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SA and Africa: Human development, the biggest challenge of our lifetime

In agreeing with Davidson Nicol of Sierre Leone on the meaning of Africa, Ali Mazrui states that “yes, Africa is a concept, pregnant with the dreams of millions of people”. In fact, in Mazrui’s outstanding book, Africa since 1935, a number of essays take the reader through a number of important issues on Africa and touch on challenges that the continent faces.

I was reminded of Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s poem, Nightfall in Soweto. Although Mtshali was lamenting a particular repulsive political period in South Africa, Africa still sadly mourns the “nightfall”. Mtshali concludes his remarkable poem with the following lines:

“Nightfall Nightfall!
Why were you ever created?
Why can’t it be daytime?
Daytime forever more?”

The big question remains: what is Africa doing to ensure “daytime forever”? Similarly, we should, without equivocation, ask: Is South Africa, among those that seem better placed, doing enough for our great continent to make sure that “nightfall” disappears?

The 2008 United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals report argues, among other things, that the challenges towards the achievement of the goals and targets have become enormous, especially for countries overwhelmed by global warming, the global economic crisis, lack of food, increases in the oil prices and so on.

Further, these socioeconomic realities, according to the report, “will directly affect our efforts to reduce poverty: the economic slowdown will diminish the incomes of the poor, the food crisis will raise the number of hungry people in the world and push millions more into poverty and climate change will have a disproportionate impact on the poor”.

With regard to Africa in particular, the report says that “the proportion of people in sub-Saharan Africa living on less than $1 a day is unlikely to be reduced by target of one-half”.

There are many other compounding and worrying factors, such as increased food insecurity on our beloved continent.

In his 2002 preface of The Other Path, first published in 1986, De Soto tells of a decisive lesson that he has “come to understand that today a massive social and economic revolution is taking place in the developing world … some four billion people who had been living in the hinterlands of the developing countries and former Soviet nations have abandoned their traditional way of life. They are moving away from small, isolated communities toward a larger and more global division of labour in expanding markets that both Adam Smith and Karl Marx had seen emerging in the West two hundred years ago and that are now struggling to emerge outside the West. These people are clustering around big towns and migrating by hundreds of millions to larger cities are the newest players in the global scene”. De Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, appears to have tried to suggest sound ways that address this inevitability.

In essence, to address the challenge of persistent poverty in the developing world, governments must recognise and concretise the dead capital of the poor. Surely, there is more that can be done? African governments and states have repeatedly been called upon to do their best in improving human development in their respective countries. By the way, I have come to understand “human development” as a notion of development that is associated with people, rather than physical goods and services; a notion of people as the real wealth of nations. It is said that the human development paradigm categorises a country as developed only if its people are free and possess choices and entitlements. Therefore, the concept of human development entails enlarging people’s choices in a society.

One of arguments that Frantz Fanon presented to the world in 1961, particularly to Africans, remains the most critical question that we should all deal with — despite the lapse of more than a generation. He argued that “what matters today is the need for redistribution of wealth”. He further argued that “humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be”. These days Amartya Sen reminds us of a very much similar question that preoccupied Fanon so much during his last battle with leukaemia. Sen reminds us that we need to be cognisant of “development as freedom”. Although there are contestations, I venture to argue that South Africa is determined to heed Sen’s appeal and that the expansion of human capabilities in the mind of the South Africa leadership should be a priority for the rest of the continent.

The political events of the last couple of weeks have raised questions about where South Africa is going and what is to come of its African agenda. For instance, Kwandiwe Kondlo of the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa says that “the question that has arisen among African scholars is whether the new forces that have emerged in South Africa will strengthen democracy and provide a new set of lessons for the continent or whether we will see the reversal of democratic gains”. I guess it’s hard to answer this rhetorical question with certainty. I however argue that the “new forces” are not in any way “new” in relation to the African agenda. It seems that the past, the present and the future leadership in a democratic South Africa share a similar desire for a better Africa (and a better world). We have also heard that those that have played an important role in African affairs will continue playing such an important role.

