What’s the Book About?

Africa: The Continent we Construct cover page

Africa: The Continent we Construct (2015: Verity Publishers), my first book, sought to raise questions than to advance concrete pronouncements. It is a conversation starter if you will.

In a nutshell it argues that there are no ‘Africans’ because ‘Africa’ is a tenuous concept; it is a constructed concept.

But wait, so is every nation and every other identity (that is the whole basis of the theory of ‘constructivism’). True; the notion of India took form in the minds of its liberators from British colonialism, and was an instrument for rallying. So is Canada, which has no fundemental basis and is a precarious balance of French and English-speaking portions; much like Belgium, but with Dutch and French; so is Switzerland, but with the French and the Germans. But in no other place, has the identity preceded the basis for it; and nowhere else has it been so deliberate and characterised by a ‘double hermeneutic’ (i.e., an instance where the inquirer is also the subject of inquiry). And at such a magnitude; the only other part of the world which has searched after a continent-wide locus of identity is Europe through the European Union, and even then after first setting up the frameworks for identification — and through an exclusionary criteria. Moreover, the EU is a sum of its parts — its an integrated body and exists because the various independent states exist. Africa has no such mechanisms and confines. What is it exactly? A state? No, but many would like it to be.

The concept holds much promise — economists see an integrated Africa thrusting out its present malaise and becoming an economic giant on the world stage; political scientists see a United States of Africa becoming an assertive player, no longer to be the victim of the whims of external powers. Still others see it as a fulfilment of a true identity to be realised after the doing away of the colonial borders. And yet, by every metric, it is still becoming.

More than this, Africa is much more than a territory and a set of institutions; it is an idea, or rather a set of ideas. These ideas tend to contradict one another at every turn. Yet these ideas are very powerful. Take, for example, the tourism sector. While an important sector in the economy, it takes on a cynical turn in the continent: when one goes on a tour of Europe, North America (the developed world), one goes to see its monuments to itself, markers of how much they have conquered nature; on the continent, however, the endgoal is to commune with nature, to see forests, wildlife and the like. This hugely matters: it means that the continent must forgo development, and remain the world’s curator. I truly believe that this is incentivised by tourism, which is usually among the top-three sectors in various countries across the continent, while at the same time not bringing in that many people. This is one way the continent is constructed; and indeed comes to construct itself to itself. Overall the book argues that there are two forms in which the continent is tenously constructed: casting the net too widely and casting the continent too narrowly from the rest of the world.

Two forms of constructing Africa

  • bifurcation through ideas of uniqueness,
    • Africa as too different from the rest of the world;
  • and overreach on the other hand – no pragmatism.
    • African entities as unquilifiably similar to each other.

The topics covered:

  1. representations of Africa and how they become self-fulfilling policies: tourism;
  2. Ubuntu and social stratification;
  3. ideas and their material preponderance: e.g., Christianity as a unifying but also a deadly force;
  4. African history and its arch: inward looking (pattern de-linking) – provincialisation;
  5. premature conclusions about a very new concept.

Why is the book relevant?

  • Policy: in attempting to craft a unified Africa, many are shocked at how difficult it is; this is because many think it should be a natural process. Only when one accepts that there is no immaterial, natural reason why Africa should be integrated can one muster the efforts to achieve it on the basis of pragmatism.
  • China’s onset: With the presence of China in Africa, there has been a tendency to do history by allegory (neocolonialism being one) and the limits of this need to be confronted. Quite simply, China has different investment and loan tethers to different countries on the African continent, and these have evolved over time. Lack of recognition of this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in developing coherent understanding of these complicated relationships. Indeed, it has been the continued usage of outdated lenses which have prevented an understanding of the present. The lack of theoretical coherence in so much of the scholarship about the relationship between these regions stems from the mismatch between units of analysis; Africa is a continent, whereas China is a state. These units are driven by different logics and capabilities. A singular Africa is too broad a concept and perhaps even non-existent as a methodological factor.
  • Academic: Transformation of curriculum by giving voice to many forms of Africa. Questions of methodology and implications.

Bhaso Ndzendze, PhD Candidate and author of Africa: The Continent we Construct.