Africa’s future is in our hands


A sound argument to the effect that it is time for commentators to discard the well-worn dichotomy of Africa’s rise or fall is put forward in Simon Freemantle’s article in Business Day, 5 February 2015. He argues, correctly, that doing so will allow us to more dispassionately assess the individual economies as they gain, stall or even recede.

His argument prompted me to focus on what we as individuals, communities and countries, should do to ensure that Africa indeed rises and does not fall. I hope to demonstrate that our actions or inaction will determine the fate of our beloved continent.

Dreams of our founding fathers

Those that came before us had great dreams about Africa. They held lofty ideals about her prospects and wanted the very best for her and her people. These dreams and ideals were eloquently outlined by the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Chief Albert Luthuli:

“Let me invite Africa to cast her eyes beyond the past and to some extent the present, with their woes and tribulations, trials and failures, and some successes, and see herself an emerging continent, bursting to freedom through the shell of centuries of serfdom. This is Africa’s age – the dawn of her fulfilment, yes, the moment when she must grapple with destiny to reach the summits of sublimity, saying – ours was a fight for noble values and worthy ends, and not for lands and the enslavement of man.”

How have we fared? How far from these ideals have we strayed and how much did we do to realise our great potential? A sober and dispassionate account will concede that Africa has been held back for far too long – by weak institutions that have failed to serve the people, by recurring conflicts that has made sustained and durable development elusive, by outmoded economic structures that have barred the door of opportunity to millions, by underdevelopment and inequality caused by a lack of human development and by corrupt elites, local and foreign, who plundered her resources and squandered her wealth.

Ngugi Wa Thiongo describes our dire situation. He challenges us to think about our post-colonial performance:

“We have actually made a mockery of the gift (of independence). At a glance, our post-independence period has seen the devaluation of our African unity and pan-Africanism, the devaluation of intellect and intellectual achievement, and worst of all, the devaluation of African lives. This situation raises the inevitable question: What gift shall we, the living, bequeath to the unborn? What Africa shall we hand over to the future?”

While our generation can justifiably place all these shortcomings at the door of all those who came before us, the harsh reality is that today, the time has come to turn the curse of history into the blessing of destiny. That responsibility rests with us more than anybody else. The challenge may look daunting, but the wise counsel of Kwame Nkrumah offers some guidance:

“ …The task ahead is great indeed, and heavy is the responsibility; and yet it is a noble and glorious challenge a challenge which calls for the courage to dream, the courage to believe, the courage to dare, the courage to do, the courage to envision, the courage to fight, the courage to work, the courage to achieve to achieve the highest excellences and the fullest greatness of man. Dare we ask for more in life?”

Things are falling apart

Simon Freemantle outlined a number of significant events that have cast a long shadow across the continent. These events include:

  • The fall in most dollar commodity prices
  • The sharp fall in the oil price and its impact on oil producing countries such as Nigeria and Angola;
  • Currency challenges in key markets;
  • The residual perception of Africa as posing a health risk, caused by the Ebola outbreak;
  • Security threats from the rampant escalation of violence by Boko Haram in West Africa and Al-Shaabab in East Africa;
  • The slowing of growth and commodity demand in China; and
  • The political risks spawned by elections across the continent.

In addition to these, we have instability in Mali, a political stalemate in Lesotho, armed conflict in the new South Sudan, and vandalism and looting of property in xenophobic attacks, rolling load shedding and huge conflicts between workers and management in South Africa.

When villages are completely destroyed, when random attacks occur at shopping malls, when 10-year-old girls are used as suicide bombers, when seven-year-old girls are raped and mutilated, and when rampant corruption gobbles valuable resources aimed at development, Africa’s dream looks more and more like a mirage.

The words William Butler Yeats penned in his poem, The Second Coming, seem prophetic:

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

We are witnessing things falling apart completely. Our dream is being dashed. In such circumstances, what are we to do? Are we to let go of our dreams and noble ideals? The answer I prefer comes from the words of renowned South Africa poet Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile in Wounded Dreams:

“…Though the present remains a dangerous place to live, cynicism would be a reckless luxury; toxic lies piled high and deodorised to sound like the most clear signage showing us the way forward from here.

