08 Apr 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
The presence of fast-food hamburgers tells us more about our national economic and political wellbeing than we might think, writes Tony Leon
WHAT does the presence of fast-food hamburgers, specifically the Big Mac, tell us about our national economic and political wellbeing?
More than you might think. An item in the Washington Post at the weekend caught my attention. It reported that the three McDonald’s restaurants in Crimea, recently "abruptly annexed by Russia", are now closed. The Ukrainian McDonald’s branch said the closure was for "technical reasons" — although, as the reporter waspishly noted, this was "perhaps referring to the difficulty of supplying your restaurants when they turn up in a foreign country overnight". And the closure appears permanent as McDonald’s has offered to move its Crimean employees to other jobs in Ukraine and has thrown in three months’ free rental for good measure.
When I retweeted this nugget, if you’ll forgive the fast-food pun, one Struan Lloyd responded: "They should close everywhere — no nutrients." My former colleague, Douglas Gibson, suggested Crimeans could now "eat Russian sausage instead".
I was immediately reminded of something else entirely. In 1999, when globalisation was the new big thing and Russian expansionism appeared at an end, the influential polemicist Thomas Friedman published a fat book on the subject, The Lexus and the Olive Tree. I was impressed with its take on the unprecedented integration of finance, markets, nation states and technology and his account of how a new international order was replacing the Cold War order.
Some of Friedman’s assumptions have been proven wrong, not the least his underestimation of the rise of Cold War warrior Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. But one, at least, has been triumphantly vindicated, as the weekend disappearance of the Big Mac from Crimean menus proves.
Friedman devotes a chapter to "The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention". Having travelled the world back then and munched hamburgers throughout, he came to a fascinating, if somewhat indigestible, conclusion: "No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s."
He even tested this idea with executives at (I am not kidding) "Hamburger University", McDonald’s research and training facility in Oakbrook, Illinois. They confirmed his thesis, that "when a country reaches the level of economic development where it has a middle class big enough to support a McDonald’s network, it becomes a McDonald’s country. And people in McDonald’s countries don’t like to fight wars anymore, they prefer to wait in line for burgers."
Crimea is an imperfect fit for this thesis, but it roughly works. The closure of the burger chain happened there after the forcible annexation by Russia, but it broadly suggests that peace is the prerequisite for the continued existence of the golden arches.
One of the postapartheid dividends was the arrival of the Big Mac in South Africa in November 1995, only after the first democratic election and South Africa had bedded down its new constitutional order.
The company’s website says the roll-out — we are approaching our 200th McDonald’s store — had been unprecedented, with 30 stores opened in a record 23 months. Of some interest, and undoubtedly useful for his pension pot, is that African National Congress supremo Cyril Ramaphosa has been, since March 2011, the development licensee here driving its expansion. If he has as much success in harvesting votes as in his investment in flipping burgers, then perhaps his party will do better next month than predicted.
With the weekend news that the Nigerian economy has overtaken South Africa’s as Africa’s largest, I decided to apply Friedman’s thesis to this country of 169-million people.
There is not a single McDonald’s in Nigeria. According to McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson, the company was only now "looking at Nigeria".
Perhaps this underscores how not just fast foods but also national statistics should be accompanied with a giant health warning. For Nigeria relies almost entirely for its economic wellbeing, or at least for 80% of government revenue, on its vast oil resources.
And the recent forced departure of its central bank chief, Lamido Sanusi, by President Goodluck Jonathan, tells its own sorry tale. He was fired, essentially, for presenting to parliament evidence that more than $20bn had gone missing from the state oil company, and that a figure close to the president was a suspect in this misappropriation.
So, for South Africa, our addiction to fast food triggers both health and economic warnings. On Monday, Peter Bruce eloquently explained our chronic dependence on foreign investment, and Business Day’s editorial was a baleful reminder that we can’t consume and spend our way out of our economic difficulty. Still, when you next see the golden arches of McDonald’s, it’s worth remembering they are evidence of our peace dividend.
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