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Africa, Africans and African Renaissance

David Diop’s Reflections on Colonialism – Africa – convey important points; a message one cannot ignore:

Africa tell me Africa
Is this you this back that is bent
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars …

That is Africa your Africa
That grows again patiently obstinately
And its fruit gradually acquire
The bitter taste of liberty

Writing about Africa invokes deep emotions; understandably this, our continent has gone through a lot and peoples of Africa continue to endure adversity. African literature, including poetry such as the poem reproduced above, is full of tragedies that epitomise the hardships of an African child in the real African world. David Diop always reminds me of Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born. The protagonist, in what I believe is Armah’s most powerful work of art, reflects about our Africa – though focusing on the last years of Nkrumah in independent Ghana – in ways that suggest that the challenge that Africa faced and continues to face is that of dearth of robust leadership with integrity. By the way, this is not just a challenge for Africa; it appears that the whole world is challenged by a lack of the kind of leadership that can truly better the lives of the people. The challenge just appears more pronounced in our Africa and for unfathomable reasons we still do not seem to get it right. We remain very close, yet so far.

This challenge of leadership is, to me, captured most squarely by the protagonist, The man, in Armah’s novel by the following lines:

“How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders. There were men dying from loss of hope, and others were finding gaudy ways to enjoy power they did not have. We were ready for big and beautiful things … These men who came to lead us out of our despair, they came like men already grown fat and cynical … There is something so terrible in watching a black man trying at all points to be the dark ghost of a European, and that was what we were seeing in those days …”

It could be argued that leadership in Africa faces different challenges than it is in the rest of the world. Generally, leadership calls for decisiveness, firmness, insight and foresight, ingenuity, integrity, compassion and so on. Most of these general attributes can be found in many people, including in our leaders, past and present. However, there are specific leadership qualities that are much more needed by Africa; these include the ability of our leaders to make compromises and put people first. Though we have witnessed such leaders, it’s a rarity in Africa. Recent events are a case in point. In Kenya, leaders caused havoc to the nation recently. In the DRC, leaders continue causing harm by agitating people against each other. In Zimbabwe, leaders couldn’t make necessary compromises for the sake of rescuing the people from inexplicable misery. These are just some of the examples.

In essence, leadership is about governance and governance has to do with the manner in which responsibility is discharged. As most people know, during the last two decades or so, governance has become a key concept in the international development debate and policy discourse. In Africa, where there has been a historical record of poor governance, improving the governance environment has been given a central place by the African leaders themselves. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), among other initiatives, is one such a concrete example demonstrating attempts of the political leadership of Africa to bring about good governance. Kofi Annan is quoted as having said that “good governance is perhaps the single most important factor in eradicating poverty and promoting development.” Many Africans and African leaders seem to recognise this point, and efforts on African Renaissance are a case in point.

I argue here that effective leadership and good governance are two important vehicles to bring about African Renaissance. The project of African Renaissance – meaning Africa reclaiming its rightful place on planet Earth – is precisely a project of Africans and Africa. Thabo Mbeki, in his address to the University of Havana in Cuba around 2001, argued that “the critical matter is that we have a duty to define ourselves. We speak about the need for the African Renaissance in part so that we ourselves, and not the other, determine who we are, what we stand for, what our vision and hopes are, how we do things, what programmes we adopt to make our lives worth living, who we relate to and how”. This is a task that all Africans are called upon, by the demands of history, to perform.

Some African scholars and activists, sons and daughters of the African soil, have tried to propose ways that could bring about African Renaissance. As an example, Anton Muziwakhe Lembede, in his February 1947 article In Defence of Nationalism, argued that “African Nationalism will sweep away all vestiges of tribalism and unify all Africans”. Lembede defined nationalism as “essentially an ideology of the masses because it stirs the deepest human feelings”. For Lembede, African Nationalism aims to achieve “a united progressive respectably African nation”. In his last recorded historic speech, in June 1947 before succumbing to “abdominal complications”, Lembede argued that “it is the duty of the African, who at one time was judged by those who professed knowledge, to be incapable …, not to allow himself to be swamped by the tide of doctrines of inferiority”. He demanded that “Africa must, after what has been a long lull, surge forward to conquer knowledge and the World”.

It could therefore be concluded that the agenda of African Renaissance requires a particular kind of an African and/or African leader, not the kind described in Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel or in other African novels such as the Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. There are some encouraging signs; there have been for a while. For instance, data from the World Bank’s Governance Indicators Project, Freedom House, and from Transparency International show that Africa’s governance scores are improving, in accordance with the objectives of NEPAD. Ratings in the Mo Ibrahim Index categories of rule of law, transparency and corruption also indicate progress in some African countries.

As Julius “Mwalimu” Nyerere once argued, Africa needs effective governments and governance systems. Nyerere, in his article in the Southern African Political and Economic Monthly of April 1998 – about a year before he passed on – said, among many persuasive points, “I am very far from being alone in rejecting neo-colonialism regardless of the methods adopted to bring it about or to reinforce it or define it! Yet we cannot avoid the fact that a lot of our problems in Africa arise from bad governance …” He went on to argue that “Poverty is an enemy of good governance, for persistent poverty is a destabiliser, especially if such poverty is shared in a grossly unequal manner, or is widely regarded as being unfairly distributed as the few who are relatively rich indulge in conspicuous consumption … without good governance, we cannot eradicate poverty; for no corrupt government is interested in the eradication of poverty; on the contrary, and as we have seen in many parts of Africa and elsewhere, widespread corruption in high places breed poverty”.

In a nutshell, it is we Africans – all of us as Africans – that will bring about African Renaissance. It all starts with functioning governments, leaders that have what it takes, and good governance. As we enter 2009, a relatively tricky period due to the global financial crisis, we as Africans are again called upon to “surge forward to conquer knowledge and the world” and to “determine who we are, what we stand for, what our vision and hopes are, how we do things, what programmes we adopt to make our lives worth living and who we relate to and how”. This is not to say that this has not been happening: it just hasn’t been happening enough. We must ensure that if David Diop, may his soul rest in peace, were to ask Africa to tell him about Africa, Africa will talk of sweet taste of liberty – not “the bitter taste of liberty”.

Author

  • 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.