Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Where goes the continent?

Submitted by Rachel Adams

In February of this year, Jody Kollapen, Chairman of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) stated that Nelson Mandela had taken reconciliation too far and that there had been an “undue focus on reconciliation rather than transformation“.

Of course in all the god-like worship that surrounded the presidency of Nelson Mandela and the “transition” from apartheid to democracy, it seems that observations such as this one, which had been made by a few critical voices, were ignored. As with all African transitions in which people become caught up in the political hype of finally overcoming a colonial power, or in contemporary politics — a government that has overstayed its power — South Africa was too busy imagining a “rainbow nation” in which wealth would “trickle down” to the poor majority that they neglected to ask the more obvious question: how?

How does a nation achieve reconciliation without the policies that directly address wealth redistribution, political empowerment and social upliftment? How do African governments manage the balance between international pressures and local realities when it comes to development strategies? How do we as Africans address the real effects of colonialism (or in this case, apartheid) without being apologetic to the people that caused our fragmentation and demise, and without further empowering those who previously sabotaged the continent?

And finally, what will it take for us to recognize that what we lack as Africans is a real nationalist (or dare I say pan-Africanist) agenda where we clearly define what our goals and objectives are as separate countries and as a continent?

To date, our nationalist agendas have been defined for us by external power-brokers and our resources managed by our governments and their international partners in ways that are barely capable of benefiting our own citizens. And even in cases where development was self-defined in the years after independence (cases like Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania), economic downturn made us slaves once again to development strategies based on a “one-size-fits-all” model.

Through global policy, structural adjustment programs, trade “agreements” and now quality assurance demands, local governments have been caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to balance expectations from both their people and the international community. And at the end of the day, any of us who have taken the time to look, will see that it is always the outside force that gets the upper hand. It’s no wonder that our governments and our communities are falling apart. We lack focus and our people lack ambition and opportunity. We go through life hoping that somewhere, somehow, things will fall into place and our countries’ citizens will finally take ownership of their own local space.

In fact, those of us who are doing well economically thank the stars for escaping the “misfortune” that continually befalls our brothers and sisters — and that it is them and not us. And then we walk through life carrying some level of guilt and also hoping that our valuable possessions will not be snatched from us by the robber whose plight we understand but refuse to acknowledge.

The events of the past few weeks are a telling symptom of the serious lack of focus that plagues African countries. I have been watching the currently unfolding events in South Africa quite closely, and have been waiting to hear some of the very usual accusations that I knew would filter out of the media and even from academic analyses across the globe. And as I suspected, they came.

Township dwellers were called barbaric, Thabo Mbeki was blamed for his over-focus on pro-business policy, black people were criticised for their short-sightedness and for not bearing any sympathies for their brothers. Al Jazeera even reported that some elements in South Africa were calling for early elections that could lead to a replacement of the Mbeki government, which is now being seen as problematic by some analysts. All in all, an African country led by a black African leader went down the “expected” path. And this is what has come to be expected of us: chaos, unrest, political corruption, resource mismanagement — all of which will lead finally, if we are unlucky, to civil war.

Those of us who are very critical of such analyses however, know that there is more to this than we have allowed ourselves to believe. I argue that our problem is not barbarism, corruption or lack of education. Our issue is not to be found in selfish black leaders, savage black brothers or even leaders that have overstayed their welcome. All these are mere symptoms of what I think is the real dilemma.

And the real dilemma is this: we lack real nationalist agendas and policies that selfishly guard the interests of our people before serving those of the foreign community. Logically speaking, South Africa would not pan out the way it did if both the Government of National Unity and the present leadership had not over-compromised on economic redress. Black South Africans would not be as desperate as they are today if white interest had not remained the order of the day. Interracial relations would not be so fragmented if the government had set out to effect change in a way that erased race as a marker of status, economic and social ability and citizenship. Right now most black South Africans (and by that I mean blacks, coloureds and a small population of Indians) are second-class citizens in their own country, actually third-class if you consider that many foreigners live better lives than they do.

The point is this: we cannot expect our countries to succeed if our political and economic focus is not rested on our local needs. We cannot demand that citizens understand the meaning of national and regional pride if their lives do not give reason for that recognition.

Right now South Africans are being called to remember that neighbouring countries sheltered and supported them during apartheid, but that history and that remembrance is now punctuated by a more current and visible reality: that the promise for economic and political liberation has been broken. It is time that South Africa and every other nation realised the importance of drafting a true nationalist agenda.

Every other country on the globe works from a “national interest” stand point. Yet we are still waiting for other countries to decide if it is in their national interest to deal with us, decide for us or work with us. We have discarded all power and ability and forgotten the opportunity that comes with creativity and deciding for oneself what course to take. In that process we have served neo-liberal, capitalist agendas which put investment first, and leave the market to decide who gets rich and who stays poor. And that strategy works in countries where you have a minority of poor people. It does not work for countries like ours where our past disenfranchised a majority, and where resources were initially serving only a small minority.

The transition that is needed requires a feat of political and social energy, and assuming that short-sighted policies that work for others will work for us is detrimental, and as we can see now, deadly. We should not be surprised. We did not take enough time to strategise, and now, here we are. I am a Zimbabwean and I literally wept over the image of a fellow human whose flesh was burnt as though it were paper. Yet we must face it, South Africa will inevitably go in the same direction that most African countries have gone, not because our governments fail, but because they have not been given (and have not given themselves) the time to think critically about what is actually needed for reform in their own local contexts.

In memory of all who passed.

Rachel Adams is currently reading towards a Masters in African Studies at Oxford University, England.