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Mandela’s message for troubled times

Essay

Mandela’s message for troubled times

By Carlos Lopes*

“It always seems impossible until it’s done” has probably become the most prominent quote by Mandela. It encapsulates the history of the man, the South African nation and indeed the aspirations of a whole continent.

Over the years, countless documents, conferences, processes and activities have focussed on regional integration as the response to the pan-African dreams that energised the liberation movements post World War II. Given their own difficulty in tracing their roots back to pre-slavery original communities, the African diaspora tended to identify the continent as one single entity.

However history proved that the concept of a united Africa was more challenging. For most, regional integration proved too abstract and remote. Even nation building was regarded as a foreign import. It is, therefore, no surprise, that pan-Africanism remained for a long time an intellectual stimulus rather than being followed by implementation.

To understand any given reality, context is everything – an archetype is influenced by history and circumstances. The particularities of South Africa were always going to mark its trajectory once apartheid had ended. It took a Mandela though to navigate safely past what many believed was an inevitable disaster, or at best an unachievable dream, into a positive experiment with global impact.

Mandela is gone; we are all orphans. The beacon of tolerance and wisdom he represented is hard to replace. In a world of fake news, crass political commentary, fascist and xenophobic tendencies, egocentric exhibitionism and unparalleled levels of inequality, the world seems affected by a selfish wave that has now reached the institutional order, carefully built over the last 70 years.

It is happening fast. Populism is becoming mainstream. In fact, ‘populism’ has always been a shortcut definition for ugly things many find difficult to classify.

Running out of time?

Africans are not immune to these changes. They are exposed to global trends like anyone else and influenced by whatever decisions and choices are made by the powerful. By virtue of a population explosion, at a time of dramatic fertility reduction in other regions, in a not-so-distant future, one in every two youngsters in the world is going to be African. This youth offers challenges and opportunities.

It will be difficult to build new cities in 20 years when others took two centuries to develop them. It will be hard for economies to create millions of modern jobs in an equally short space of time, when others achieved those goals in a period when rules were more favourable and congenial.

The large-scale industrialisation which pan-African institutions have espoused is possible, but not easy. Dependence on commodities, poor policy coherence and managerial capabilities, skills mismatch, lack of adequate infrastructure and reliable energy supplies, strong headwinds and technological developments rob the possibility
of merely imitating the success of others. We live at a time where only 1.7% of the world debt, incurred by 1.3bn Africans, is more problematic than the same percentage acquired by 5.9m Danes. Africa typically generates less than 1% of patent registrations at a time when intellectual property dominates the value chains.

Africa will adapt

For all these and many other reasons it is easy to conclude young Africans are in a bind. But we should remember “it always seems impossible until it’s done”. Historically, what is proven is that each time a new wave of technological developments took place, human beings adjusted over time and so did the systems of production.

The trajectory of humanity is one of economic growth and the capacity to absorb demographic growth. Economists have studied different waves of structural transformations that respond to new demands and more sophisticated technological developments.

It is far from obvious that current technological developments will necessarily produce negative effects in the world of employment and overall economic growth. It is less certain inequality will stop its dramatic rise.

Our lack of knowledge about the impact of technology fuels fears and anxiety, not to mention the obvious demonstration of our inability to predict.

It is hard to imagine societies that would survive with mostly older people in the company of robots and machine-efficient systems. Artificial intelligence requires real intelligence, but also a different way of dealing with intelligence. For instance, young minds absorb the new algorithmic, multi-tasking micro-jobs of the future better than older brains.

Seizing opportunities requires more than speed and strategic leadership. Africans are often frustrated their leaders leave them wanting. Connected like never before, their levels of patience are diminishing fast.

IT multinational Ericsson predicts that between today and 2023, mobile subscriptions in Africa will grow by an average of 6% a year to just under 1bn from the 700m today, while mobile broadband subscriptions shall grow by 16% a year to 880m, from 350m today.

The way Africans are governed will have to evolve. Hopefully taking advantage of more open, youthful and ambitious ones, facing challenges that are very different from societies embracing a fortress mentality because of their fear of the future.

The widespread mistrust towards political representatives will need to be addressed by tackling high levels of inequality, the squandering of natural resources, a rent-seeking mentality and a refusal of multi-diversity acceptance. This requires titanic efforts.

I grew up to 10 years of age without seeing a telephone. How could I have imagined possessing in my palm a cell phone with more computing capabilities than Apollo 11? It was impossible to predict. I also grew up doubting apartheid would ever end. Not only did it do so, but when it happened, all those who supported it before rallied to bury such connections.

Mandela certainly believed the end of apartheid would happen, as he skilfully recounts in his Long Walk to Freedom. He has taught us all a lesson that should serve to open our minds to what now only looks impossible. Hopefully it will not take as long. NA

*Carlos Lopes is a Professor at the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice, University of Cape Town and former Executive Secretary of the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa.

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