Is there a uniform southern culture

Africa - main topics

Stefan Mair

To person

Dr. Stefan Mair is a Senior Fellow of the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin, a member of the Federal President's advisory board for the "Partnership with Africa" ​​initiative and a member of the GIGA's scientific advisory board. His work focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, German foreign and security policy, and global governance. Contact: »[email protected]«

Isabelle Werenfels

To person

Dr., is a research associate at the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin. Your regional focus is on the Maghreb states. In terms of content, she primarily researches social and political changes in the Maghreb states, Islamist movements and parties, and cooperation between European and Mediterranean states. Contact: "[email protected]"

Africa offers a great regional, cultural and ethnic diversity. In addition to the territorial ones, the continent has historically grown, political and economic dividing lines. But there are also many similarities. Through efforts to develop pan-African approaches to integration, an attempt is being made to establish a connection between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa (& copy NASA)

Africa does not exist! Under this book title, published in 1994, Georg Brunold, the Africa correspondent of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, put together his impressions of the continent at the end of his long-term reporting. He meant that the continent, in view of its diversity, could not be grasped as a whole - a feeling that is certainly shared by anyone who deals more intensively with Africa. In fact, the differences between the individual regions, between states and societies are immense.

The regional reference point of North Africa has always been the Mediterranean and its northern and eastern neighbors rather than the region south of the Sahara. The people in the Horn of Africa, especially the societies of Ethiopia, Somalia and Northern Sudan, also see themselves as having little in common with their neighbors south of the Sahara. In West and East Africa there were already strong exchange relationships and migration movements before the colonial era, which gave rise to independent integration spaces. Southern Africa did not open up to the rest of Africa until late with the immigration of the Bantu from 500 AD and then experienced an independent character from the 17th century through the settlement of European settlers.

The greatest interregional divide, however, is between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. It has increased over the centuries: North Africa differs through its clearly Islamic character, the Arabic language, its special role in the colonial era and - last but not least - through its regional self-image in modern times and its increasingly formalized and institutionalized ties to Europe. But despite this regional peculiarity of North Africa, there were always historically connecting elements: the Trans-Saharan trade, the intensive exchange between Pharaonic Egypt and the Nubian kingdoms since the 9th century BC. Chr. As well as more recently the efforts to pan-African approaches to integration and cooperation. In addition, there are social ties: The networks of the Sufi brotherhoods extend from North Africa to West African states such as Senegal and Nigeria, and the Tuareg tribes of Algeria and Libya can also be found in the Sahel states of Mali, Niger and Chad. Last but not least, states like Sudan or Mauritania play a hinge function between sub-Saharan and North Africa: They are politically strongly oriented towards the Arab-Islamic world and also belong to its regional organizations, but large parts of their populations define themselves as African.

But it is not just the differences between the regions that made Brunold, like many others, come to the conclusion that Africa does not exist. It is underpinned by a number of other characteristics, including the extremely large linguistic and ethnic diversity of Africa. There are an estimated 2,000 languages ​​and almost as many distinct ethnic groups. In colonialism, this diversity was mainly overshadowed by French and British colonial rule, which led to the common distinction between Anglophone and Francophone Africa. In the further course, the ethnic groups of Africa were ultimately pressed into 53 countries, the demarcation of which paid little attention to growing social contexts or incompatibilities between societies.

After independence and until the end of the East-West conflict, the main dividing political element between the African states was whose side they took in the Cold War. Since its end, the process of differentiation has accelerated. A wave of democratization swept through most of the sub-Saharan countries, but in only a few of them it left behind semi-consolidated democracies. Other states fell apart or slipped into long years of civil war or tyranny. Finally, North Africa was only marginally affected by the wave of democratization and remained under authoritarian rule.

Economic reforms and improved governance, but also high income from the sale of raw materials, helped some African countries to achieve considerable economic growth rates. However, in only a few cases has the majority of the population benefited from this through increased prosperity and improved social development. The civil war states in particular had to experience a dramatic economic decline in the past ten to 20 years.

Despite their differences, the African states also have something in common: Almost all of them were colonial and have received development aid for many years. As measured by common indicators of economic and social development, most of the countries in Africa are well below the global average. Weak state institutions as well as personal and traditional ties and loyalties as the dominants of politics are disproportionately widespread. Corruption and patronage also play a greater role in Africa than in other regions of the world. In addition, traditional and modern forms of culture show similarities and thus create similarities. After all, many of the more recent challenges the continent is facing do not stop at the imaginary border between northern and southern Africa. This applies to waves of migration as well as to the consequences of climate change or to transnational jihadist networks.

Ultimately, it depends on the frame of reference whether it makes sense to speak of Africa in general terms or to emphasize its versatility. As in the case of Europe, the continent is viewed as a unit or even a single actor in certain contexts - for example, when it comes to its role in international politics or the challenges Africa is faced with as a result of globalization.

After the first Africa issue presented the differences based on the individual regions of the continent and selected countries, this edition is intended to work out the similarities and yet do justice to the differentiation of the continent.