Rethinking Our History: Examining an Economic Lineage

By Williams, Stephen | African Business, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Our History: Examining an Economic Lineage


Williams, Stephen, African Business


Duncan Clarke's latest book is very different from his previous works. Having treated us to a very readable, easily navigable large tome, The Crude Continent, which describes Africa's oil and gas sector's history in detail, Africa's Future is a little more cerebral. It begins with the premise that there is an urgent need to understand Africa's mysteries in order to calculate what lies ahead. To do that, Clarke counsels that we must reappraise the continent's nature and its past, dispensing with preconceptions and prejudices.

Clark's was born and raised in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and now lives in South Africa - but you do not need to know his background to sense his affiliation with the continent.

Global Pacific & Partners, the firm he founded and still heads, is an advisory firm with a global reach - but clearly an African focus. It tends to specialise in working with the hydrocarbon sector, hosting many of the continent's most important conferences - but Clarke's curriculum vitae is a lot broader than simply being an oil industry analyst. He tells us that he wrote this book in his Johannesburg study in front of a print of Aaron Arrowsmith's 1802 map of Africa. Commenting on the map, he admires its "magnificent cartographic insight" as to what the world knew of Africa some 210 years ago. That was - he notes wryly - not a lot.

This book's first part, Survival in Africa, sets out to define Africa's economies, from their distant past to their fragile present. It is in Clarke's own words, an attempt to "sketch the pathways to the present".

It seems that Clarke has little patience for what might be described as conventional economic thinking. He expresses real doubt that data-driven correlates or econometric models present an accurate or complete explanatory theory that might answer the two key questions he poses: "What processes created the complexity and multiplicity of economic forms today that provide sustenance for over a billion people in Africa? What will shape the continents economies and its economic future?"

This part of the book ends with a note of caution. Clarke writes: "There have been many economic fallacies and myths pedalled in and about Africa's economies and much future promise promulgated by economists, writers, analysts, media pundits and populists. Few command the relevant numbers and boundaries that have imprisoned Africa's economic drama."

Fewer still, having read this book or listened to Clarke speak about Africa, would describe the author as an Afro-pessimist. Rather, his writing demonstrates a determination to afford Africa the courtesy of objective reasoning and avoid the romantic posturing that has, in the past, resulted in so many false dawns.

Indeed, the author himself notes in the preface: "When intuiting the economic future there must be no delusion about the naive images and shallow critiques based on Afro-pessimism or its counterpart of equally illusionary Afro-optimism. Both are offered from time to time in place of rigorous, critical thinking."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Antiquity revisited

In part two of the book, Clarke tracks back to mankind's birth in the continent that is 'the cradle of humanity'. What the author is seeking is evidence that might link the various means of prehistoric economic survival that developed in early Africa to systems that still reverberate today, in this era of modernity.

Even in modern times, Clarke notes, ancient Stone Age cultures persist. He points to the Khoisan hunter-gatherer mode that at one time ranged across tropical Africa (at that time including the verdant Sahara region) until the arrival of the Bantu peoples.

Now the Khoisan occupy a very much more limited territory in Southern Africa, principally Botswana, but the austere subsistence economic mode that has evolved indicates one based on lineage and extended family systems.

Clarke also tells us that the various mvths or traditions of origin found in Africa "typically set down the benchmarks for a culture - the rules for survival and guidelines for relationships with nature and social groups.

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