Africa Day calls for African Steps for Change

Covid-19 will also require an African leadership that re-asserts Africa’s place in the ordering of human affairs so that the continent is not once again left behind in the construction of the post-Covid-19 world.
Covid-19 will also require an African leadership that re-asserts Africa’s place in the ordering of human affairs so that the continent is not once again left behind in the construction of the post-Covid-19 world.
Image: Pixabay

Today is Africa Day. The African continent is remarkably different from what it was in April 1958 when the first Conference of Independent African States held in Accra, Ghana, called on all Africa to observe African Freedom Day annually to mark “the onward progress of the liberation movement, and to symbolise the determination of the peoples of Africa to free themselves from foreign domination and exploitation”.

Initially on April 15, the celebration would change from African Freedom Day to Africa Day after the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on March 25 1963 in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

The strategic challenge facing the Africa of the 1950s and 1960s was, as the Ghana conference illustrated, the struggle against colonial and apartheid domination.  Africa also had to negotiate the tricky bends of Cold War politics, commence with a complex process of state and nation formation as well as the all-round development of newly independent states.

With the exception of Western Sahara which remains under occupation by Morocco, the end of apartheid in 1994 completed the decolonisation project which the OAU faithfully championed through its liberation committee since 1963.  The eventful period of the 20th century which begun with a world war and witnessed the birth and demise of the world’s first socialist experiment, befittingly ended with the consignment of official apartheid and colonialism into the dustbin of history.

Like the rest of the continent, the new South Africa would henceforth also be required to engage in a nation and state formation project of her own, address the living conditions of all her citizens, decide how she would govern herself and reintegrate into the continent and the world, among others.  How well we have fared as with the distance we have traversed can be debated.  But by all reasonable accounts, South Africa is a better country than it was under apartheid. That we can do even better is without doubt.

Everywhere on the continent, the state and nation formation project remains to varying degrees an ongoing business; much as the development project is a work in progress that will confront generations of Africans to come.

Together with the state of peace and security, these can be described as some of the most pressing challenges the African continent faces today.  But we must challenge the abiding stereotypes with which Africa’s prospects are often caricatured, remembering that each country is differently endowed and faces specific challenges.

An equally important issue is the state of the African diaspora, its relationship with the continent and vice versa.  In 2003, the African Union (AU) determined that the diaspora would become the sixth region of the continent.  The decision exuded valuable political foresight in its appreciation of the possibilities offered by common historical ties in a continuum of struggles for justice in the 21st century. 

The practical socialisation of this immensely important resolution, as with many others by the OAU and its successor, the AU, remains a challenging feat.  Today’s anniversary obliges us to reflect on our strengths and shortcomings as a continent; above all, what we should do to overcome the weaknesses. 

One wishes to proffer a few suggestions that could form part of a programme of African Steps for Change.

The starting point should be how to effect the voluminous body of policies taken by independent Africa since the end of colonial and apartheid rule on the continent.  While many of these policies were conceived during the Cold War, many are still relevant as analytical frameworks and practical guides towards solutions for many of the continent’s problems and challenges.

The Abuja Treaty of 1991, for example, provided for the creation of an African Economic Community.  In the words of the AU, this would be realised “through a gradual process, which would be achieved by coordination, harmonisation and progressive integration of the activities of existing and future regional economic communities [RECs] in Africa,” in six successive stages over a period of 34 years.  The AU considers the RECs “as the building blocks of the African Economic Community”.

Some of the treaty’s provisions such as the creation and election of the Pan-African parliament and the establishment of African Continental Free Trade Area agreement have been implemented.  Other provisions such as the strengthening of (economic) sectoral integration, the establishment of an African Central Bank and a single African currency and the setting up of an African economic and monetary union are still pending.

Other important policy decisions of the AU include the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the African Youth Charter, Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa and Agenda 2063 with its goals and priority areas. 

One of Agenda 2063’s goals, "Silencing the guns by 2020" is up for review this year.  The precarious peace and security situation in countries such as Libya, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central Africa Republic and now latterly, the northern region of Mozambique, suggest that the continent may not silence the guns this year. 