“…though the present is a dangerous place to live, possibility remains what moves us. We are involved, indifference would simply be evidence of the will to die or trying to straddle some fence that no one has ever seen…“

Audacity of hope

For Africa to rise, for her not to falter, we must rekindle hope and banish fear, cynicism and indifference. In the words of Luthuli:

Could it not be that history has delayed Africa’s rebirth for a purpose? The situation confronts her with inescapable challenges, but more importantly with opportunities for service to herself and mankind. She evades the challenges and neglects the opportunities to her shame, if not her doom. How she sees her destiny is a more vital and rewarding quest than bemoaning her past with its humiliations and sufferings.”

The hope that both Kgositsile and Luthuli invoke is derived from immense passion, deep courage, strong conviction and a clear vision of the future. It is hope that requires personal risks, and that demands huge sacrifices and commitment to a higher ideal. In the words of Chris Hedges: “The more futile, the more useless, the more irrelevant and incomprehensible an act of rebellion is, the vaster and more potent hope becomes.”

That hope was the light that sustained Nelson Mandela during his darkest hour, when he lost his beloved mother, then his eldest son in a tragic car accident, while his wife, Winnie Mandela, was detained in solitary confinement. It is that hope he describes so passionately in his prison letters:

“In spite of all that has happened I have, throughout the ebb and flow of the tides of fortune in the last 15 months, lived in hope and expectation. I feel my heart pumping hope steadily to every part of my body, warming my blood and pepping up my spirits. I am convinced that floods of personal disaster can never drown a determined revolutionary nor can the cumulus of misery that accompanies tragedy suffocate him. To a freedom fighter hope is what a life belt is to a swimmer – a guarantee that one will keep afloat and free from danger.”

Clearly, this hope is not for the practical and the sophisticated; the cynics and the complacent; nor the defeated and the fearful. It requires what President Obama describes as the audacity of hope, hope in the face of difficulty, and hope in the face of uncertainty.

Midwives of Africa’s rebirth

Those of us who seek to be the midwives of an African Renaissance beyond the “easy headline”, the “catchy soundbite” or social media activism, must accept the responsibility to create the conditions necessary for Africa to rise. Our inaction will inevitably result in Africa faltering. That means we must, in the words of Al Gore, “come to believe in hope over despair, striving over resignation and faith over cynicism.”

A great Ivorian proverb says: “The outsider doesn’t know the path through the calabash trees.” In other words, we know our continent better than others; it is our responsibility to be the primary movers in the rebirth of our continent, with help and support from others. The future we create must and should be a future of our own making. The inescapable fact is that this is our responsibility; no-one else’s.

This time, this moment in Africa’s history, requires what Robert F Kennedy described in his seminal speech at a Nusas seminar in Cape Town in 1966:

“This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.”

He went on to say: “‘There is,’ said an Italian philosopher, ‘nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.’ Yet this is the measure of the task of your generation, and the road is strewn with many dangers.”

Africa cries out for man and women of great promise, who are willing to take on the Herculean task of changing the fortunes of a continent, who are prepared to take steps, however small, to change our trajectory and who are willing to stand up for their ideals regardless of the difficulties they may face. There is no shortage of people who profess to have these qualities, who confess to a desire to bring about change, but fewer and fewer are taking any steps towards this noble goal.

A dangerous undertaking

What are the dangers we face in our quest for change?

The danger of futility

Many people I speak to seem paralysed by the sheer magnitude and scale of the challenges that face our continent. They are daunted by the Herculean tasks that confront any change effort and feel dwarfed by those history regards as giants because of their achievements. The reality is that we may not be a Mandela, a Nyerere, a Kaunda, a Nasser, or a Balewa. Kennedy pointed out that many of the world’s greatest movements of thought and action have flowed from the work of a single person. He cautions against the danger of futility, which is the belief that here is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence.

Kennedy reminded us of the timeless words of Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” He also pointed out: “The reality is that few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

Each one of us, in our spheres of influence and in line with our capabilities and interests, can play a meaningful role in our families, communities, societies, countries or across the continent to bring about change. Such change will not come from one heroic action by one individual or a chosen few brave souls; change across our continent will come because “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped,” again in Kennedy’s words.

