This Is Africa—or Is It?

With all the jewelry-industry angst and Hollywood/NGO hype surrounding the release of Blood Diamond, one key fact was downplayed everywhere but in the movie itself: What went on in Sierra Leone is business as usual in much of Africa.

In the movie, Danny Archer, the mercenary played by Leonardo DiCaprio, tries to explain this to Maddy Bowen, the journalist played by Jennifer Connelly. Government leaders, he tells her, want to profit from Africa’s natural resources until they get enough money to live in exile somewhere else, and rebel factions fight for power but don’t actually want to govern the mess that’s left after the fighting.

“This is Africa,” he says throughout the film.

I don’t claim to be a scholar of African politics, but it isn’t difficult to see that the political structure of most of the continent is deeply flawed and tribal hatreds run deep. The genocide and ethnic cleansings in Rwanda and Darfur have nothing to do with diamonds. And, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo does have significant diamond deposits (predominantly industrials), the rebels who raped and pillaged there a few years ago weren’t doing it for diamonds. In many countries that have tried to hold elections, civilians are either prevented from voting (as shown in an early Blood Diamond scene where villagers’ hands are amputated so they can’t vote), or the election is meaningless because the losers go back to fighting the winners for control again.

To study all the causes of violence and poverty across Africa would take years, but European colonialism, Cold War politics, geography, and ingrained tribal warmongering are at the root. Throw in a healthy dash of greed and corruption, add some centuries-old ethnic hatreds, take out money that should have been reinvested but wasn’t, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Africa is rich in natural resources, but vast tracts of desert and dense rainforest made trading difficult. Colonizing nations exploited resources for themselves, leaving little for native populations, although demand for raw materials needed to rebuild Europe and Asia after World War II spurred a period of hopeful prosperity in Africa. But after the postwar boom, when the colonizing nations left (mostly by the mid-1960s), it became clear that African countries—whose borders had been arbitrarily created by the colonizers—were ill-prepared to take the reins of government, leaving the door open for corruption and graft.

Africa has some of the richest, most fertile soil on earth, but agriculture subsidies and import tariffs in Europe, the United States, and Japan are blamed for not allowing African crops to compete globally. With the exception of South Africa’s, banking systems are often unstable and corrupt, deterring investment. Without educated populations, stable governments, and reliable infrastructure, most African countries are unable to attract companies whose investments could make a difference there.

But it is possible to create a stable, competitive, and, eventually, prosperous Africa. Botswana is proof. When Botswana became independent of Great Britain in 1966, it was one of the poorest nations on earth; today it’s a model of democracy and stability, with a well-educated population, sound fiscal policy, little foreign debt, and the highest sovereign credit rating in Africa. Almost all of those features are the result of diamond mining by Debswana, the firm owned 50 percent by De Beers and 50 percent by the government of Botswana. Whatever else one might want to curse De Beers for, its investment in Botswana is laudable.

Botswana isn’t perfect. It has the second-highest HIV infection rate in the world, with one-third of its citizens estimated to be infected and an average life expectancy of only about 40 years. But the government recognizes the looming economic impact of HIV/AIDS and is combating the problem with free antiretroviral drug treatment and a nationwide program to prevent mother-to-child transmission. It also recognizes the danger of relying so much on one industry and is working to diversify and reduce its dependence on diamonds.

Though not perfect, Botswana is better off than most of Africa. And it’s in both Africa’s and our best interests to do what we can to ensure the future looks a lot more like Botswana and a lot less like a violent movie.