Thursday, April 21, 2011

going to africa

My recent trip to Kinshasa has led me to a bit of pondering about the influence of South Africa and other big players (i.e. China, America, France) on the rest of the continent. I've only done it twice (to Liberia and now the DRC) to get on a plane in Jo'burg and get off in "Africa". Neighboring countries that I've visited are just too influenced by South Africa to feel really different. The closest I've come to feeling like in I'm "Africa" on ground based travel was on our short foray to Zambia, and Livingstone (one of the biggest towns, of course) is still chock full of South African chain stores.

The main reason we did not pursue employment opportunities in South Africa is that we didn't want the suburban lifestyle that is the norm for people living in towns here. We are done with malls and chain stores at least for a while. Though these things exist in America too, they are much more prevalent here where you have to really go to Jo'burg or Cape Town to find good independent restaurants or shops and even there they are few and far between. This relates in a way to something we call the illusion of fanciness that exists here. You can go spend the afternoon sitting in a chain coffee shop, but you'll most likely be disappointed. Just like the fancy houses you see looking nice from the outside with bad construction inside, most of the chain restaurants provide mediocre food and the clothing stores provide ill fitting, bad quality clothes (unless you are willing to pay an arm and a leg, and I'm not just talking Peace Corps money standards).

Anyway, so being sick of all this and not wanting to truly adopt it (which we'd have to living in a town), we searched elsewhere for employment. Ironically, the first conversation I eavesdropped on on the plane to Kinshasa was a few South African businessmen discussing their plans to bring a mall to Kinshasa filled with all of the retailers I've grown to abhor. Inquiring more of folks in Kinshasa apparently this has been in the works for a while so I'm sure it won't be happening anytime soon. I was also surprised to find out that South African fast food chicken place Nandos already has a location not far from the school where we will be teaching. I was less surprised to see all of the South African food products available in the ex-pat grocery stores (for inflated prices of course). It was even interesting to see a local version of Cheetos (which we call snacks or Zimbas in South Africa where they are much more popular than in America and exist in lots of flavors) being sold as part of the school lunch. I never saw a salty mass produced snack product for sale in Chad though there were lots of, mostly Nigerian made biscuits, so I am guessing that this idea came from South Africa but who knows.

Even in Liberia, a country that loves the US more than anywhere else I've ever been, there was South African DSTV (satellite tv), cell phone service (lonestar cell owned by MTN), and the nicest hotel/resort was operated by South Africans. I do not remember hearing much about South African influence in Chad, but I wasn't so well versed in South African commerce at the time either. Chad is not a country much worth investing in as it doesn't have the natural resources, population or tourism potential of a place like the Congo (it has oil of course, but not that much, and it grows lots of cotton but that's not going to ever send the economy soaring) or the strategic port location and natural resources of Liberia. The only country that seems to be investing strongly in Chad is China as they are doing across the continent very liberally.

The investment of countries with strong economies in developing countries brings up some serious questions about neo-colonialism. How can a country develop itself when all of the businesses are owned by foreigners? Certainly a better quality of life (if you consider the ability to buy processed foods and all the goods imported a better quality of life) is available to a small proportion of the population, but how does this develop the country? If these companies do decide to bring production to the host country, this creates jobs but how is it different from colonization? Is there a difference between colonies created by nations and colonies created by corporations? Does foreign investment encourage local entrepreneurship to compete or encourage a culture of complacency and expectation that others will support them?

I have read a bit on this topic and so I know I am certainly not the first person to ask these questions, but I am struck by them every time I wander outside of this country into the rest of the continent. Maybe returning to "Africa" with a new perspective on South Africa will help me to unravel the mess, but I don't know. I of course have my own beliefs, but that is not the way that development and investment seems to be going. It's hard to see how either aid or investment will really help these countries to develop, and I sometimes wonder if that is even the goal.

1 comment:

  1. I like your question, how can a country develop itself if all the businesses are owned by foreigners? My fiancee owns the shop in our village, and there are other tuck shops but they sell only a fraction of the items he does. Take milk, for example. He sells ultramel because there is a high demand. One lady, out of all the cow owners here, sells milk. She has the opportunity to corner that market, but she doesn't. Others could milk their cows but they don't. He sells a ton of eggs, too. People could coop their chickens and sell the eggs, but they don't. The government offered so much money for black south african entrepreneurs but they didn't take it. The opportunity was then opened to indians and coloreds. Now, indians and coloreds run a lot of businesses, along with foreigners. Why? The opportunity is there. You could say years of oppression and disenfranchisement holds them back, but you could also say they hold themselves back. A really neat post!