Disruption has been one of the decade’s buzzwords. Primarily associated with the technology giants of Silicon Valley, the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Uber are often lauded for innovating where clunky incumbents have failed. In doing so they are viewed as harbingers of progressive change – the leaders of a new, innovation driven economy. With start-up mania at its peak, disruption is usually viewed as unequivocally positive, if at times uncomfortable.
Yet 2016 is reminding us that disruption cuts both ways, and can be highly regressive. We may only be just over half way through the year, but it has already provided enough disruption for the next few decades, and it looks certain that there will be more.
In Europe, the spike in terror attacks has contributed to an already growing tide of xenophobia consistently linked to the influx of refugees and migrants. In May Austria came within a hair’s breadth of electing the European Union’s first far-right head of state in presidential polls, with the country’s main political parties not even featuring in the close run-off between Norbert Hofer of the right-wing Freedom Party and an independent candidate. He lost by a mere 30,863 votes, but Austria’s constitutional court later annulled the result and ordered the election to be held again.
Anti-foreigner sentiment also played a central role in the United Kingdom’s unprecedented and largely unexpected decision to leave the European Union. The country’s ruling party had evidently misjudged the popular mood, with little by way of a plan in case of a “Leave” vote. The move has already sent shock waves through the global economy, and was welcomed by France’s far right leader, Marine Le Pen.
All eyes are now nervously fixed on the US presidential election in November. Dismissed as nothing more than an amusing PR stunt just six months ago, Donald Trump’s candidacy arguably embodies the 2016 wave of disruption more than any other event. Having already secured millions of votes in the primary campaign, a nationwide poll immediately after the Republican National Convention in July put him well clear of his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Trump’s ascendancy has been characterised by an anti establishment slant, backed up by vitriolic anti-foreigner rhetoric, aimed primarily at Muslims and Mexicans. This has done nothing to slow him down – if anything, it has worked in his favour.
Across the globe, politics is becoming more reactionary, more short-term, and more regressive. The world will be hoping that Trump does not triumph in November. Yet even a Clinton victory is unlikely to mark a return to progressive and stable politics.
Underpinning this tide of xenophobic, anti-establishment populism are bigger, global trends, with inequality and social fragmentation at the forefront. If the numbers are reliable, the world has never been as unequal as today, with a few dozen individuals owning as much wealth as the majority of the global population.
Waiting for the fallout
What does all this have to do with Africa? It is simple – nobody anywhere is unaffected by these trends. The only question is what exactly the fallout will be. To date, there is little evidence to suggest governments are addressing these trends at their base by tackling core issues such as inequality and a lack of social mobility.
There is an urgent need for determined and bold leadership that will not kowtow to short-term populism with severe long-term implications. Do not hold your breath though – few are even talking about this. Brace yourself, the next six months are likely to be just as rough as the last.