Dancing in a multipolar world: new opportunities for Africa
Series Geopolitics & Global Order

Dancing in a multipolar world: new opportunities for Africa

04 Nov 2020 - 16:00
Photo: South-African President Cyril Ramaphosa co-chairs a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2018. © GovernmentZA - Flickr
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What does the transition to a multipolar world mean for the African continent? If the European Union wants to remain relevant, Stacey Links claims it should acknowledge Africa’s agency and durable relationship with China.

Since the colonial independence, Africa has sought to dance to the beat of its own drum, captured in the slogan ‘African solutions for African problems.’ However, the realisation of this slogan has been challenging in a unipolar world where the West has largely set the ‘pace’ or the ‘beat’ and where a sustainable change to the continent’s challenges has been desired.

Instead, it seems that approaches to tackling the challenges of poverty and chronic underdevelopment have been largely ineffective. However, in tandem with the appearance of ‘new’ players onto the international stage, this is slowly changing.

Contrary to widely held beliefs, China-Africa relations are surprisingly adaptive, dynamic and resilient to the challenges and criticisms that they encounter

Will the emerging multipolarity result in the continent to finally adhere to its own rhythm and chart its own course, or will it simply assimilate to the rhythm of others? Do new players allow Africa to dance to its own beat, and more pointedly, what will Europe’s role be in these new ‘dances’: critical spectator, or wilful participant?

This analysis reflects on these questions, specifically with China-Africa relations in mind.1 The following issues are worth our consideration.

  1. New players are here to stay

Despite the fact that other actors believe the relationship will deteriorate, the connections between China and Africa demonstrate persistency and deepening. It is as if the world outside of these relations, particularly the West, is waiting for the final straw that will break the camel’s back.

However, contrary to widely held beliefs, China-Africa relations are surprisingly adaptive, dynamic and resilient to the challenges and criticisms that they encounter. Moreover, in spite of several hurdles in the relationship – whether it concerns racist incidents, alleged spying or the challenge of debt – cooperation continues.

Links - Rwandan President Paul Kagame during an extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19 in June 2020. Paul Kagam - Flickr
Rwandan President Paul Kagame during an extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19 in June 2020. © Paul Kagame - Flickr

We only need to look at the preliminary results from the Afrobarometer’s most recent round of surveys to see this. The recent surveys of the Afrobarometer, a research institute conducting African public attitude research, focus on African perceptions towards China. Like previous research from 2015/2016, the numbers reflect a sustained positive perception across the continent, albeit with a slight decline.2

We can therefore conclude that the aforementioned challenges did not have a significant impact on African perceptions. In fact, the most recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the 2018 Beijing summit, was attended by more African presidents than the United Nations General Assembly of the same year.3

If the Chinese ‘dragon’ is so dangerous, why is no one running?

Even the issue of debt relief, which has been set to potentially burn bridges, has not contributed to a deteriorating relationship. On the contrary, for now, it seems that African leaders have generally accepted (although quietly) that widespread debt relief will not be China’s way forward, but that a case-by-case approach will be adopted.4

The fact that this announcement by the Chinese president Xi Jinping did not provoke any significant continental or state-driven outcry, is noteworthy. Whether this silence is the result of ‘power imbalances’, is debatable. Considering the firm reactions of African leaders against racist claims in the Chinese city of Guangzhou5, it is probably not the result of complacent or ‘soft-spoken’ leadership.6

While it has yet to be seen how COVID-19 will impact relations both at a public perception and leadership level, it would be hasty to assume that these relations have been significantly affected. Instead, there is an observable ‘maturation’ of relations, whereby engagement is increasingly fine-tuned. However, these ‘growing pains’ have not seemed to affect the overall support and enthusiasm for engagement, as reflected in continental popular support7 and continued official engagement.

