A conversation on the 5,000POL Initiative

OPINION – The challenges and opportunities that Africa faces and offers can only be addressed and unlocked if a genuine attempt is made to bridge the knowledge, capital and execution gaps that exist partly because of the colonial legacy and more significantly because of an inherent inability of many Africans to embrace and celebrate the seemingly insignificant progress that has been witnessed in pre and post-colonial Africa.\r\n

I was not surprised that in response to my challenge ahead of the Africa Day commemorations on 25 May, Mr. Joram Nyathi, Deputy Editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, chose to personalize the initiative by describing it as: "Mawere’s ‘points of light’ exercise in escapism" http://www.newzimbabwe.com/blog/?p=597.

This is a predictable and typical response of Africans to any public discourse. The initiative is a self-standing one and should, therefore, attract its own candid assessment without invoking my name. The choice of the title is instructive as it seeks to undermine the entire project as an exercise in futility.

In Mr. Nyathi’s mind, any attempt to profile the lives and exploits of Africa’s sons and daughters is a form of escape from confronting the reality of history. However, it must be accepted that the reality of the post-colonial African experience has produced outstanding people in many fields of endeavor and it would not be correct to characterize such exploits as any form of escapism.

The role and place of role models in human civilization can never be in doubt. The importance of showcasing the best and brightest is, therefore, self-evident. Human beings are influenced and inspired by others.

Mr. Nyathi makes the point that the reality of African history paints a dark picture to the extent that it is irrelevant how many points of light can be identified. He observes that the dark hand of neo-colonialism, among other factors, has helped to undermine the African promise.

He concludes without offering an alternative that the "points of light" initiative is not the way forward, if anything, it is condescending, completely retrogressive and escapist.

Mr. Nyathi is not convinced that raising the canvass of African achievers will add value to the nation-building project in the continent. Rather he contends that such an initiative represents "surrender" when African success stories are paired with the success stories of other nations. He makes the point that: "But the very idea of listing our own heroes smacks of a return to negritude politics, the black is beautiful matrix. In other words, when the West boasts about its heroes, we can also show them that we have our own, that Africa is the cradle of humankind that Egypt was the home of science or that Jesus was black, etc. Is this a source of hope or escapism?"

 

It is evident to Mr. Nyathi that an African can only be a black person which represents a viewpoint that may not be shared by all people who classify themselves as African. Another viewpoint that Mr. Nyathi may not subscribe to a viewpoint that embraces and celebrates the achievements of all the people of Africa irrespective of their race, class religious beliefs, and gender.

It must be accepted that Africa has produced world-class brands and outstanding personalities. Such brands anchored by Africa’s rich mineral resources include: De Beers, Anglo American Corporation, Gold Fields etc.

The diamonds that led the late Cecil John Rhodes to establish De Deers were made by God and hidden in the country’s belly. There may be an argument that the diamonds belong solely to the people who are fortunate to live in the area in which they are found while forgetting that more is required to identify and exploit such resources.

Should Rhodes, for example, be included on the list? There is no doubt that Mr. Nyathi would argue that he should not. It is common cause that Rhodes lived in Africa and benefitted from the colonial dispensation and in fact he represented what may be described as the most unacceptable face of colonialism and capitalism. His success and that of many of his fellow Randlords can easily be reduced to a direct consequence of unjust colonialist policies.

One can argue that if Rhodes never existed, a company like De Beers would have been formed anyway. In fact, it may be simplistically argued that by Rhodes setting up De Beers he deprived black South Africans of a real opportunity. However, it is important to acknowledge that no one can be deprived of something that they do not see or hold. The diamonds in question were hidden and needed capital and knowledge to identify and exploit them.

The effort to convert a resource that is resident in the geology of a country into a commodity that can be exchanged for cash requires an investment. However, knowledge and capital without the resources will not produce a commodity that can be exchanged for value.

Africa’s points of light need not exclude anyone who has added value to the African cause. In identifying such individuals one has to appreciate that they need not be saints but it is important that we attempt to identify an aspect of their lives that should be celebrated.

Mr. Nyathi also has a problem with the expression "a point of light". He makes the point that: "There can be no better homage to the concept of Africa as a dark continent than to see only irregular "points of light" out of thousands of its sons and daughters trained at great expense to the taxpayer. I would have thought that it was in Europe, the US and Canada and Australia that Africa’s emigrant workers represented as points of light!"

