How long can African leaders keep repeating themselves on debt?

Cobus van Staden
By Cobus van Staden
Senior China-Africa researcher, South African Institute of International Affairs

Cobus is the head of research and analysis at the China Africa Project (

Posted on Friday, 4 December 2020 12:40

President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during a pre-recorded message which was played inside the United Nations General Assembly Hall, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, at UN headquarters, in New York. (UNTV Via AP)

This week saw yet another African leader (this time my own president, Cyril Ramaphosa,) calling for international measures to soften the current debt crisis confronting poor countries in Africa and beyond.

None of these measures are outrageous. Considering that seven out of the top 10 fastest-growing economies in 2020 are African, it doesn’t even need to be seen as as measures to help Africa – it could be framed as measures to support global growth.

And yet, judging by the anaemic  international response to the debt crisis so far, they’re almost sure to be ignored.

READ MORE African Debt: Let’s stop pretending the G20 actually matters anymore

‘Ignore’ might be an oversimplification. There are so many actors with contradictory agendas involved in the current debt crisis that even if they were paying attention, trying to coordinate all of them is a significant challenge.

But that’s of course if someone’s trying. The debt crisis is the global financial equivalent of a glitch in the matrix revealing a reality that’s been hiding in plain sight. One such reality is that the debt relief efforts have been fatally biased in favour of creditors, and against debtor countries. Another revealed truth is that it’s pretty easy for the creditors to ignore an African president.

Which then raises the more fundamental question: How long can African leaders keep saying the same thing? Will Ramaphosa’s calm, polite reasoning bring the continent any results, and if not, what’s next? What will it look like when African leaders start actively poking at global north pressure points? For example, what if suddenly some gatekeeper somewhere on the continent is made to step aside, and the little boats crossing the Mediterranean increase tenfold, hundredfold, thousandfold?

READ MORE How Ramaphosa plans to rescue South Africa from economic misery

I can see how tumbling a region into misery could strike creditors as a regrettable evil in pursuit of a bigger goal (“It’s essential to stop Special Drawing Rights benefiting China and Iran,” say, or “The confidentiality of Chinese lending is paramount,” or “But what about moral hazard?”)

But to assume that the misery will stay neatly contained to the continent is naive.

It will be like global warming: not one big problem, just thousands of big, medium and small ones coming at you for years and years and years. More migrants arriving in Italy and Greece. More attacks on American soldiers. More blocked UN resolutions. More kidnappings of Chinese workers. More takeovers of oil installations and mines. More piracy of passing ships.

READ MORE Africa’s Debts: One way or another someone’s going to have to pay

Africa is a very generous continent. It always shares what it has (frequently under duress.) What it could’ve shared was global economic growth. But now, what it will share (and keep sharing) will be misery. And that misery will keep traveling. All the way north.

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