It is not at all clear when Africa took on the title of the begging continent, but it probably happened in the 1980s following the massive debt shock and austerity that were enacted to revive failing economies. But hints exist that this begging characteristic has been around much longer. We saw elements of it during the various humanitarian crises that overwhelmed the continent in the early post-independence period, from Biafra in the 1960s to the first of the big modern Ethiopian famines in the 70s.
In fact one can find traces of it much earlier, from the slave period onwards. The enduring anti-slavery image that was depicted everywhere including on pottery, is of a chained individual with his hands clasped in a pleading gesture asking, “Am I not a man, am I not a brother?” From there it is not too hard to see that the anti-slavery campaigners’ whole appeal was based on begging for the better nature of the slavers to assert itself. That tradition of appealing to the better nature of those who have the upper hand against Africans continues in the modern era. What else has been involved over the last 15 years when our leaders attend the G7/8 conferences appealing for a special deal for Africa?
They say that “the fish rots from the head”, so what is striking is how, in turn, so many ordinary Africans are now involved in begging whenever they see somebody, usually a foreigner, who they think they can benefit from. Such a long-lasting and enduring phenomenon is naturally linked to a number of complex factors. The one that stands out is the sense of Africans having quietly accepted defeat. Having accepted defeat, there is also an element that one has also accepted the accompanying shame, or at least, become shameless.
Beyond that there is also an element mixed in with this of the righteousness of the victim, and an entitlement to due compensation. The righteousness of the victim comes from the powerful feeling of being unfairly enslaved or colonised. Also, the sense that those who perpetrated these wrongs have a duty to make amends and repair the damage, both moral and financial, to both of which we are entitled.
A powerful antidote against such continuing helplessness must be the assertion of “African agency”, guided by the concept of operational excellence. African poverty and in turn helplessness is a symptom deep down of our belief that for whatever reason we cannot achieve operational excellence. Our countries are full of examples of market or social failures, the opposite of operational excellence in action. We seem frequently incapable of developing the business solutions to solve the market failures.
Such excellence always lies over the horizon, with those who we make appeals to. Even when we believe that we can achieve such excellence, we never believe that we can do it independently. It always needs an infusion of money or technical support from outside to enable us to achieve such operational excellence. So not only are we perpetual beggars, we have also become perpetual students, waiting to be capacity built to look after ourselves or to achieve operational excellence.
All of this is ironic given our history on this continent and some of the ideas we had developed to inoculate ourselves against such damaging characteristics. Over 4,000 years ago the ancient Egyptians developed the concept of the Djed Column. The Djed Column represented the backbone of the nation and was a symbol of pride and independence. Egyptian society understood profoundly that its capacity for regeneration and innovation should be internally driven and the leaders of the society were held to account by the existence of a symbol such as the Djed. Raising the Djed pillar was a critical element of the “Heb Sed” festival, part of the Pharaoh’s jubilee celebrations and an important moment for internal renewal of both leader and led. Shame and pride are essential motivators – perhaps it is time for us to rediscover and ritualise them again.