He also said: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

I urge all those of you who, like me, are moved by the plight of our continent, but may feel that your efforts would be futile, to start today to focus on one or a few areas of change that you may influence and concentrate on these with purpose, passion and determination. I assure you that each act will send forth those tiny ripples of hope Kennedy referred to.

The late Prof Andre Brink cautions us of madness in his book, A dry White Season, “ There are two types of madness one should guard against; one is the belief that we can do everything, and the other is that we can do nothing”

We must not get trapped in inaction, analysis paralysis nor over reaching, we must choose to play a meaningful role in line with our skills, capabilities, interests and value system.

Africa cries out for us to help, we dare not fail her!

The danger of expediency

Kennedy warned of another danger, that of expediency, espoused by “those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities”. He argued passionately that “idealism, high aspirations, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programmes – that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities, no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems.” He further argued that “to adhere to standards, to idealism, to vision in the face of immediate dangers, takes great courage and takes self-confidence” – “only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly”.

Such a stand for beliefs, ideas and principles is best captured by the immortal words of Nelson Mandela when facing the danger of death:

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

This courage and idealism was also displayed by Patrice Lumumba, former Prime Minister of the Congo, as he faced death through torture by his captors;

“Cruelty, insults and torture can never force me to ask for mercy, because I prefer to die with head high, with indestructible faith and profound belief in the destiny of our country than to live in humility and renounce the principles which are sacred to me.”

Such idealism is driven by a higher purpose, by the need to ensure that others, including future generations, will be beneficiaries of our actions.

Chief Albert Luthuli’s closed his Nobel Prize acceptance speech with this call to action for all of us; words that are even more relevant today:

“The address could do no more than pose some questions and leave it to the African leaders and people to provide satisfying answers and responses by their concern for higher values and by their noble actions that could be:
‘…footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.’”

We must never lose our ideals, never succumb to the numbness of expediency.

The danger of timidity

Kennedy pointed out that “few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues and the wrath of their society”. He argues that “moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change”.

In the words of Nelson Mandela: “A new world will not be won by those who stand at a distance with their arms folded, but by those who are in the arena, whose garments are torn by storms and whose bodies are maimed in the course of contest. Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth, even when things seem dark and grim; who try over and over.”

Many profess the desire to see change; some eloquently describe what needs to be done; but few take any concrete steps, no matter how small. I urge each one of you who is moved by a higher ideal to not allow the fear of being ostracised, marginalised or labelled to extinguish your passion.

The danger of comfort

Kennedy singled out a fourth danger: comfort: “the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education”. He concluded by pointing out that everyone “will ultimately be judged – will ultimately judge himself – on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort”.

In the words of Roosevelt, in his seminal speech at the Sorbonne in 1910: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Each one of us has a right to ambition, a right to pursue business or professional interests. These are not incompatible with a desire to improve the lot of your fellow men or society at large. Paradoxically, for most ambitious people, or for most business people, sustainable financial success depends on social stability, broadened prosperity and a reduction in poverty and inequality. We need those who are blessed with skills, education and resources to use their privileged positions to help their fellow men.

The danger of cynicism

Roosevelt identified the dangers of cynicism. He pointed out that, “among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows”. He argued that there is still less room for “those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day”. Roosevelt is even more disparaging of those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. His conclusion is instructive: “The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength.”

Al Gore pointed out that “cynicismthe stubborn, unwavering disbelief in the possibility of good – can become a malignant habit”. He said that, unlike sceptics, “who may finally be persuaded by facts”, cynics never change their minds, “for they are so deeply invested in the conviction that virtue cannot prevail over the deep and essential evil in all things and all people”.

Gore said that cynicism “drains us of the will to improve; it diminishes our public spirit; it saps our inventiveness; it withers our souls. Cynics often see themselves as merely being world-weary. There is no new thing under the sun, the cynics say. They have not only seen everything; they have seen through everything. They claim that their weariness is wisdom. But it is usually merely posturing. Their weariness seems to be most effective when they consider the aspirations of those beneath them, who have neither power nor influence nor wealth. For these unfortunates, nothing can be done, the cynics declare.”

