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Africa and Africans: Tackling developmental challenges head-on

David Reynods, in a chapter titled “Sub-Saharan Africa: The collapse of the State” in his book, One World Divisible, states that “like caste and religion in India, tribal and ethnic identities, though often colonial constructs, became politicised after independence because they were potential conduits to secure state resources”. He goes on to say that “most African states were therefore both authoritarian and fragile”.

Reynods might come across as relatively “polite” in his conclusions about independent Africa. There are others who have been very direct in their arguments that Africa cannot and/or is “not making it”.

Some have even insinuated that it might be right to “recolonise” Africa/Africans, in the “good” name of development — suggesting that for Africa to move further forward an extra hand is critical. Then there are those who talk on behalf of Africa/Africans, implying that Africans lack capabilities to do so themselves.

Surprisingly, some of such innuendos are conspicuous in titles of scientific work. For instance, Elsa Vila-Artadi and Xavier Sala-i-Martin’s “The Economic Tragedy of the 20th Century: Growth in Africa” paper; and certain of such scholarly material bordering on disdain for Africa and Africans. You will recall the May 2002 Economist magazine’s headline declaring Africa as “the hopeless continent”.

There are even more disturbing ones: take for instance Peter Glick and David Sahn’s paper titled “Are Africans Practising Safer Sex?” I am reminded of how Ingrid Robeyns (of the department of political science at the University of Amsterdam) responded to Martha Nussbaum (of the department of law at the University of Chicago) a couple of years ago when Nussbaum presented her views (on Amartya Sen’s capability measures) as though she was presenting the views of the poor. Robeyns argues that “it is not only paternalist but even rather colonial for an American philosopher [Nussbaum] to determine central capabilities for other countries”.

It is in this context that Africans have a clear transformational agenda to pursue, so that no one talks on their behalves. The African transformational agenda should explicitly be socio-economic in its character and content and it must be anchored on human progress. Many studies suggest that we are lagging behind, as Africa and Africans.

There are, however, some studies that suggest that the African continent is not “hopeless” per se. The 2008 African Economic Outlook report reports that our (the African continent’s) annual economic growth rate has remained above five percentage points for the past six years. It seems to me that this and other socio-economic and political developments in our continent suggest that if we spelled out clearly our transformational agenda and focused on that we shall triumph.

In a landmark resolution, in the recent Tripartite Summit (i.e. Common Market for East and Southern Africa (Comesa), East African Community (EAC) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC)), “that the three regional economic communities should immediately start working towards a merger into a single regional economic community with the objective of fast-tracking the attainment of the African Economic Community”, the summit “noted the continued world food crisis and agreed to make strategic interventions to exploit the potential of African economies in the production of food and enhance accessibility to markets”.

This is achievable, and it should be pursued within the context of a clearly articulated socio-economic transformation agenda of the African continent.

Writing about South Africa a couple of years from now, I highlighted the following as among what is expected in the African continent, say a decade or so from today:

  • About 5% average growth of the continent’s economy;
  • Africa’s population to be about 1,4-billion;

  • Further stability in the continent will have improved, though democracy would remain precarious.

There are other factors that require serious attention, over and above relatively weak projected economic growth rates. Two such factors that stand out are: significant urbanisation and significant change in the population structure of our continent.

In essence, Africa is going to be predominantly urban and young! Another major challenge that Africa faces and will continue facing for decades to come is the one of nation-building. Isawa Elaigwu, with Ali Mazrui, describe the process of nation-building as “creating unity among heterogeneous groups in [the] polity”.

If this definition is acceptable, we still have a long way to go. We have got to pull our socks and sleeves up. However, we have positive cases in Africa that we can learn a lot from. For instance, Tanzania is one of the most cohesive nations in the world — whilst having more than 100 ethnic groups!

Anyway, the challenges raised require thinking through and proper long-term planning. The socio-economic transformation agenda of Africa will be frustrated by such challenges if they are not addressed. I am mindful that it is rather simplistic to think of Africa as homogenous. However, for the purposes of the argument I am making, I find thinking about Africa as a single entity valid.

It appears to me that our socio-economic agenda should be standard across our continent. In my view, such an agenda is about improving health and educational outcomes of the citizens of Africa. It is about food security. It is about growing our economies. It is about reducing poverty and inequality. It is about nation-building. It is about equity. It is about good governance.

All of these noble components of an African transformational agenda require effective states. The capacities and governance arrangements of African states need to be quickly improved, especially in relation to long-term planning and mobilisation of societies for better conceptualisation and implementation of our transformational agenda. In addition, citizens of Africa are duty-bound to ensure that the transformational agenda of Africa is not frustrated by constraints that Reynods raised.

It is actually the ordinary citizens of Africa that must bring about the new Africa that we all yearn for. The ordinary citizens of Africa are a force that can get the leadership to do the right things, in instances where the leadership gets derailed.

To conclude, former South African president Mbeki concluded his opening address at the launch of the African Union in Durban (South Africa) in July 2002 with a call that:

“Time has come that Africa must take her rightful place in global affairs; Time has come to end the marginalisation of Africa … This is a moment of hope for our continent and its peoples. We shall act together to build a brighter future …”

Indeed that special and rare time obtains. Although there are many challenges confronting us as the continent, and we know why we have such challenges, there are many things worth celebrating about our continent.

The forthcoming first-ever African Human Development Report (under the chief editorship of Michael Chege) will vindicate the faith that most of us have in Africa and Africans. It is hoped that it will be launched in the next African Union summit.

Perhaps the most important part of the report is a presentation of detailed case studies of “good practice”. Africa is not as bad as most argue; there are “good practices”, even in so-called “worse cases”. To remedy the historical injustices that outsiders have caused to our continent, Africa and Africans must tackle the developmental challenges confronting us head-on.


  • 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.