Xenophobic rioters in Johannesburg last month: South Africa is already facing the consequences of African demographic change (©Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
The fact that well over a million asylum-seekers entered Europe last year, with even more poised to follow this year, has given Europeans an idea of the size of potential immigrant inflows that the continent now faces. But thus far most of the migrants have come from the Middle East and central Asia. Europe’s much bigger problem lies in the far greater numbers of Africans who are likely to attempt the same journey: David Cameron has given cognisance to this danger in his recent statement about a fresh wave of migrants seeking to enter Europe from Libya.
Already, of course, large numbers of North Africans, Eritreans and Somalis have been mixed among the Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan tide flowing through Turkey. This, however, is but a foretaste. The overwhelming majority of these Africans on the move are economic migrants, and the spread of modern media, bringing with it images of the immensely higher standard of living available in Europe, is propelling ever larger numbers into motion.
This is partly just a matter of size. Africa — whose size is artificially minimised on maps by the Mercator projection — is so huge that one could fit Eastern and Western Europe, China, Japan, India, New Zealand and the USA into its enormous land mass. But it is also because, at a time when population growth has slowed or gone negative in most of the developed world, Africa is still experiencing a demographic explosion.
Historically, disease kept Africa’s population low and life expectancy down to 25 or less. The huge mortality rate meant that in the interests of societal survival girls had to have children at puberty and as many as possible thereafter. The economic historian Patrick Manning estimates that there were 99.9 million Africans in 1790 and only 96.9 million in 1900. But the coming of Western medicine had a dramatic effect: Africa’s population is now more than 1 billion. Moreover, between 1961 and 2011 life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 40.5 years to 54.7. One result is more older men having children with younger wives — South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma is a perfect example: he has more than 20 children with multiple women and is still taking new wives in his seventies.
When the world’s population passed 7 billion on March 12, 2012 (according to the US Census Bureau) Africans made up 14.3 per cent of the total, but by 2040, when the world’s population will have reached 8.1 billion, Africans will make up 1.87 billion (23.1 per cent) of the total. The drama lies in the 870 million more Africans the continent will add by then.
African family size is shrinking everywhere but from such high levels that even the reducing figure produces explosive growth. Thus the Africa Survey 2015-16 produced by Good Governance Africa shows that between 1975 and 2013 the fertility rate — live births per woman — had fallen from 7.1 to 5.9 in Uganda; from 6.7 to 6.0 in Nigeria; from 6.8 to 5.2 in Tanzania; from 6.4 to 5.9 in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and from 7.8 to 4.4 in Kenya. As can be seen, when women on average have four or five children, a population doubles in a generation or less. Only in Algeria and South Africa — the two African countries which had the largest white settlements — has family size reduced to close to replacement level. But South Africa’s population is growing quite quickly because it too is a magnet for African migrants — a fact which has triggered repeated and bloody xenophobic riots.
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