The cynics may write off Africa as a hopeless continent, the skeptics may not believe in the momentum that Africa is gaining, but daily I experience ordinary Africans showing courage, resilience and perseverance against all odds. They represent the true picture of Africa’s potential. We owe it to them to help them create a better future for them and their children.

What is to be done?

President Ouattara, pointed to the change in attitude across the continent, “the light of hope and new opportunities…the light of lessons learned and wisdom gained…the light of courage to take the tough decisions”.

Indeed, harsh lessons have been learnt, wisdom has been gained; what is left is the courage to not only take tough decisions, but to execute on them as individuals, institutions, governments and organisations. Here are some of the practical steps we can take towards our noble goal:

  1. Faster economic growth: It is crucial that Africa’s economies continue to grow faster, to keep pace with population growth. To ensure this, we must look beyond reliance on primary commodity exports and natural resources. We must diversify our economies by focusing on alternative sources of growth and job creation. We need to add value to agriculture and other commodities. We need to develop manufacturing and petrochemicals and other sectors that can grow our economies faster. We must also promote better and more efficient intra-Africa trade and remove all barriers and bottlenecks to commerce and trade.
  2. Economic inclusion: Growth and prosperity must lift everyone together and provide opportunities to all. For Africa to truly rise, it needs a solid middle class, a consuming class. We also have evidence that less inequality is associated with more sustained spells of growth. So inclusion is not just about fairness and decency; it is also good economics.
  3. National unity and reconciliation: We all have to do our part, in each country, to promote a spirit of understanding, peace, nation building, tolerance, cohabitation and respect for cultural, linguistic and religious differences across countries, regions and throughout the continent.
  4. Religious tolerance and understanding: In the words of Ebrahim Rasool, religious liberty must be more than the freedom to believe, it is also the freedom to let believe. Religious liberty is more than the freedom to evangelise, religious liberty is also the responsibility to find the common ground even as you evangelise: that religious liberty has to assert the great spirituality of all human beings while persuading of better ways to reach and to worship God. The promotion of these ideas is critical for stability in key parts of our continent.
  5. Investment in people: Africa’s people hold the key to her future success. Sustained growth comes from productivity, and productivity comes not just from machines, but even more from productive people. Africa needs better education and improved skills, focused on areas where there is a demand for workers. Young people are the future, but we must plan for this future.
  6. Rooting out corruption: Individually and collectively, we must take concrete steps to root out corruption from the body politic, the private sector and within our society. This requires us to set ourselves the highest standards of ethics and integrity in all our dealings.
  7. Investment in infrastructure: We need to intensify efforts to improve our investment climate to ensure that the private sector can thrive and create jobs. Public-private partnerships are needed to invest the proceeds of our natural resources in critical infrastructure like power, roads, rail, information and communications technology (ICT), and water and sanitation. We need to develop our financial systems to provide flexible and timely credit. We need to develop capacity for entrepreneurship, especially among the youth, as a major driver of job creation.
  8. Transformation of the public service: The development of a competent, committed, professional and technology enabled public service is critical for the delivery of services, the creation of an enabling environment for growth and development and most importantly the execution of programmes to alleviate poverty and under development.

Our future is our hands

As we contemplate the actions we may take, as individuals, groups, communities or as countries, let us draw inspiration from the wise words of the late Prof Andre Brink, “ I cannot chose not to intervene: that would be a denial and a mockery not only of everything I believe in, but of the hope that compassion may survive among men. By not acting as I did I would deny the very possibility of that gulf to be bridged. If I act, I cannot but lose, but if I do not act, it is a different kind of defeat, equally decisive and maybe worse. Because then I will not even have a conscience left.”  

The fate of a continent rests on our shoulders and the future of our children will be affected by our actions or inaction. We all need to commit to concrete actions and decisive steps towards Africa’s rebirth. There will be setbacks along the way, reversals sometimes, and we may be confronted with soul-destroying challenges. Driven by our hopes and inspired by our dreams, we must persevere towards a better future for the next generation.

This notion was reinforced by an American President, John F Kennedy: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Let us stand up for the ideal of Africa’s renewal. Our individual and collective stance will send forth a “tiny ripple of hope”, in the words of Robert Kennedy. It is the multiplication of those tiny ripples that will bring about the change we dream of seeing.