I also remain confident that people of South Africa, given the vibrancy of public discourse and honour for constitutional democracy, will make sure that the socioeconomic transformation of Africa does not fall in between the cracks. I have argued that South Africa is a nation that has harnessed meagre resources towards improved human development, at little disruption to the economy and the lowest costs to future generations, in a collective effort that addresses the ugly political history and its legacy.

I think this is the model that the past and present leadership seem to want to apply across the continent. For instance, there has been a lot of talk about how the positive outcomes of the Malawian fertiliser subsidy be replicated in the continent for the benefit of all the peoples of Africa.

In a recent op-ed article for the Mail & Guardian, Time is Ripe: Africa needs home grown solutions…, I argued that when looking at Africa, two points seem fundamental: One, that in Africa, unlike most of Asia and Latin America, poverty can be seen as not just a question of redistribution, but is largely a matter of equitable growth. To some extent, redistributive policies could take Africa somewhere. This is not to say that there should be no redistributive policies and programmes and two, that it could be argued that poverty — at least in most African countries — is a “social construct” and therefore will take sustained human ingenuity to foster an environment where the poor are able to create wealth and feel a part of the respective nations.

It is here that I think history might judge most of us harshly: we continue talking on behalf of the poor while our appreciation of the broader structural geopolitical forces that shape the experiences of the poor and the socially excluded is found wanting. That is why I find the argument that poverty is a “social construct” in as much as it is an artifact of human creation in a world devoid of morals and compassion persuasive.

It seems that each country determines what kind of poverty it can tolerate, and how long it wants to tolerate it, and how vigorous a manner it will deal with it. This idea is not difficult to comprehend because we constantly fail to explain why about a billion people go to bed hungry while millions more are suffering from lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension and so on.

According to Said Adejumobi, in his 2006 assessment of poverty reduction strategies, the magnitude of poverty in Africa is attested to by the fact that about 22 of the 25 poorest countries in the world are in Africa and 320-million people out of a total population of 1,2-billion living on less than $1 per day reside in Africa. Another recent study with equally disturbing findings is the one of Christopher Barrett and his co-authors who estimate, using World Bank’s data from 2005, that there is a “population-weighted poverty gap of 42% for sub-Saharan Africa relative to the $2 per day per capita international poverty line”. In other words, it is estimated that the poverty gap (i.e, the severity of poverty) for sub-Saharan Africa is 42% when using a poverty line of (US) $2 per day per head.

Moeletsi Mbeki, in his 2005 paper on poverty in sub-Saharan Africa published by the International Policy Press, attributes widespread poverty in the Continent to the African leadership since or after independence. Although he mentions exceptions, his arguments border on over-generalisation, however persuasive are the points argued. There are a number of critical points that other African scholars have presented as having contributed to what Said Adejumobi found in 2006 and what the United Nations 2008 Millennium Developmental Goals report says about Africa. For instance, there appears to be consensus lately that the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank were inappropriately conceptualised or rather that they were based on poor diagnosis of the challenge that sub-Saharan Africa confronted with regard to economic growth. In addition, the points that scholars such as Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch raise suggest that the West cannot be exonerated from the continued problems that Africa faces in trying to expand human capabilities of its peoples.

The other relevant point is the one argued by Paul Collier, that the geographic structure of Africa poses its own dynamics with regard to human development in the continent, especially the south of the Sahara.

In conclusion, I argue that a careful study of the national democratic revolution paradigm as spelt out in the African National Congress’s Strategy and Tactics suggests that South Africa’s job in the continent has always been clear and remains well defined: that of ensuring a better Africa. Therefore, aluta continua! As former president Mbeki put it, during his address at the 40th anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity celebrations, “as we celebrate the achievements of the OAU, we rededicate our efforts towards the goal of a developed and prosperous Africa”.

He went on to say that: “we will succeed because we have an abiding faith in the ability of the masses of our people to effect change. These masses, occupying their different stations in life, are the real agents of change, — the workers, women, youth, businesspeople, the intelligentsia, politicians, the artists — from the factories and farms, from urban and rural areas, from universities and schools. Just as we defeated colonialism and apartheid, so shall we banish from our lives the terrible life of poverty and underdevelopment.” It seems to me that if the leadership is unable to address the question that Frantz Fanon raised, the African masses will surely do, “no matter how devastating the consequences may be.”


  • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.