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As uncertainty deepens, the human condition further worsens

In a compelling poem by the great African intellectual giant Amílcar Cabral, a powerful ‘story’ of Return is told. A relatively young Cabral, in his 20s, published a timeless poem that remains relevant – though written in 1949 – even today. It is worth presenting a couple of verses from it:

Old Mama, come and listen with me
to the beating of the rain there at your gate
It is a beating of a friend
that throbs within my heart

Come with me, Old Mama, come
gather your strength to reach the gate
The friendly rain has already come to greet you
and is beating within my heart

Africa in particular – the Old Mama – and the entire global human society in general are in the midst of deep uncertainty. As uncertainty deepens, the human condition worsens. We, as a global human society, have lived in uncertain times for centuries. However, the uncertainty we currently face is deeper than for any other period of our existence. It is also getting more complex and profound, further worsening the human condition.

The aspect of the human condition I am primarily concerned with is wellbeing. Amartya Sen – Indian economist and philosopher, and Nobel laureate in economics in 1998 – views wellbeing through a perspective that people live the lives they value and have reason/s to value. Sen draws inspiration from the 18th century poet William Cowper to examine “development as freedom” or rather to examine the various charms of freedom, in particular that people must have “freedom to choose their way of life”.

There are more and more people experiencing avoidable hardships because the economies are ailing and governments are dithering. Severe youth unemployment and increasing poverty are the two obvious hardships that are avoidable – unemployment in general has shot up, so has poverty. Consequently, increasingly more people live the lives they do not value and have no reason/s to value. In a recent chapter on the implication of the global economic recessions to Africa (in a co-edited book by Cornell University professors David Lee and Muna Ndulo) I allude to scary statistics: “The number of people living on less than $2 (U.S.) per day was expected to increase to over 1.5 billion globally, and the percentage of workers earning less than $2 (U.S.) per day was estimated to increase from 82.2 percent in 2007 to 86.6 percent in 2009 in Africa.” These figures have surely increased.

The worsening hardships are set to intensify as the prospects for the global economy are deteriorating. For instance, the Eurozone crisis will further slow down global economic growth, particularly that of the developing world. This does not augur well for the global south, especially given that the 2007-2008 food crisis foreshadowed the most recent increase in food prices in 2010-2011, which has been estimated to have added 44 million more people to the number of impoverished. Disturbingly, the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that 925 million people were hungry or malnourished globally last year. This number will increase, if not already, as forecasts suggests that the global economy will slow down further. The Horn of Africa alone accounts for about a third of the hunger challenge.

2011 was a difficult year. There were many catastrophes. Excluding the devastating tsunami in Japan, about a dozen countries experienced a disaster of some kind: floods in Brazil, drought in India and in China, intensified famine in Somalia, bombings in Nigeria, earthquakes in India and Haiti, endless massive loss of life in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria, the unresolved Israel-Palestine conundrum, accidents that claimed lives at a large scale in many parts of the world, and so on and so forth.

In 2011, there were civil uprisings in over a dozen countries. Excluding the Middle East and the Sahel regions, unrests took place in Britain, United States, Russia, Mexico, South Africa etc. The Arab Spring deserves special attention. The protests in that sub-region resulted in new governments. The nature of the Arab Spring confirms that the world we live in is much more uncertain and complex now than ever before. ‘Movements’ with unclear leaderships unseat governments, and new governments remain fragile. The interventions of so-called Western powers – who are scrambling for resources – further exacerbate the uncertainty that has become the order of present day politics. Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Sudan (the South) are some examples of misguided intervention by so-called Western powers in Africa. We find ourselves, as Africans in particular, rather sad instead of celebrating the birth of the new African country (i.e. South Sudan) – we are saddened by the civil war brewing in our new country as much as we are pained by imminent, if not already happening, civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya.

2012 is going to be even more challenging. For the world as a whole, more people will be plunged into unemployment and poverty. Just as the world was beginning to emerge out of the global economic recession, the Eurozone is unfortunately plunging the world back into economic hardship. Arguably, when many countries were tightening their belts, Europe was having a big party. The gist of the Eurozone crisis, as many analysts opine, is unsustainable debt which could have easily been averted through appropriate fiscal policy and robust leadership. The civil uprisings that have taken place in Greece and Britain are more than likely a beginning of severe political unrests in Europe – European leaders have not only failed Europe, but the whole world.

