By Vusi Gumede
The second largest continent in the world, Africa has also become the world’s
second most populous continent. As the late Nobel Laureate WangariMaathai
put it, “Africa is one the richest continents on the planet and yet most African
countries remain poor.” Besides significant deposits of precious minerals and
metals, the continent boasts of a very youthful population, increasing high level
of internet connectivity, emergence of new innovation hubs and, until recently,
home to many of the fastest growing economies in the world.
However, the above high points have been blighted by several socio-economic
and political challenges. Although the politics of the Cold War contributed in no
small measure to the instability that bedevilled the continent from the 1960s to
the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the colonial policy of divide and
rule – or define and rule as MahmoodMamdani would put it – the arbitrary
demarcation of borders, the reification of tribes as a marker of identity and the
struggle for control over scarce economic opportunities have combined to
weaken state capacity. Needless to say, the very notion of a post-colonial state
In over five centuries of encounters with other parts of the world, Africa’s
experience has been marked by exploitation, oppression, subjugation and
alteration of the distinct identities of the peoples through a long process of
psychological distortions. Both Arab and European slave trade, which lasted for
centuries, effectively truncated the process of population growth, distorted
economic development and militarised the whole continent through the
promotion of inter-tribal wars as Walter Rodney described. The imposition of
imperial domination and colonial intrusion also disrupted the process of
economic development.As Claude Ake explained, the introduction of wage
labour and the constraints to pay taxes resulted in the loss of opportunity to pass
through agrarian revolution which could have been a precursor for industrial
revolution in Africa.
The organisation of the global economy since the end of the Second World War
has cemented the peripherilisation of African countries through the
institutionalisation of unequal international division of labour, in which the
rules of the game are set by the West and its allies, which undermines the
capacity of African states to adopt indigenous approaches to socio-economic
Despite the recent optimism and euphoria about ‘Africa rising’, lack of
fundamental transformation in the structures of the economies in Africa has
resulted in the fast-growing economies of early 2000s returning to the throes of
debts, poverty and inequality.For many decades, the parlous and low state of
economic growth has hampered technological development and limited the
capacity of African countries to build military hardwareetc – African economies
are effectively performing below their potential. In a world that has continued to
be defined by principle of realism, state-centric power and influence, the lack of
economic and military power has kept African countries at the margin of global
influence. A classic example of this being that no African country is a
permanent member of the United Nations Security Council today. Neither is any
of the main global economic institutions headed by an African.
While the West remains stubbornly stuck in their supremacist position of
privileges through which they maintain the status quo by rights, African leaders
have been complicit in the marginalisation of the continent. Lack of
understanding of the question of identity and common positionality in the global
hierarchy of power have continued to make Africans work at cross purposes
against one another at multilateral levels. Rather than speak with one voice and
negotiate as a block, African leaders either prefer allegiance with their former
colonial masters or resort to their facile national patriotic base when issues of
international diplomacy and negotiations are involved.
The few instances where African leaders have taken bold initiatives to advance
the interests of the continent, especially under the presidencies of Thabo Mbeki
and Olusegun Obasanjo as well as a few others before them, have either
suffered discontinuity or outright suppression. The leadership deficit, especially
in relation to thought leadership, is widening. These leaders had tried to take the
baton from earlier African nationalists who ensured the political independence
of the continent. Nowadays the continent is losing momentum and it is probably
worse off than it was ten years ago.
It is encouraging though that there is new momentum of engagement with
Africa, especially from non-traditional partners (in Asia and Latin America).
Even though this engagement is also motivated by the desire for raw materials
and markets, it presents a new opportunity for Africa to redefine its mode of
engagement with the rest of the world. This will require crafting a new strategy
that is underpinned by the principle of pan-Africanism and Africa’s renaissance.
It would be important that Africa confronts the issue of a socio-economic model
that can work better for the continent. Understanding the history of the
continent and why the continent remains in chains would greatly help.
It is in this context that we look forward to Professor MahmoodMamdani’s
lecture in this year’s Thabo Mbeki Africa Day Lecture that was inaugurated by
former President Mbeki himself in 2010.Mamdani will lecture on ‘Africa and
the changing world’ on 26 May 2017 at the University of South Africa. As has
become tradition, a debate on his Lecture would take place after his Lecture.
The Lecture is preceded by the seventh African Unity for Renaissance
Conference and celebrations surrounding the Africa Day itself.