Africa is rich and complex unlike West’s racist stereotype

Continent brims with genius and potential and much of its flaws are colonial hangover

It is not often that a conference in Dublin gets much attention in South Africa. This happened over the past weekend – for all the wrong reasons.

Last week, at the Dublin Climate Dialogue Conference, Dr Eddie O’Connor was asked about investment in alternative energy in developing countries. During his response, he said (among other things): “The great problem we have found in trying to electrify Africa with renewable energy has been lack of capability. When you go and talk to the ministers and the prime ministers and the minister of finance they do not have that tradition of democracy, they are largely tribal societies, they don’t have the educated cadres who are going to be able to do this. If we get our policies right in the West we certainly could do it, but we have a big problem and that problem is the lack of profitability in the supply chain.”

O’Connor has resigned as chairman of Mainstream Renewable Power, the energy company he founded in 2008 but which is now 75 per cent owned by Norwegian group Aker Horizons. He had apologised earlier in the week for his remarks, calling them “entirely inappropriate and insensitive”, as well as “inaccurate and harmful generalisations’’.

During my years as ambassador to Ireland I heard similar views expressed repeatedly. Today, working with foreign investors all over the world, it is rare to have these opinions openly expressed, but I’m often quietly questioned about the issues raised by O’Connor.


The first problem relates to the way in which Africa is often treated as a homogenic place. The continent of Africa is 30,73 million sq km (almost 360 times the size of Ireland) and has a population of over one billion people (243 times the Irish population). More importantly, it comprises 54 countries, which differ vastly in terms of culture, economic strength as well as governance and structural capabilities. For this reason, those of us living on the continent of Africa find it hugely frustrating and problematic when it is assumed that all Africans and African countries are of the same ilk.

Undemocratic behaviour

Linked to this is the common subtext that since some people in Africa are incompetent, corrupt and undemocratic that is true of all Africans. Undoubtedly many countries in Africa experience incompetency, corruption and undemocratic behaviour from time to time. However, none of this is unique to the continent of my birth. (Remember all the tribunals and brown envelopes of Ireland in the early 2000s?)

To suggest (as many often do) that African politicians in general lack capabilities and are undemocratic is devoid of all truth and smacks of racism. There are (and have been) many brilliant politicians on African soil who can teach the world a few things about democracy and governance. Let’s not forget that Nelson Mandela – one of the greatest statesmen of all time – came from my country. Our current president follows closely in his footsteps and we have had a succession of finance ministers that would be able to take on any finance minister in the West. There are many more examples across Africa.

Second, the issues of tribalism are often raised, conjuring up images of rural, primitive, bloodthirsty people. Although there were historically many tribes across Africa, rapid urbanisation and modernisation have resulted in these tribal affiliations playing very little – if any – role in most countries. In South Africa, for example, people are aware and proud of their heritage, but it has no significant impact on governance. Presidents Mandela and Thabo Mbeki came from a Xhosa background. Former president Jacob Zuma, however, is Zulu and our current president is Venda.

Structural issues

Through the centuries, colonial occupiers used so-called tribal differences to divide and rule Africans. Thus, it is well-understood by most Africans that tribal arguments are very much part of a colonial hangover and not based in modern-day reality.

The third problem arises when those who criticise Africa ignore the origin of structural issues. In almost every African country, the systemic lack of capacity is directly linked to colonial occupations. For centuries, foreign governments and private companies made huge profits from Africa, while destroying the environment and mistreating people without making any reparations or corrections. This continues to this day and yet companies still complain about profit margins even when it comes to initiatives that will not only benefit Africa but the world – such as green energy and vaccines.

Africa is a vast, diverse, vibrant and rapidly developing continent filled with an enormous pool of skills and talent. There is much that Africa can offer the world and co-operation with the West could be of mutual benefit. However, for that to happen we have to move past the stereotypical prejudicial views of Africa as a continent of poor, corrupt, undemocratic and incompetent people.

Africa may not be perfect, but many of its imperfections can be traced directly to the historic crimes of those who are the quickest to criticise.

Melanie Verwoerd is an independent political analyst and former South African ambassador to Ireland