By Namatirai Zinyohwera
As we get started, I guess the key question is can we actually draw any parallels between Brexit and the AfCFTA or will this be yet again another episode of a sweeping conspiracy theory or fake news. But let’s take a deep dive into the history of the free market and return back to recent events that continue to provide fodder for speculating Monetarists, arguing against their Keysenian contemporaries. Let’s allow the discussion to speak for itself.
What is Brexit, let alone AfCFTA according to wikipedia.org ? Brexit was the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union at the end of 31 December 2020. To date, the UK is the first and only country formally to leave the European Union, after 47 years of membership within the bloc, after having first joined its predecessor, the European Communities, on 1 January 1973. It continued to participate in the European Union Customs Union and the European Single Market during a transition period that ended on 31 December 2020.
The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a free trade area founded in 2018, with trade commencing as of 1 January 2021. It was created by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement among 54 of the 55 African Union member states. The free-trade area is the largest in the world in terms of the number of participating countries since the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The agreement initially requires members to remove tariffs on 90% of tradable goods, allowing free access to commodities, goods, and services across the continent, thereby paving way for a single continental market.
According to a paper by Dr Ibrahim Farah, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, the AU structure reflects much of the EU model. Simi- larly, he explains, both institutions were created to enhance the means towards achievement of common objectives of its member states. However while they differ in their current power capabilities, the cases are worth comparing, as it is the end goal of developing foreign policy making capacity that is under in- spection – that’s a valid point he makes.
Under the microscope, the European Single Market and the African Single Market in more or less the same time frames, have gone through fundamental changes namely Brexit and the operationalisation of AfCFTA. On paper, what we are seeing is the consolidation of influence by supranational organisations namely the European Union and the African Union. Whilst in the case of the European Union, the United Kingdom seems to qualify as collateral damage, I do think that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has continued to play jester, knowing very well, where the last frontier of global growth is. On a bated breath, the United Kingdom has been very quick to deploy its executives into emerging markets, in a bid to rekindle relationships with territories, where not so long ago history recalls irreconcilable differences.
Zeroing in on the UK, we are immediately re- minded of Exhibit A – i.e. the British Empire which spanned continents, including many African territories. So great were the forgone days, that it was once a set piece that the sun could never set on the crowned jewels of her Majesty. As a former colonial power, the United Kingdom continues to bargain on its exposure to former colonies. To some extent, remotely influencing geopolitical affairs from Westminster Hall or wherever the puppet master finds his sojourn these days.
Remnants of one of greatest empires that have ever seen the face of the earth, found a new life through the deepening of democracy, which ushered in a new era of adoption, appropriation and alignment of colonial design thinking into post-colonial order. Perhaps the slight humour in this copycat approach is continuously expressed by members of the judiciary in modern day Africa, who wear white cow-licked wigs, providing some much needed comic relief, with all due respect to the legal fraternity. I’m thinking out of the box here, but I think where applicable, they could have conceptu- alised a bushy black afro wig, or better yet African influenced traditional headgear – just my two inconsequential cents, in the unlikely event I would be forced to wear one.
Nonetheless, I think the point has been driven home, Africa’s reliance on former colonial powers, was perhaps inescapable after years of subjugation and dominance by them. It’s almost like the new leadership, ushered in by the respective liberation struggles, had to pick up from where the colonial state dropped-off, notwithstanding sowing of a few civil liberties here and there, to legitimise their newly established authority. Let’s just also add that it was a bit of a gut punch, for communist-backed guerillas to ultimately embrace democracy and capitalism, changing corners in the dying minutes of the Fall of Communism.
As this soft power continues to persist, we can quickly make some obvious assumptions on the intentions behind the United Kingdom’s revamping of its relationships with former colonies through the Commonwealth. Brexit as you may know, signalled disengagement of the United Kingdom from continental Europe. With Germany taking up more space, it was clear that one of the big two had to make the obvious step backwards. However, the expectation could never have been that the United King- dom would retreat into a solo island existence. Instead, it would look forward to an early re- tirement from the European Union, to bask in the shade of its historic linkages on the continent, in pursuit of the trillion dollar opportunity within the Single African Market. Emerging markets will lead in the next 50 years and it will count where your money will be, if you’re thinking long term. China picked up from where it left off at the fall of colonialism, it seems that the communist retreat was not in vain, as it continues to blaze new infras- tructural highs in territories left fallow by FDI, building roads, canals and all the works.