Africa cannot give up on the objective to silence the guns since to do so would be tantamount to giving up on ourselves.  So, we must continue to intervene practically to stop armed conflicts while also paying attention to the historic and other factors that continue to drive conflict.

This brief enumeration of AU policies underscores that Africa’s limitation is not a lack of policy.  Rather, it is about implementation. On one hand, internal politics serve as a facilitator or hindrance to the implementation process, while Africa’s continued position of dependence and weakness in the ordering of human affairs also hampers her progress. 

Africa and her diaspora therefore need to up the quality and decibels of discourse among the peoples of the continent and beyond.  Despite the increasing possibilities of electronic media, Africans are still not talking sufficiently to one another, about the things that matter most to us; and certainly not audibly enough. 

The African progressive intelligentsia shoulders the blame inasmuch as it possesses many of the tools for remedial action.  Viewed in contrast with the decades immediately after decolonisation, the progressive intelligentsia in each one of our 54 countries today is nowhere comparable in its effectiveness in shaping the agenda.  We should expect, as one of the consequences, an even slower progression, at worst a derailment of continental integrative covenants such as the Abuja Treaty because no process of social progress can be achieved without the input of the cognitive classes.

This suggests that we cannot celebrate Africa Day without reflecting on the state of the African progressive intelligentsia: what it will take to strengthen it and how to ensure its intergenerational self-reproduction. Neither can we avoid posing similar questions about the political class which is at the driver’s seat of our political and other trajectories.

A seemingly minor communication aspect is that whereas the post-1994 period has witnessed a process of place names, street and other changes in our own country, it has fallen short in honouring African heroes and heroines on the wider African continent and the diaspora as well as other non-African progressives. 

The point about the naming example is that it provides an opening into the vast universe of the linkages we need between the continent, the diaspora and the world which will help shape an ecosystem of interconnection and mutuality.  There is no better occasion to think through this trajectory than Africa Day.

A related problem is that, as Africans, we may not be talking often and honestly to one another about ourselves.  Could it be that we have become risk-averse and accepted the phrase: “career limiting” as an immovable organising principle of life?  Is this also something that we ought to discuss or altogether ignore?

“The key to a government's effectiveness and its ability to lead the nation,” wrote Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere in his October 1998 reflections on ‘Good Governance for Africa,’ “lies in a combination of three elements. First its closeness to its people, and its responsiveness to their needs and demands; in other words, democracy. Secondly, its ability to coordinate and bring into a democratic balance the many functional and often competing sectional institutions which groups of people have created to serve their particular interests. And thirdly, the efficiency of the institutions [official and unofficial] by means of which its decisions are made known and implemented throughout the country".

The African agenda has therefore internalised democracy as a sine qua non of social organisation.  As Nyerere demonstrates, it also perceives that a goal rather than an isms-driven economic democracy is the best guarantor of political democracy and vice versa.  Consequently, political and economic democracy should continue to serve on top of the continent’s to-do list in the interest of her all-round development agenda.

But so should good governance about which Nyerere was at pains to point out:  “We cannot avoid the fact that a lot of our problems in Africa arise from bad governance.  I believe that we need to improve governance everywhere in Africa in order to enable our people to build real freedom and real development for themselves and their countries.”

One suspects that these factors will assume greater significance as our continent and the world continues to battle the Covid-19 crisis.  The survival of human society may well predicate on the ability of governments and global capital’s ability to appreciate the need for true human solidarity; not charity.

Africa should engage in a sustained discussion with herself about Covid-19, how it is handling the crisis and how the post-Covid-19 world should look like.  If our condition of poverty and under-development was already unbearable before the Covid-19 outbreak, we should expect that the freeze in global economic activity will only make it worse.

We should anticipate that the socioeconomic consequences of Covid-19 may exacerbate the uneven distribution of resources within and between nations through such factors as internal conflict and widespread migration in and outside the continent.  Managing the fallouts will require dedicated leadership and an African population steeped in the values of African and human solidarity.

Covid-19 will also require an African leadership that re-asserts Africa’s place in the ordering of human affairs so that the continent is not once again left behind in the construction of the post-Covid-19 world.

* Xola Pakati is executive mayor of the Buffalo City metropolitan municipality and chairperson of the South African Cities Network Council.

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