NewsNorth AfricaThe fluid world of the 21st century


Posted on Monday, 18 January 2016 15:50

The fluid world of the 21st century

By Stephen Chan - Professor of international relations, School of Oriental and African Studies, UK

Towards the end of his life, the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said declared that homeland was no longer important to him. He had spent his life as an exile, and he saw the violence and damage that a sense of place could create – especially when that space was contested by peoples who sought its sole ownership.

Of course, Said was privileged. Instead of one place he had great mobility, travelling the world as an acclaimed thinker and activist. The refugee stranded in an arid encampment for displaced peoples might be forgiven for dreaming of a homeland as it once was.

Or dreaming of a bold escape to Germany, through the razor-wired borderlands of Hungary; across the Mediterranean in leaking rubber dinghies; arriving on an island off Greece or Italy; or, finally, reaching Norway or Sweden as the northern European winter sweeps in and all around speak a language and have habits that are alien.

In a few short years each one will be a hybrid – Somali/German/European/ worldly. And their stories will be captured in videos and social media, just as the flight of their successors will be. And all will join a world story that puts into a mythological past this idea of homeland, this idea of safety in one place that is now everywhere destroyed.

Then that refugee will also, at least at times, dream of a home that no longer exists. The more he or she dreams, the more 'home' becomes mythological – so that, on the eve of 2016 we are all caught at a crossroads where the globe is a reality but contested by great political and economic powers that are beyond dreaming citizens; and where 'home,' even for the most settled citizen, is bombarded in all directions by global influences and even global commands.

If the IMF sneezes, half of Africa catches cold. Both the world at large and home become mythologies, where imagination has to salvage something that belongs to an individual. Even in Edward Said's time, before the full impact of the global internet with its newsfeeds and social networks, the planet was globalised. Banks laundered money around the world, great military alliances bestrode continents, and huge supranational institutions ruled our lives as much as governments.

Of course, the activities of these institutions have been heightened by new communications, and these same communication networks let us see that our lives are no longer contained in a single home – except insofar as the world can be electronically brought into our living rooms. Now, when affronted by the savageries of the world, we press a button to sign a protest and consider ourselves activists.

Around the world, citizens push buttons. Smartphone penetration ranks alongside GDP, per capita income, life expectancy and literacy as a development index. A peasant farmer in Kenya will send money with his app, and a pirate off the Somali coast will navigate with his own app – knowing that the ransoms he might gain can now be electronically paid and laundered a hundred times within two hours of first receipt.

The world is beset by great corporations who establish headquarters in one country for tax purposes and conduct their volume trade in others. And franchising sweeps
the world. A Big Mac will be found in Ramallah, Palestine, as readily as in Johannesburg. A global retail therapy has become the opium of the masses and it can be the same retail therapy, dependent only on whether Amazon or Alibaba has yet reached every once-faraway country.

The real advent of 'homelessness' is in crafting giant trading blocs

But the real advent of 'homelessness' – that sense of 'it doesn't matter where we live anymore' – lies in the crafting of new gigantic trading and financial blocs. Both America and China are into this. The US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is a case in point; and the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was an instant challenge.

Particularly as 2016 leads us towards the G20, to be hosted in China, all eyes will turn to the new financial institutions being crafted in one region after another by the Chinese. And these new funds and banks will finance great transport and communication corridors. They will transform Pakistan, the Transcaucasian Silk Road route, Brazil, and huge parts of Africa.

The new Chinese model is not centred only on highways and railways, but electronic networks the length of the roads and rail. Once they command communications in as many parts of the world as possible, then there will be command of globalisation beyond what even economic command can deliver.

So, what role for Africa in this new, amazing and of course disturbing world? South Africa is a member of the G20 – although a most uninformed and lacklustre member. There aren't many experts on the G20 in either the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the President's Office. The African Union is granted attendance rights, but the AU is consumed by insurrections and political meltdowns across the continent.

And those insurrections – someone, somewhere, has ordered the same fleets of Toyota and Nissan flat-tray pickups, mounted them with the same Browning machine guns, reinforced the trays in the same way to absorb the kickback of those guns (probably bolting down to the chassis), and given the same operational training to fighters as far apart as Mali, northern Nigeria, Central African Republic, Somalia – and of course Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Africa is part of a globalisation that is not often pretty.

The trick about handling globlisation is to balance one player against another

Slowly, there is an African participation in the new globe: South African capital finances cattle ranching in Sudan for export markets in China. But, more often than not, African countries are still on the receiving end of bad deals with multi-national corporations. Zambia is suffering from falling copper prices, but the meltdown in one big mining company, Glencore, was enough to turn a crisis into a catastrophe.

The trick about handling globalisation, of course, is the ability to balance one player against another – just as, in the old Cold War years, one superpower could (some-
times) be balanced against another.

Can there be a command of internationalism when the project of nationalism is not yet itself secure? This asks the wrong question. No one's project of nationalism is yet secure. Catalonia and Spain? Scotland and the United Kingdom – never mind the old problem of Northern Ireland? Who owns which part of the Ukraine? Will China and Taiwan ever arrive at a settlement? The twin projects of nationalism and internationalism need to be taken forward simultaneously.

As for the shivering refugee from Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan or Syria who makes it through to Germany, and who gets papers, what will he or she do? Each one will look for a job. Each one will seek schools for the children. Each one will send remittances home. Each one will learn more than one language, more than one set of national habits, participate in more than one culture, seek to gain respect in a diasporic community while seeking success and acceptance in the host community.

In a few short years each one will be a hybrid – Somali/German/European/ worldly. And their stories will be captured in videos and social media, just as the flight of their successors will be. And all will join a world story that puts into a mythological past this idea of homeland, this idea of safety in one place that is now everywhere destroyed. ●

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