Wednesday, 27 March 2013

African Renaissance: Opportunities and Challenges

African Renaissance: Opportunities and Challenges
A presentation to the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS) Conference: Towards Social Transformation
By Takura Zhangazha*
Wednesday 27 March 2013, Rockwood Center, Harare.

The topic I have been asked to discuss with delegates to this important conference remains of utmost relevance to Africa’s placement in global politics both from an historical and contemporary perspective. Arguably neither history nor the contemporary can ever be deemed to be completely separable. In historical terms the phrase African Renaissance has its pragmatic expression in the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) a continental economic and political revival blueprint approved by the African Union in 2001. The phrase and term Renaissance is however much documented in European history as a part and parcel of what has been referred to as a period of enlightenment and technological advancement in that continent's history.

As delegates to this conference may be aware, the initial push for a contemporary African version of ‘renaissance’ was articulated initially by Cheikh Anta Diop in  mid 20th century and in our times, by former South African President Thabo Mbeki. The latter was to be joined by former Nigerian and Senegalese Presidents Obasanjo and Wade respectively. Current Algerian President Bouteflika was the fourth actor in this then formidable quartet of African leaders.  In essence this quartet, was keen on not only linking the African Renaissance with matters limited to development as outlined in NEPAD but to the broader political reform of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to become what we know and refer to as the African Union (AU) today. 

It is this latter point that must instruct us as to the historicity of the ‘African Renaissance’. Their understanding was that in reforming the OAU into a much more democratic and broader continental body, they were in effect advancing the aims and objectives of an African Renaissance. The AU has however generally had its teething problems (such as a broad lack of popular continental legitimacy) despite the good intentions of the African progenitors of the new drive toward NEPAD. 

This is a point that must be viewed from the perspective of the possibility that these good intentions of those that began to talk of the African Renaissance came to borrow too much from the dominant ideological framework of what a ‘renaissance’ might come to mean.  This framework being that of the European model of continental governance (especially when one looks at the role of the European Union) which had gained ascendancy as a preferable one. This model was however inadequately queried as to its contextual continental relevance to the African continent. It is this ideological paradox that I will return to later in order to highlight the complexities of what the African Renaissance has come to mean. 

There is a second and new dimension to perceiving the African Renaissance and the ‘opportunities’ assumedly attendant thereto. This dimension has come to be expressed primarily through an argumentation that initially began as a derogatory one. It began as a positing of the African continent as a lost cause, particularly through the infamous Economist article that derided ours as a dark continent. Ironically it was to be the same magazine that would praise the continent as ‘Africa rising’ based on what regrettably is a neo-liberal and inorganic understanding of how they perceive Africa to be rising. 

The general talk in this presupposition is that the African embracing of liberal constitutions/values (inclusive of the North African revolutions)  that are more celebrated in elitist circles than they are lived realities in everyday peoples lives, is indicative of a  ‘rising’. Moreover and perhaps even more importantly, there has been a celebration of political economies that have embraced free market economics where the figures and facts given about economic growth rates are more on paper than in collective common reality either by way of improvements of people’s livelihoods or by way of contextual and progressive economic analysis.

Further to this, it is important to take into account the continued complicity of our own African leaders in this unfortunate state of affairs which gives the false impression that  ‘Africa is rising’ without a complete let alone popularly legitimate understanding of the same. It is a complicity that has led many to question the effectiveness of the AU unfairly and without understanding the complexities of the challenges that the continent faces. Particularly so where and when it comes to conflicts that are waging across the continent. It is only fair to assume that those who supported UN resolution 1973 on Libya may be thinking differently about liberal intervention and the whole idea of an 'African rising' within a unipolar world.

As has been stated by one of the founders of NEPAD, former SA President Thabo Mbeki, there is the tragic occurrence across the continent of a ‘predatory elite’ who neither have the wherewithal to understand the nuances of globalization and Africa’s placement in it. Even more unfortunately, it is an elite which is prepared to feed itself  at the expense of the majority poor. And tragically it does so while being ‘recognized’ as part of the 'Africa Rising' western narrative. Not from a continental perspective, but from what the legendary African liberator Kwame Nkrumah warned against, a ‘balkanized’ perspective.  

To put it in a much simpler narrative, the predatory elite are involved in ‘mimicry’ leadership that seeks more recognition from the north than it seeks recognition on democratic value and principle from its own peoples on the African continent.
Regardless of the foregoing, which may be perceived as pessimistic, it is important for us to understand the words of the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral when he spoke at the Tri-Continental Conference Havana, Cuba in 1966. At that conference, he told delegates that

We also know that on the political level our own reality — however fine and attractive the reality of others may be — can only be transformed by detailed knowledge of it, by our own efforts, by our own sacrifices. It is useful to recall in this Tricontinental gathering, so rich in experience and example, that however great the similarity between our various cases and however identical our enemies, national liberation and social revolution are not exportable commodities; they are, and increasingly so every day, the outcome of local and national elaboration, more or less influenced by external factors (be they favorable or unfavorable) but essentially determined and formed by the historical reality of each people, and carried to success by the overcoming or correct solution of the internal contradictions between the various categories characterising this reality. "

Where we replace ‘national’ with ‘continental’ and 'local' with 'national' Cabral’s approach and understanding of the challenges of his time (and ours) will assist us to understand what exactly we now mean by African Renaissance.  Essentially it will and must mean that we must take into account our realities country by country and continent by continent. We must seek as far as is possible to demonstrate a capacity to address our collective challenges in a democratic, holistic and organic manner. In doing so, we must negotiate with globalization much more firmly and on the basis of social democratic value and principle.

Where we discuss NEPAD and the African Renaissance, we must be cognizant of the fact it is not about romanticizing the role of Africa in the world. Instead it is about dealing with the realities of inequality, poverty and conflict from a democratic perspective and with an intention to carry on the liberatory tradition of the OAU as well as the pragmatic intentions of the AU.  In order to do this meaningfully we must appreciate and understand the African continent’s challenges without the blinkers of the dominant west nor with the unbridled fervor of radical nationalists and Pan Africanists. Our future, like our history, will be negotiated. It is a question of whether we negotiate in the manner described by Amilcar Cabral or we fall over our feet trying to impress others by way of mimicry and inorganic political understanding of our continental realities and challenges.

To conclude therefore, the opportunities of building a better Africa are ever more apparent within the context of the AU, NEPAD and the philosophy of an African renaissance. But the primary opportunity will be our ability to use the same said organizations and platforms to commit to leading Africa on a path of returning to making democratic history which is people centered and challenges the dictatorial tendencies of the new technology driven second wave of globalization.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (