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South Africa’s moment in Africa’s ‘fierce urgency of now’

Africa can be rid of all its negatives if stronger nations take over weak ones. For the purposes of this discussion, weak nations shall mean all failed states experiencing all manner of ills detracting from a decent quality of life; including but not limited to severe economic decline, bad governance, inadequate or non-existent public service, endemic corruption and crime, internal conflict, high mortality rates, rampant diseases and illiteracy, food shortages and high levels of poverty relative to the amount of natural resources. This sweeping description suggests that at least 95% of Africa is made up of “weak” nations, which in itself is a terrible indictment for the world’s second most-populous continent and one endowed with a staggering amount of untapped wealth.

The second assertion I wish to make is this. In the course of any civilisation, there comes a defining moment when it is up to one or perhaps a few to embrace the opportunity of the proverbial second chance and scale anew the heights of greatness. I get the sense that we as a continent, have indeed reached that moment in our contemporary time. However, going by our propensity for narrow-minded self interests, we are in danger of failing to get our act together for as long as we allow bad leaders and their failed states to thrive in a continent crying for visionary leadership.

For all its shortcomings on the social and political front, South Africa does not seem to have grasped its special place in African affairs. We are not exactly what can be described as a weak, failed state. We are an economic powerhouse, ranked 20th in the world in terms of GDP (as of 2007) and boasting one of the world’s most progressive constitutions. It is with this mind that it is sad to see a country so poised on the threshold of greatness, vacillate so precariously in the kind of politics that for decades has consigned much of Africa to its sorry state.

The ANC need not be preoccupied with the notion of entitlement to lord it over those who yesterday overruled us. More than anything else, we should be preoccupied with the grand concepts of nation-building, NEPAD and the exporting of our constitution further afield.

South Africa is not doing the continent any favours when it fails to decisively tackle crime and social inequalities. Failing to gain the upper hand on the problems affecting our society, only serves to diminish our ability to influence our affairs. This is why it such a bad idea for this economic powerhouse to go the way of all other failed states. When any nation becomes a failed state, it effectively surrenders its moral, political and economic independence, allowing all manner of opportunistic and exploitative elements to take hold. For this reason, it was with great sorrow that we witnessed the xenophobic spectacle when the famed economic Eldorado of Jozi became one large killing field of all people foreign. It was a harrowing episode, much darker in certain respects than the atrocities suffered in a by-gone era. We saw an unruly mob hold Mbeki’s government hostage, whilst the foreign nationals he had been so kind as to adopt in his larger African Renaissance family, became the unwanted step-children of South Africa, suddenly bearing the blame for all manners of ills afflicting this nation.

One would have thought that the xenophobic attacks would have jolted us all into some form of revulsion as to just how far humanity is hell bent on self destruction. Sadly, up to the present hour we have continued in some form of stupor, remaining complacent as civil society whilst attempts to side-step the constitution by those in power are increasing. It is even more tragic to observe our willingness to participate in the politics of them and us, when in the name of correcting historical imbalances, we are sucked into calls of leveling the playing field and the lure of instant gratification.

Clearly, we cannot go back in time and stop the slave trade from happening. Neither can we pretend that the inequalities wrought by colonialist policies and apartheid are still a reality today. However, we will do far better to be visionary and not engage in the politics of victimhood which only reinforce a misguided sense of entitlement to rule with impunity. There are no spoils of war to be looted or exploited (liberation struggle or any other war for that matter) but an enduring legacy of peace and prosperity which needs to be built for the benefit of all Africans.

Over the last twenty years, from Angola to Burundi, the DRC to Zimbabwe, Southern Africa has been in a perpetual state of turmoil. At one point, 1 200 people died everyday in the DRC civil conflict. We now know of millions of undocumented refugees who have flocked to South Africa from many of these failed states. South Africa’s magnanimity to accommodate refugees as much as it is commendable in the spirit of Ubuntu, also betrays a lack of resolve to fully entrench the noble ideals of NEPAD. It seems that the opportunity to have exercised the peer review mechanism which seeks to hold fellow nations accountable to the principles of good governance and respect for human rights, has been irrevocably lost.

Having said that, the negatives facing us pale in comparison to the possibilities within our grasp. In our brief democracy, we have known the damning depths of xenophobia and the thrilling heights of winning the rugby world cup. We have seen the apocalypse that is Zimbabwe unfold on our northern border. Elsewhere, Africa has presented us with every example of how not to destroy a thriving nation in ten easy steps. On a global stage, we have known the privilege of exercising world power at the UN Security Council. To have been party to all of this and yet fail to awaken to the possibilities before us, is to have spurned our opportunity to provide leadership to a leaderless continent.

Our prosperity (relative to others) cannot be sustained in a turbulent sea of regional and continental mayhem. To entrench our constitution and the values of our democracy, we must export these ideals all over Africa. South Africa’s success story can and must be replicated throughout the continent. It can be shared through our “ambassador brands” such as MTN, Engen, Absa, Standard Bank and Sasol. More importantly it needs to be complimented by principled politicians who will be duty bound by the constitution to serve the electorate and enhance their standards of living.

Our unique experience has put us in good stead to produce visionary leaders who will inspire citizens to trade off short-term self interests for an opportunity to participate in nation building. This is why we can no longer entertain populist politicians who, in their misguided zeal to win votes, are ready to set alight the smouldering tinder that could potentially raze this nation to ashes. They promise the unemployable jobs when they should be putting them into vocational programmes to help them skill up so that they can be productive in the informal economy. What we really need are leaders who will extend the interventions of BEE to reach the grassroots level — a frustrated adult generation which was short-changed by apartheid.

Indeed it is time we leap-froged into an era of good governance, world-class service delivery, established our own commodity markets and collaborated with other countries in food production and power generation. There is enough potential on the Congo River for a couple of hydro-electric power stations supplying electricity to huge swathes of the continent. Today, the British Army is in overdrive recruiting young men from the so-called Commonwealth territories. These are the young men we need in our own army.

From a political and economic standpoint, no other African nation has had such a prominent role in the affairs of the world than South Africa. Now, more than at any point in the history of our continent, do we have a groundswell of momentum regarding the continent’s improved prospects. Without a leader, this momentum will ebb away and all might well be lost. In the words of Martin Luther King Jnr, “we are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” We can make this a truly model land of opportunity for all Africans and in the process create a strong nation which will attract the reverence of weak nations.

Taking over weak nations need not necessarily be an act of military aggression in the style empire builders like Shaka Zulu. Africa is waiting for the sustained success of South Africa so that she can flatter us through imitation. Should we fail in this, we risk becoming a failed state ourselves.