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Book Talk: Africa's natural wealth: its burden and blessing

Updated: 2015-03-05 13:47

JOHANNESBURG - Martin Meredith, one of the most prolific writers on all things African, takes readers in his new book on a 5,000-year journey through the continent, which remains the world's poorest despite fabulous natural wealth.

The notion of a "resource curse" - the distressing tendency of developing countries to fail to translate their minerals and hydrocarbons into wider prosperity - is a very modern one.

But a central theme of "The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour" is that gold, ivory and other natural riches have long been both a burden and a blessing to the region.

Meredith spoke to Reuters by telephone about the book.

Q: Africa's natural riches have long been coveted and exploited by outsiders. Can the continent take control of its own destiny in this regard and extract its minerals and hydrocarbons in such a way that the wealth can be spread?

A: In theory it could be. Unfortunately, the pattern that most African governments have adopted is to use the resources mainly to benefit elite groups or reward supporters. It's sometimes called a resource curse, but the resources are a huge benefit. It's the management of the wealth that comes from those resources where the problem lies.

Q: One sub-theme in your book is the long history of religious tensions in Africa between Islam and Christianity. Is history repeating itself at the moment?

A: Not really, no, because the nature of the collision between different religions, particularly between Islam and Christianity, is completely different from what it has been in the past. The intention of Muslim radicals to drive out or expunge Christian churches and opponents, it's different in modern times. If you look at the Jihadist movements of the 19th century, which took place in many areas of West Africa, the intention there of the Jihadist leaders was to convert the local population to a purer form of Islamic practice. So many of the religious wars that went on in the 19th century were not really aimed at anything other than converting large sections of the population towards Islam. It was not so much a collision between Islam and Christianity.

Q: What is your take on the "African Rising" narrative that is currently fashionable?

A: I find it a rather foolhardy notion. It's quite true that in the first decade of the 21st century the growth rate in Africa after some 40 years of economic mayhem, the growth rate has been quite impressive. The general average over that period would have been about 5 percent, which is impressive. But much of that had to do with rising commodity prices. And if you take out the rise in commodity prices you are left with a much less impressive economic record.

Q: You have traveled widely in Africa. What is your favourite country or region?

A: One of my favorite countries is certainly Ethiopia because of its extraordinary historical and religious traditions and indeed its magnetic beauty. I rather like Zimbabwe as a country but find its politics are very ugly.

Q: What is your next book project?

A: I've started research on a book about an Afrikaner family, an aristocratic family, caught up in the turmoil of the Boer War, and what happened to them.

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