Probability of Africa taking ownership of its destiny remote
I also attended a Gala Dinner for the 100 students at the Presidential Guest House on Saturday night.
For my column this week, I could think of no better subject than to share with you my presentation to the BYM.
When I was invited to speak to the BYM, I did not know anything about the organization but was given discretion to choose my topic. I was impressed by the theme behind the BYM and the sponsors who saw the need to bring 100 young men and women together for a week to exchange ideas on how to contribute to Africa’s promise.
For me, it was a great experience to share my insights with these minds on Africa’s challenges and promise and the role of the youth in shaping and defining Africa’s destiny.
I started my presentation by acknowledging Africa’s rich history and resource endowment. With 54 countries, Africa is continent with a lot of promise and yet full of challenges and contradictions. South Africa, being the youngest country in the continent is leading the way in redefining the continent’s corporate architecture in terms of the ownership of economic assets as well as in changing the composition of the board rooms of Africa’s key corporate players.
What was striking about the BYM class of 2006 was the skewed representation of white students compared to blacks. Notwithstanding the small number of black students represented in the team, I was impressed by their input and confidence.
I told the students that life is nothing but a nuisance of time. However, when great minds decide to apply their minds for the collective good, life can have meaning not only to the current generation but to the future generations.
Each generation has the obligation to create the footprints that tomorrow can be used as references to yesterday’s generation. Being the luckiest generation to be alive, twelve years after the birth of South Africa, the obligations are quite onerous not only because there are few examples of success stories in Africa but because the contemporary history of Africa has been defined by conflicts, economic failure, and an apparent inability by many African leaders to take responsibility for their failure to provide leadership and choosing the easy road of blaming former colonial masters.
I used Zimbabwe’s history to illustrate some of the key issues that may help them better deal with South Africa’s potential growing pains and opportunities. Zimbabwe is one of the luckiest countries to produce two strong individuals in the pre-colonial and post-colonial eras who both have complained against the former colonial power for different reasons.
On 11 November 1965, Ian Smith and his team chose to declare independence from Britain unilaterally. Like the USA, Smith knew the consequences and yet he had the courage to take the lead. One is never sure what the real cost of UDI was to the people of Zimbabwe. However, as Smith signed the declaration of independence, his team was already at work looking at the economic and political implications. Sanctions were imposed but soon the world was impressed with how the settler community managed to regroup and create what was described in 1980 as a sophisticated industrial and financial system outside South Africa. Zimbabwe also produced Mugabe who was one of the liberators and was supportive of the sanctions regime against UDI.
In 2000, Zimbabwe attracted the attention of the international community for different reasons. The economy was already in intensive care and the land reform was in earnest. However, the institutional response to the sanctions regime sets Mugabe and Smith apart. One was able to organize a small privileged settler community to take responsibility and move on and the other has not been able to get out of the quagmire. The inherited economic and financial system is fast crumbling while sovereignty is the primary focus with no discernible economic strategy underpinning the policy choices. I told the students that the white population in post-colonial Africa is analogous to animals in a zoo. Their number can increase through either reproduction or immigration.
The latter is controlled by blacks and yet even after 26 years of independence, the genius of Mugabe has not been able to provide any economic solution to the perceived white problem. If one assumes that Zimbabwe had a problem with about 5,000 white farmers who controlled most of the productive land, what should have been a better response to the land question? Can animals in a zoo be a real threat? In terms of actuarial analysis, would whites still pose a threat to a growing black population in 50 years for instance? Why was there a hurry to resolve the land issue in this generation? Was the urgency worth the cost? If not, why was the country condemned to poverty in the interest of resolving the rights of only 5,000 people who cannot reproduce themselves in sufficient numbers to pose a threat to the majority?
In the case of South Africa, about 4 million whites still pose a serious strategic threat to more than 42 million blacks to the extent that laws are being enacted to protect the rights of the majority. In as much as South Africa has produced the Old Mutuals, Sanlams, Liberty (even before Mandela was freed), I asked the students why post-colonial Africa has failed to produce new mutuals in the form of institutions to underpin black values. The Asians have demonstrated what is possible in one generation and yet countries like Zimbabwe have chosen to focus for 26 years on the minority without creating conditions and policies conducive for the majority. While we may disagree with Ian Smith, no one can argue that the Rhodesian economy in 1980 was good for his constituency and yet 26 years after independence can we rationally argue that the Zimbabwe of today is what its liberators had in mind? If not, should the blame be on the bilateral dispute with Britain or should it be on the brightest minds in Zimbabwe and indeed in Africa that have failed to call a spade a spade.
I told the students that the knowledge, execution and capital gaps that confront and characterize contemporary Africa need to be bridged through an investment in improved literacy. On the knowledge front, there are many in Africa who genuinely believe that Zimbabwe is a victim of white conspiracy and imperialist maneuvers. They argue that if whites had never visited Africa, the continent would have done better. Even the older African countries still hold this view and believe that animals in zoos where blacks are gate keepers are a threat. If this proposition is accepted, then the probability of Africa taking ownership of its destiny is remote.
I challenged the students to critically examine the African journey from the womb of colonialism to today. If we look at the people in whose hands Africa’s resources are, one would be shocked to find out that the majority are alienated from what God has given to Africa not because of a conspiracy but because of bad policies. I made the point that it is important to look at the interplay between bad policies and development. If our students and scholars were in the engine room their input will go a long way towards better putting in place an environment where leaders are made accountable for bind stewardship instead of allowing them to play victims even where evidence suggest otherwise.
The corporate civilization of Africa still has to be written and it is important that an investment be made to ensure that such a civilization will include black players. Is it not ironic that black corporate citizens are more often called criminals and crooks than genuine businesspeople? You will find that more in known about the new black businesspeople than the real players in the South African economy. You will find more said about the likes of Ramaphosa, Motsepe, Sexwale than Rupert, Oppenheimer etc. While the former represents new money (only twelve years old), the latter represents more mature and old money and yet very little is known and written about it. I told the students that they should study Africa’s history in its entirety rather than focus on selective issues. Africa needs genuine role models and even those who have chosen the political theatre as their vocation have also been labeled criminals.
At the dinner on Saturday, I was encouraged when the students said to me that they were greatly inspired by my presentation and had spent the rest of the week debating the issues that I had flagged. As we continue to grope for solutions for our beautiful continent, we cannot help but admire the inert capacity that is available and yet not utilized. I made the comment sometime back that God made minerals and hid them and our job is to find them in the strange places of the world. The conflicts in Africa and myriad of problems may just be a sign that there is a plan for future generations in Africa to benefit from the endowment. Imagine an Africa free of conflicts and bad leaders, what would have happened to its minerals and its great minds?
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