It may come as surprise that I spent more time at shopping malls while traveling in Africa than I ever do—and maybe ever have—in the United States. I averaged at least two visits to the mall every week during my overland journey in Africa. Viewed as a hallmark of rising living standards—as well as a safe, convenient place for visitors to shop—every capitol city we passed through had its own version.
Against the backdrop of my recently rediscovered mallratness, I attended a press conference in Erkuleni—one of South Africa’s rising green hubs—which raised some really interesting questions about what development in Africa can and must look like in the years to come—and how this relates to global quality-of-life standards perpetuated by the Global North.
The city of Erkuleni—which means “place of peace”—is actually the result of a merger of nine towns. It is now home to over two million people; 45 percent of the municipality’s population is under 35 years old. The municipality has various green initiatives underway, including plans for off-the-grid solar panels. The municipality hosted panelists from numerous groups of climate concerned young people.
“If we as young people are not concerned about our future, no one will be concerned about our future,” said T. Koopedi, one of the first presenters. He then posed this thought-provoking question:
“What does sustainable development look like?”
Africa’s youth want their nations to grow and thrive. But in 2011, they also know that developing in the same way as prosperous North American and European nations just isn’t sustainable.
“Young people in Africa do not want to live in a developing nation forever. They want to live in a developed nation but they are now told they cannot develop the same way as the West.”
This is a difficult question to answer and one that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about since we attended this panel discussion. What right do North Americans and Europeans have to tell developing nations that they can’t have what we have—because we used up all the resources? How can we be transparent about our mistakes and support other countries in avoiding these same pitfalls? If we think going green is such a hot idea, why aren’t we voting in leaders who will fight for green policy?
This story was originally published by WHFM on 12/6/11. Photo of Manda Hill Mall in Lusaka, Zambia by Ruth Terry