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Surely U2’s visit to Africa’s shores this week is not mere coincidence? Already this year, we have had three Beautiful Days on our continent: on January 14, Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled his country; on February 7 , South Sudan overwhelmingly confirmed its preference for independence; and on February 11, Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egypt’s president.
A month is indeed a long time in African politics. And it is still only February. Is 2011 then to be Africa’s Beautiful Year?
Last year, in a self-deprecating and insightful opinion piece in The New York Times, called Africa Reboots, Bono — U2’s lead singer and campaigner-in-chief for Africa — talked of a new rhythm beating on our continent, one that sees aid as a necessary but dying echo of the West’s historic entanglements. He noted that “smart aid can be a reforming tool, demanding accountability and transparency, rewarding measurable results, reinforcing the rule of law, but never imagining for a second that it’s a substitute for trade, investment or self-determination”.
He saw this aid dependency being replaced by something far healthier: a growing relationship between civil society and business. Recent events have proved that Bono is — as we should have guessed! — quick to pick up on new tempos.
As a white son of Africa growing up in Kenya’s post-independence 1960s (as did Adam Clayton, U2’s bass guitarist, who was a childhood friend), I was surrounded by white colonial disparagement about the “wrong” path that Africa was taking.
Sadly, there was accuracy in that criticism; even more sadly, the fault often lay as much with the observers as the observed. Of the few insights by foreigners about Africa I have admired, journalist Patrick Marnham’s rings truest: “We fear Africa because, when we leave it alone, it works.” Thank you, Tahrir Square, for showing us the essential truth in this observation.
With the passage of time and the passing of Africa’s postcolonial generation, our continent has — always hesitantly, not always straightforwardly — started to take the advice of a great Jamaican political philosopher and “emancipate (y)ourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”. I am, of course, quoting the late Bob Marley. (What I would give to hear U2 sing Redemption Song!)
Today’s post-post colonial generation — better educated, meritocratic, technologically savvy — has started to replace its father’s generation and, as always, as Pliny the Elder predicted centuries ago, something new is starting to come out of Africa.
As The Economist noted early in the new year, Africa is now the fastest-growing region in the world, ahead of even East Asia.
It has not been an easy transformation. And it is far from over.
Here in SA, political miracles now behind us, there is still an economic miracle needed ahead. More than anywhere else on the African continent, we are still subjected to mental slaveries from beyond our shores, perceived wisdoms that recent economic events have shown us to be not so wise.
Our new path forward will, like Rome, not be built in a day, not even a beautiful one.
And some postcolonial carpers will — like those I heard in my childhood — never be satisfied. But the far-sighted, especially those with capital, will see that the tide is turning and that this time is indeed for Africa.
Some already have: Investec ’s Pan Africa investment business is amongst the fastest- growing of its mandates.
So when President Jacob Zuma offers an olive branch to business — as he did in last week’s state of the nation speech — the smart will grasp it for what it is: new thinking that is made in SA for SA.
Tellingly, even the Democratic Alliance’s response to his new vision was refreshingly constructive. But there still is much work to be done, with many roadblocks to be unblocked, not least of all those that are centred on corruption.
As Bono noted in last year’s article: entrepreneurs know that even a good relationship with a bad government stymies foreign investment; civil society knows a resource-rich country can have more rather than fewer problems, unless corruption is tackled. Here then, each African that makes up our civil society has a critical part to play: don’t be afraid to expose corruption when you see it.
How can this be done by the ordinary African? Bono’s article arose from visiting Africa with the Sudanese mobile phone magnate turned philanthropist, Mo Ibrahim. Since selling his business, Ibrahim has concentrated on promoting his foundation’s Ibrahim Index, aimed at promoting transparency, accountability and good governance in Africa.
His Ibrahim Prize aims to discourage “third termitis” among Africa’s leaders.
But, as welcome as his efforts are to supporting Africa’s renaissance, Ibrahim’s greatest contribution to African democracy may yet turn out to be having helped to spread the mobile phone across our continent. As both Tunisia and Egypt showed, once the genie of popular protest escaped the tightly held Aladdin’s lamps of their respective tyrants, mobile phones helped ensure that the flame of freedom could not be extinguished.
But just as mobile phones have helped mobilise protest in Africa, they have — in a sign of Africa’s growing political maturity — also stopped it running amok.
After their messy 2008 election, the emergence of the made-in-Kenya Ushahidi phenomenon (a project that allows users to crowd-source crisis information) is widely credited with helping prevent Kenya’s post- election chaos from descending into civil war. Since then, this concept has helped expose electoral fraud both in Africa and beyond.
Here then is a new thought out of Africa: let us encourage marrying the mobile phone to the “crowd-voicing” of Ushahidi to help expose corruption.
Of course, even amidst all the new optimism of 2011, there is still much unfinished business in Africa — Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe. But there is also a growing sense of “enough!” spreading across the continent, among the people especially, but even among the leadership.
Laurent Gbagbo may yet salvage something from the coming Ivorian rapprochement, but every time African leaders try to defy the will of their people, it is becoming harder for them to succeed; their people no longer capitulate so easily, and neither do their peers: other democratically elected African leaders.
Even Kenyan-style power-sharing fudges are every day becoming less acceptable. As Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and, most recently, South Sudan have shown, the democratically determined will of the people is starting to reflect just that in the shape of the government that follows — it is made up of the people, by the people, for the people.
Bono noted in his New York Times opinion that “the people of Africa are writing up some new rules for the game”. He is right. And they are our rules, Africa’s rules.
And if “make aid history” is the objective of such western well-wishers as Bono, even that Beautiful Day surely grows ever closer.
I suggest this is because, just perhaps, just maybe, Africa has at last begun to find what it has always been looking for: itself.
It’s a beautiful day. Don’t let it get away.
– Power is a strategist at Investec Asset Management.
Article by Business Day