March 2007, the estimated unemployment rate was down to 25.5% (from 28% in 2004)
The number of South Africans living in poverty has dropped steadily from 52.1% in 1999 to 47% in 2004 to 43.2% bby March 2007.
The government has built more than 2 million homes and electrified more than 3 million homes. More than 16 million people have been provided with first-time access clean water.
Free basic municipal services are now provided to more than 70% of South Africa’s population
The Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, Medium Term Budget Policy Statement, October 2007

Information in this posting taken from:


About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Africa is not one country

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hey Lisa!

    A good post – makes me kind of ashamed to be British in some respects.

    There’s been raging debates going on between several people down here (me being the Brit that’s come to SA) with regards to how the SA ex-pat society views SA (in particular) and Africa (in general).

    Is this just a British thing? or a westernised European thing?

    Many of the ex-pats seemt to take great joy in pointing out to the chaps here what a dire state SA is in, rubbishing the government at every turn and bemoaning the loss of their privileged white-status.

    Myself, as an ex-pat in Africa have a worrying view on the UK. It feels that it’s been kind of government sponsored anesthetised with open-all-hours drinking, shopping whilst they big brother you with camera’s every where. In the mean time Sky News (in trying to emulate crazy-like-a-Fox News) drops news snippets with Jeremy in fuzzy-wuzzy land about how bad things are so really we shouldn’t complain about the crap job that our own government is doing.

    I think I’m wandering.


  2. Anonymous says:

    I think I managed to turn the comment into an ex-pat thing – which was not the intent.

    The intent was to say – whilst we can run around with abject pity for others, generally institution sponsored by media, we don’t have to look at our own plight.

  3. Lisa says:

    Ex-pats living in South Africa act much like ex-South Africans living in the UK. Either they’ll ferociously defend their choice by focusing only on the best aspects of the place they’ve chosen, and rubbishing the place they’ve left. Or – if they’re openly miserable fucks – they’ll do the opposite: rubbish the place they’re staying in, and overglorify the place they’ve left.

    South Africa certainly offers poverty, unemployment, shitty HIV rates and scary crime. It also has plenty of development and opportunity, unparalleled gorgeous lifestyle (well, we Capetonians have that cornered, but there are other lovely places).

    Britain has a decent social welfare system, democracy, a glut of cultural activity and the Pound. (And really nice yogurt.) And cramped, overpriced housing, shite weather, rising rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease and pasty Poms.

    You can be optimistic or belligerent about either; point is, it doesn’t get you closer to the reality of the experience of people that live there.

  4. Anonymous says:

    true… true…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s