What a time to be alive, as Beijing and Washington muscle it out across time zones, the United Kingdom has been quick to realise the merits of a new foreign policy for Africa, one which works through the uncomfortable relationships which are conscious of a ‘once bitten, twice shy” lived experience. With a clean slate, it remains to be seen whether such a policy would be counteracted by China’s progressive and growing relationship with African states, or better yet will Wildrow Wilson’s policy of neutrality put America on the right side of the end of colonialism, notwithstanding its role in the slave trade of course. Whichever way the cookie crumbles, China is coming in strong and my monopoly money is on a look East Policy for AfCFTA. There is less friction there, less talk because of the obvious language barrier, but more action because of win-win transactions.
Whilst China can only wish on a shooting star, to disrupt global consumption of popular culture, in favour of its own, the challenge is that its themes and genres are too indigenous to the region. On the other hand, there seems to be no stopping the American Dream, which has modeled itself as a global aspiration, that many enjoy from the outside. It would be interesting to see China’s power moves on exporting its popular culture, to a predominantly anglophone and francophone sub-continent. Maybe its greatest influence lies in leveraging its pre-existing economic contract as the factory of the world, to undermine the quality of brand Amer- ica. But those are the kind of fantabulous martial arts moves, only a return to office by a provocateur like Donald Trump could inspire – the Communist Party has maintained a “smile and wave” approach and seems not to be seeking the zero sum game just as yet.
In all this, the recently divorced United Kingdom finds itself returning to the matrimonial bed of an abusive marriage, courting emerging markets won’t be easier this time round. As seasons would have it, younger and more dynamic bachelors have made the cut. As cold and isolated as it may be in its corner of the world, the United Kingdom may still have an old comeback in Africa, playing at its heart- strings, which it knows through colonial experi- ence, to be favoured in trade and commerce. But if at all African leadership would remain resolute in its conviction to move as far away from the past as possible, it will perhaps be unlikely that this divorcee will be able to out-do the bachelor from the east, who has a track record of liberating support and always comes bearing gifts, not wielding International Criminal Court.
But herein comes Information and Computer Technology, the shrewd equaliser in the age of the Great Reset. Following the money trail in this sector will take you from Silicon Valley to Zhongguancun. But where is Europe in this picture, let alone the United Kingdom – thus I make the conclusion that in this new normal, Africa and Europe share the same underdog status when we look at the continental economic olympics. By no means do I equate the bank balances of these two continents, but I’m drawn to appreciate the destiny of the two, whose imminent reconfiguration can result in a futureproof cooperation that can one day will redefine a new world order.
Whilst my monopoly money is on China, my real money is on Germany, which has for long shown the allure of a smooth operator, always striking the middle ground as a diplomat and strategically logging in and out of history with precise timing, to avoid detection. Brand Germany bears testament to the value of investing in strategic partnerships, versus hollywoody ‘look at me” investments. Off the top of my head, I can mention Germany’s Africa Kommit Initiative, loosely translated to “Africa is on the come up”.
According to its website, for over a decade leading German companies have been demonstrating their commitment to Africa through this initiative, offering young managers from Africa, the chance to gain insights into operations and management methods at the participating companies. During the 12-month programme, both sides can forge important contacts for sustained and successful economic co-operation thereof. Outside of the boardroom German immigration laws have also sided with the plight of economic refugees, proposing that migrants be allowed to register for a temporary visa, allowing them to work in the country pro- vided they pay a deposit.
In its latest annual report, the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR) suggested such a policy would allow migrants from Africa to work temporarily in Germany, where they could save money and gain skills and contacts, while also incentivising them to return home when their visas expire. All individuals who leave Germany on time, would then receive their deposit back.
As a general reflection on the decade ahead, we have certainly entered the age of a new normal. I will leave you with this to consider, if you are still thinking about the world the same way you did before COVID-19, there is a big chance that you will be left behind. We are at a deliberate moment in human history where for- going the past is okay because the value proposition of the future is just so much better – the same way using a mobile phone is so much better than drum rolls and smoke sig- nals.
Namatirai Zinyohwera is a Johannesburg-based ICT Business Development Consultant