The expression "point of light" was chosen for different reasons than what Mr. Nyathi thinks. Human beings are privileged in that they can leave a legacy. Each human being makes a difference to life. There must be point in each human life but what is undeniable is that in life some individuals have more impact on life than other people. It is only through the actions of human beings that the future is shaped.

South Africa may be smaller in size to countries like the DRC and Nigeria but with a white population of 5,265,300 and over 1,500,000 households residing in South Africa, it is the largest and most developed African economy. The reasons behind the country’s economic success must be understood properly if the model is to be replicated by other African states.

What explains South Africa’s economic success story? Is it solely a result of apartheid/colonialist policies? Is it a result of the mineral wealth? Can the DRC, for example, develop without the involvement of whites? Why has it not been possible for countries with small white populations in Africa to chart their own development agenda? Should African continue to blame the past for the lack of progress in the continent?

What were the dreams of our forefathers? I should like to think that they dreamt of a progressive and inclusive Africa. They must have dreamt of an Africa free from poverty, corruption, and disease. Whose obligation is it to make Africa the kind of continent that we want to see?

If white settlers who chose Africa as a home could built a little Europe in Africa why has it been possible for the natives to be the change they want to see. There can be no doubt that the colonial experience gave a good head start to white Africans. However, it must be accepted that there are many white people who have chosen Africa as a home after the end of colonialism and yet have struck it rich. The continent continues to offer rewarding opportunities to non-whites like Chinese and Indians who were not part of the colonial experience and yet the main reason often used for lack of advancement in Africa is that of white colonialism.

During the post-colonial/apartheid era, white Africans have continued to prosper under black administrations. More importantly the disturbance, for example, of less than 5,000 white farmers in Zimbabwe has produced a less than desirable outcome. What is remarkable is that it is black Africans who are electing to vote with their feet than white Africans who see nothing in common between them and Europe.

There can be no doubt that former President Mandela is a "point of light". He could have chosen to be a bitter populist but history compelled him to look deeper in his soul to rise above the personal injuries that he suffered and endured. He understood that any attempt to focus exclusively on the past would not produce food on the table of South Africans.

He also had to acknowledge that South African citizenship was not indivisible. South Africa is a Republic and one must accept that there is only one class of citizenship. White and black South Africans are equal before the law. By accepting the universality of citizenship, South Africa has managed to attract more people who are willing to give up their birthrights for South African citizenship.

South Africa has benefited from the creativity of its entire people including the new citizens. Africa’s future will and must be shaped by all who can add value to the conversion of its resource endowments to tradable goods and services. Such effort will require not just the input of people who are born in Africa but people who may have the resources, capital and knowledge that black people, who are in the majority, may not have.

I have no doubt that Mr. Nyathi will qualify as a "point of light". By choosing to share his knowledge, I have no doubt that future generations will benefit from the knowledge that our generation was seized with matters more important than our personal welfare or stations in life. The conversation must continue but to decide not to participate in the identification of Africa’s brand ambassadors i.e. "points of light" is one form of escapism that must be avoided.

When I started reading Mr. Nyathi’s article, I was encouraged that he at least started the identification process and then surrendered. What is remarkable is that his list excludes white Africans.

When one looks at the people responsible for producing goods and services that dominate African markets as well as those responsible for generating foreign currency, it is evident that white people including those that are not African are involved in the supply chain process. It is, therefore, important to recognize all the people who add value to the African experience lest we forget to celebrate the contribution of those that are critical in bringing light to life irrespective of their race, class, gender or religious beliefs.

It would, therefore, be a sad day if we chose not to listen to the whispers of the future and not dwell with the ghosts of the past. There is nothing one can do to change the past but there is a lot that we can do working together to better understand what has kept Africa going and what is required to expand the "points of light" so that Africa’s daylight can offer more hope than the dreams that we share during the night.

We need to know more about the people that we may classify as Africa’s enemies. By investing in the knowledge on the lives of, for example, the Randlords we should be able to know that it is possible for anyone to scale the heights if we choose to be less cynical and skeptical of any initiative that can bring more light to the issues that often blind us as we seek for a better life for all Africans.