News / Africa

Arab and Sub-Saharan Countries Share Issues of Poverty, Unemployment


Joe DeCapua

Sub-Saharan African countries are closely watching developments in North African and Middle East countries, according to a South African foreign policy analyst.

Thomas Wheeler, who’s with the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, is a former ambassador.

In Libya, where violence has perhaps claimed hundreds of lives, Wheeler says, “It certainly is in one sense unexpected because up until now they’ve managed to avoid becoming involved like so many other countries in the region.  And now they seem to be deeply into it and it’s come about really rather quickly.”


He says some of the issues that sparked the spreading protests in Arab countries are similar to those in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

“One of our more prominent commentators here has opined in one of the major newspapers, Business Day, that South Africa could soon have its own Tunisia moment.  Now this doesn’t refer to Libya, but it refers to the whole situation because in South Africa we have some of the similar problems that the Arab countries have.  We have a great deal of poverty and a great deal of wealth in the same country.  There’s a lot of discontent about local service delivery,” he says.

That discontent has been playing out in the small, poor South African town of Wesselton, east of Johannesburg, where riots lasted for days.  Residents there are angry over high unemployment, poverty and a lack of basic services.

“And also about the candidates,” he says, “who will be standing later this year, about May I think, in a local government election.  And they feel that the candidates are being imposed on them from above and they are not being consulted,” he says.

Wheeler says the incident is by no means on the scale of what’s happening in Arab countries.  Nevertheless, he says, “You have some of the same sort of characteristics that play here, that ordinary people are fed up with governance and they’re taking to the streets to show their dissatisfaction.”

United States of Africa

During his more than 40 years in power, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has tried to exert influence on sub-Saharan countries.  He once proposed a United States of Africa.  But Wheeler says Gadhafi’s influence has been minimal.

“In fact,” he says, “former (South African) president Thabo Mbeki was very strongly opposed to this idea.  There’s a sort of pan-African sense that you should have a closer union in Africa.  But he (Mbeki) certainly didn’t agree to the idea of a United States single government for the whole of Africa, which was Gadhafi’s idea.”

Other sub-Saharan leaders were also lukewarm to the idea.  “Who gets the big car? To sum it up in one sentence. If you have one president of Africa, what happens to all the other 53, who don’t happen to become head of state?  They lose all their perks.  And, of course, none of them are going to agree to that,” says Wheeler.


While poverty and high unemployment are helping to fuel the Arab protests, religion may play a role as well.  The analyst believes it would have less of a role in most sub-Saharan countries.  But he says it could be a factor in Ivory Coast and western countries with large Muslim populations.

“It’s certainly not an issue in southern Africa.  South Africa has freedom of religion.  It’s a secular state.  And we have the lowest level of anti-Semitism in the world allegedly, even though we have a large Muslim community here.  So there is a great deal of tolerance on religious grounds in southern Africa,” he says.

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