The upcoming FOCAC summit, scheduled for 2021, shall indicate how relations will proceed. However, if the past is anything to go by, it is evident that challenges do not inhibit cooperation and that a two-way dialogue is essential to maintain good working, ‘win-win’ relations.8

  1. Acknowledging Africa’s agency in a multipolar world

Far too often, Africa is simply seen as the ‘dance stage’, leaving little or no room for African opinions or influence on important events. Nevertheless, within the context of a changing global order, Africa is increasingly positioning itself and its goals in an assertive way.

Links- Engineers from China in 2008 serving with the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). United Nations Photo
Engineers from China in 2008 serving with the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). © United Nations Photo

With the materialisation of Pan-Africanist agendas (the notion that everybody of African descent has common interests)9, Africa is taking its development into its own hands more than ever.10 External actors can either support or hinder these processes. In a multipolar world, the number of actors and ways to pursue these goals provide Africa more choice, arguably enhancing Africa’s agency.11

Despite this, alarming warnings against the ‘dragon in the bush’ seem to become more demanding, contributing to the emergence of a paradox.12 If the Chinese ‘dragon’ is so dangerous, why is no one running? One explanation is that Africans remain ‘blind’ or naïve to the dangers of the ‘dragon’.

Although sometimes ignored as a ‘coloniser’ of Africa, the Netherlands remains etched in the discourse of colonisation on the continent

The other is that those who co-operate, are necessarily corrupt or in ‘cahoots’ with the dragon itself. The problem is that proponents of these arguments do not consider the aforementioned positive approval rating of the ‘dragon’ by the very people living in the bush.

Such approval ratings can be downplayed by simplistic tales of effective, masterminded propaganda machines, or they can be recognised as such and used as valuable opportunities for critical self-reflection on the part of external actors (how can we improve our approach?).

Links - President Donald J. Trump listens African Rainbow Minerals Founder and Executive Chairman Patrice Motsepe at Davos in January 2020. White House Photo
President Donald J. Trump listens African Rainbow Minerals Founder and Executive Chairman Patrice Motsepe at Davos in January 2020. © White House Photo

Rather than pointing to the naïve and corrupt Africans, or the prodigious ‘hungry dragon’, the informed and desired response should take seriously the agency of African actors to hold their own informed positions, as opposed to treating them with scepticism if they do not mirror widely (and might I add dearly) held assumptions about what ‘new’ players are doing in Africa.

  1. History Matters

Scholars often seek to understand the role of new players on the continent, but overlook how African actors themselves view the role of these new players. While these ‘internal’ perspectives are diverse, they are both legitimate and insightful. A frequently neglected consideration, for example, is the continued role that history plays in clarifying contemporary relations.

What does this mean for Europe? Interestingly, the aforementioned Afrobarometer survey indicates that the United States (US) remains Africa’s preference regarding the developmental model, followed by China, and only thirdly “a former colonial power”.13

Assuming that “former colonial powers” represent ‘Europe’, it is clear that developmentally, Europe is not as attractive as it may think it is (despite similarities regarding the EU’s diverse makeup, heterogeneity etc.). In this field, perhaps, the role of history, and particularly colonial history, may continue to play a more important role than is often assumed.

Links - Cape Dutch cottages at La Motte vineyard in the Western Cape, South Africa. Jon Connell - Flickr
Cape Dutch cottages at La Motte vineyard in the Western Cape, South Africa. © Jon Connell / Flickr

Take the Netherlands for example: Although sometimes ignored as a ‘coloniser’ of Africa, the Netherlands remains etched in the discourse of colonisation on the continent. This is illustrated by the Dutch East India Company’s instrumental role in South Africa’s colonial history (think about the refreshment station in the Cape of Good Hope, which generated wars between the Dutch colonial settlers and the indigenous people, also known as the ‘Khoikhoi-Dutch Wars of the 17th Century’).

