Throughout history, Africa has been poorly understood by Europe, and today the country is subjected to a plethora of misconceptions from outside onlookers, particularly the private media. Below, we take on seven of the most prolific Africa misconceptions, from poverty and aid, to ancient history and apartheid.
Africa is Culturally Homogenous
Ever heard about the country of Africa? Or a nationality of “African?” All too often, Africa is viewed as a single, homogenous mass of people – a misconception that couldn't be further from the truth. The continent boasts hundreds of ethnic groups speaking close to 3000 languages. Nigeria alone has more than 500 languages, making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. And we aren't just talking about hundreds of small groups. Twenty-four ethnic groups across the continent have populations of over 10 million each.
Africa is Just Poor
Did you know South Africa has a gross domestic product by purchasing power parity of around US$660 billion? That's more than double Denmark. Africa's largest economy, Nigeria, has a GDP PPP of US$$451 billion. African countries aren't inherently poor, and many are rich in natural resources. Overall, the continent holds a third of the planet's accessible mineral reserves. Two thirds of the world's diamonds and a tenth of the global oil supply come from Africa. Nigeria's main export is petroleum, while South Africa is the world's largest producer of platinum. Yet natural resources aren't fueling all of the continent's current economic growth. Nigeria's oil industry hasn't grown much in years, and today the service sector accounts for close to 60 percent of the country's GDP. Even with a downturn in global commodity prices in recent months, sub-Saharan Africa is still expected to see an average of 4.7 percent GDP growth in 2015, according to the World Bank.
Africa is a Corrupt Mess
African governments are all too often viewed as corrupt, incompetent and generally incapable of working for the interests of their own people, let alone the rest of the world. This is, of course, entirely untrue. Botswana is widely regarded as Africa's least corrupt country, with levels of corruption comparable to nations like France or Spain. Then there's Liberia, where Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has staked a bold claim to eradicating corruption. There are other countries like Somalia and Sudan that suffer some of the highest levels of corruption in the world – but these extreme cases simply aren't representative of the entire, diverse continent, and the causes and history behind them needs to be understood too.
Western Aid is Saving Africa
For decades charitable aid has been the cornerstone of Western ideals of African development. The problem is it's extremely difficult to determine whether aid has done anything to dramatically alleviate poverty. Critics often argue aid is poorly targeted – it either ends up in the wrong hands, or fails to actually address problems and root causes. An extreme case was the 1 Million T-Shirts project. As its name suggested, the project sought to deliver 1 million shirts to Africa. The biggest problem was the simple fact that most Africans already have shirts, and don't need new ones shipped from the other side of the world.
Then there's China. Between 1981 and 2010, the number of people living in poverty dropped by around 700 million, according to the World Bank. During the same period, 627 million people were lifted out of poverty in one country – China. Yet China receives a fraction of the foreign aid many African countries do per capita. So how much has aid really achieved for Africa?
But, Africa Can't Save Itself!
Actually, it can. Africa is increasingly taking the front seat in dealing with African issues. Take the African Union (A.U.), which is slowly overturning its reputation for impotency in the face of regional issues like peacekeeping. When the Central African Republic fell into chaos in 2013, the A.U. initially took a leading role in overseeing peacekeeping operations. The A.U. has also lifted its game in Somalia, where since 2014 it claims to take retaken 85 percent of the territory once held by al-Shabab. Overall, there are signs the A.U. is beginning to make progress towards fulfilling its ambition of creating a more united continent. This is part of a broader process of African states taking responsibility for the security of the continent, and removing the impetus for Western-led interventions in the future.
Apartheid is over in South Africa
One of the greatest victories for civil rights in Africa since the end of colonialism was the dismantlement of the apartheid regime in South Africa – or was it? Apartheid era laws that divided the population along racial lines are gone, the country has a new, liberal constitution, and extreme poverty is slowly being reduced. Yet South Africa remains one of the world's most unequal nations. Take a look at South Africa's Gini coefficient. The Gini coefficient is the world standard for measuring inequality, where a score of 0 is the most equal possible, and 1 is the least equal. In 2009, South Africa scored 0.63. In 1993 it was 0.59. According to the 2012 census, Black households still had an average income six times lower than whites. Despite the “official” apartheid regime ending two decades ago, economic apartheid remains alive and well.
No Great African “Civilizations” before Colonization
Contrary to colonial-era propaganda, Africa had its far share of major civilizations long before Europeans showed up. Arguably the most famous was the Mali Empire, which dominated West Africa from the 13th to 17th centuries. Under the empire, one of history's most famous scholarly institutions was established – the University of Timbuktu. At its height in the 12th Century, the university drew tens of thousands of students from across West Africa, the Sahara, and as far afield as the Mediterranean. It also boasted as many as 20,000 books. At a time when Europe was just stumbling out of the Dark Ages, students at Timbuktu were studying some of the most advanced mathematics in the world at the time.