For Africa, regrettably, more countries and/or sub-regions in the African continent are going to be politically unstable. The state of the global economy will unleash more hardship for Africa: the effects of the Eurozone crisis and the slowdown in the Chinese economy, as some examples, would be felt later in 2012 to mid-2013. This is more troubling because the African continent has generally performed below its potential, lately not because of its own fault. The continental bodies, including the African Union which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, have been found wanting in many respects – the African continent remains weak on thought leadership, policymaking, political leadership etc. largely because the African Union is indecisive.

The uncertainty associated with international affairs, the global economy, the African leadership, the political developments in Africa, and other factors would have negative consequences for the human condition in Africa. A couple of African countries have elections this year – worth highlighting are Kenya, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Egypt. The case of Egypt, like the 2011 Tunisian election, remains uncertain. Ghana is an obvious country to watch closely – it’s been the fastest growing economy in Africa but there are debates regarding the fruits of that growth and the recent discoveries of mineral resources. Something must be said about the two biggest African economies. We have started 2012 with the sleeping African giant – Nigeria – on fire: the public protests pertaining to gas prices add fuel to the fire that started with frequent bombings later in 2011. South Africa remains uncertain too: the elective congress of the African National Congress later this year implies that SA might be on auto-pilot until December 2012 or so.

2012 will be challenging also because many big countries will be focusing on internal matters, as Daniel Franklin of The Economist argues. Britain is leading on this – the United Kingdom strangely does not want even to be part of the programmes to address the Eurozone crisis. The United States is already gripped by domestic politics. China is a case to watch even more closely. Besides the fact that the growth of the Chinese economy is slowing down – something that will affect the performance of African and Latin American economies – the Chinese Communist Party has a major elective conference this year in which the top two positions are up for grabs as well as possible major changes in the Politburo. Another country which is going to be mainly inwardly focused is Russia – Putin has a political life to fight for, and this would result in lesser attention paid to the global south. The same can be said for France: Sarkozy faces tough political competition and the Eurozone crisis has diminished his chances of retaining his political position. Venezuela also deserves some attention: Chavez has both his political life and his health to worry about. Another ‘big’ event that we were going to stare at is the Rio+20 Earth Summit, but it is effectively a non-event because wrestles for political positions and general survival for many countries will be top priority.

So, what can be done? The point of departure in addressing this practical question should be based on what the objective conditions – in the balance of evidence – are. As argued before, the global human society is confronted with a situation whereby the human condition is worsening; this has been the case for the past 30 years or so. The uncertainty that has been deepening since 2008 or so is taking a toll. In essence, the human condition has been deteriorating for a while, but as uncertainty further deepens, the human condition is set to worsen further. As argued in my earlier post, the trouble is fundamentally with the socio-economic development model that has been followed for centuries. It has effectively failed – look at the Eurozone, think of United States in 2008/9 etc. The other critical issue relates to the philosophical framework that governs affairs relating to the advancement and the safeguarding of the human condition. This is besides the issue of compassion and human ingenuity that can deliver, to the extent possible, the global human society from avoidable hardships. With regards to the socio-economic development model, a sound social policy is a starting point. With regards to the philosophical framework, we need to go back to the basics: civics. John Rawls, arguably the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century, in his acclaimed Theory of Justice, provided a basis for the framework that we could use as a starting point.

In conclusion, hope remains. Africa in particular has endured untold human suffering for centuries, but it continues to be a shining star in the world. Notwithstanding challenges discussed above, Africa has, in the past, overcome unimaginable and innumerable tragedies and atrocities. It is perhaps this extraordinary history of an extraordinary continent that gave hope to the relatively young Amílcar Cabral. Africa – or the global south broadly – should “gather strength to reach the gate [and] listen to the beating of the rain”. The rain is that epitome of optimism. The gate is that sign of transformation. Africa – or the global south broadly – has effectively been alone for a while. From 2012 onwards, Africa will be practically alone as the West and the East focus more inwardly. There is a lot to do, for our continent in particular, and time is not on the side of Africans. The human condition in Africa is worsening faster than anywhere else in the world as uncertainty further deepens.


  • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.