While battles over the hinterland of the Cape of Good Hope resulted in a transfer of power from the Netherlands to the United Kingdom in 1814, these initial encounters with the local populations remain an important part of the country’s collective memory. That is, Dutch settler colonialism is inextricably weaved into South Africa’s experience with the ‘British Empire’, significantly impacting modern-day South Africa.14

Acknowledging the apparent responsiveness and dynamism between Africa and new players is key to remain relevant and benefit the most from future shifts

Beyond colonial domination, subsequent relations between the European15 and African continents have been diverse. On the one hand, the EU has presented itself as a valuable trading partner, with historical ties and interest in the continent, particularly considering its institutional model for regional integration.

On the other hand, the EU has symbolised barriers of trade, equal opportunity and access to the labour market. In this way, the EU also created barriers to development and equal partnership. The inequality between the continents is thus not grounded in economic or military power but in the conditional and often paternalistic forms of prescriptive engagement.

Links- EU development funding is aimed to enhance youth employability potential and income earning capacity for more than 700 young people in Sofala and Manica provinces in Mozambique. European Union 2020
EU development funding is aimed to enhance youth employability potential and income earning capacity for more than 700 young people in Sofala and Manica provinces in Mozambique. © European Union 2020

The result has been a continued paternalistic stance vis-à-vis the continent’s decolonisation – in which the African continent has been stubborn to disengage itself from ‘superiority’ undertones. The apparent one-way guidance that Africa is to ‘learn’ from Europe forms part of the frequent prescriptive and often unsolicited advice that is given.

This dynamic is all the more frustrating for African counterparts, considering the vestiges of colonialism on the continent. Persistent ‘warnings’ for emerging ‘new’ players such as China are just the most recent examples of such paternalistic engagement.

If Europe truly wants to move towards collaborative engagement in a multipolar world, detaching itself from the abovementioned engagement will be paramount. Failing to do so will be equal to blind self-confidence.

  1. Looking within: Decolonising engagement and foreign policy

Considering the seemingly persistent scars of colonisation, it is no wonder that the ideas, concepts and allegiances formed through alliances such as the Non-Aligned Movement, remain features in current African political landscapes. From a geopolitical perspective then, it is important to note the historical role played by China and other ‘new’ players in these alliances.

Ignoring the continued significance of these historical events in contemporary politics is the first potential misstep in understanding the position of actors in a ‘new’ multipolar order. This is crucial for actors such as the Netherlands and the broader EU if they are to remain discursively relevant.

Links  - Dutch minister of foreign affairs Stef Blok during a visit to South Africa in February 2020. Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken
Dutch minister of foreign affairs Stef Blok during a visit to South Africa in February 2020. © Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken 

Only focusing on the challenges that so-called ‘new’ actors present, with little regard to the opportunities that these global shifts present for the likes of Africa, quickly descends into a one-sided geopolitical race. Instead, acknowledging the apparent responsiveness and dynamism between Africa and new players is key to remain relevant and benefit the most from future shifts. The same goes for acknowledging and respecting African agency.

This changing global order is arguably creating new space for African agency. Whether actors such as the Netherlands or the EU appreciate the outcome of this agency and whether it ‘fits’ into western ideals of what agency should look like, are separate questions. In any case, it is clear that these new dynamics confirm that if there was a time for engaged, astute and informed diplomacy, it is now.  

‘New’ rhythms and dances
If cooperation will prevail over competition, a multipolar world demands engagement with the ‘new’ rhythms and (potentially entirely new) dances. Depending on Europe’s goals, and the avenues through which they are pursued, either compatibility or confrontation can be reaped. To pursue the former, however, Europe will need to critically self-reflect and evaluate what its goals in a multipolar world are and what pathways will yield success.

What is clear is that Europe can either pursue its own dance with its own rhythms, or critically reflect on how to best adapt to these new tempos. Irrespective of Europe’s decisions, it is evident that Africa is increasingly dancing to the beat of its own drum and finding willing partners in the process.

Authors

Stacey Links
Lecturer at Leiden University