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‘There is a continued imposition of Western culture on Africans’

‘There is a continued imposition of Western culture on Africans’
  • PublishedJune 13, 2013

“If a Western multinational company or a governmental department is sent to the Middle East or Asia, they have induction programmes for the employees they intend to send there: in order for them to make it clear that there is a culture that is completely new to them. But when those same Western companies are sending people to Africa, that appreciation is not there. There is a continued imposition of [Western] culture on Africans, as if we have no distinct characteristic. Our culture is neither respected nor even acknowledged. Although colonisation does not exist today – in terms of physical ownership of countries – the mentality of the Western world in relation to Africa is still very colonial,” says Dr Nkosana Moyo. He was interviewed by J.P. O’Malley.

Kwame Nkrumah, the first African leader south of the Sahara to shake off the chains of colonial rule, when he led Ghana to independence in 1957, once described what he felt was the contempt Western governments projected to African nations in the post colonial era. “[They want] to create African states that are frail and weak, even if independent,” Nkrumah said. “The enemies of African freedom believe that in this way they can use our states like marionettes to continue their imperialist [projects].” But, ahead of a state visit to Ghana in 2009, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, and the 44tth President of the United States, Barack Obama, made it clear that the West would not be made to suffer a guilt complex when it came to Africa’s economic shortcomings.

“For many years, we’ve made excuses about corruption or poor governance [in Africa saying] it was somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or [that] the West has been oppressive, or [racist]…I’m not a believer in excuses.”

When one takes even a very brief glance at history, it is foolish to deny the impact colonialism has had on economic progress in Africa. But framing these debates in stark polarities tends to create an impasse from which Africans have much to lose. This is a point that Dr Nkosana Moyo reiterates when we begin our conversation. “Africans have continued to blame colonisation for many of the problems it has faced in the last number of decades. It is a fact certainly. But it does not help us to find solutions. Take a country like Malaysia: they also came out of colonisation,” Dr Nkosana Moyo begins.

“But once the local people took charge, they were able to formulate their own plans, which they executed, in order to move into a different space. So while the factors of colonisation may be true to a certain extent, I think our position, in terms of passivity in Africa, is currently unacceptable,” Moyo tells New African.

Nkosana Donald Moyo was born in Belingwe in Zimbabwe in 1951. He describes his childhood as humble and self-sufficient, where material needs were few. “I used to go to school without shoes, and I lived in an environment that didn’t have running water, or electricity. But I had a very happy childhood. I never went hungry, and we produced all our food at home. The reason why I often bring up my humble beginnings is to caution people from describing those from such backgrounds indiscriminately. “Even when we use the word ‘poor’, we unintentionally undermine people’s selfworth, and make them feel like they are to be pitied. Humble surroundings and circumstances do not necessarily mean people are poor. Poverty of the mind is much more insidious than material poverty. Through our actions and descriptions, we tend to put a lot of people in a state where they think they are poor.”

Throughout our interview, Moyo delivers the answers to my questions in a pragmatic, lucid, and extremely articulate fashion. If he currently feels like he has to frame all conversations about Africa – in terms of its vast potential, and abysmal failings – from such a highbrow platform, it is because he feels to date there has not been a space where one can engage in this kind of discourse. Attempting to fill this void, he decided in 2010 to found MINDS: the Mandela Institute for Development Studies. This Pan-African think tank provides a forum for dialogue, and aims to shape government policy, economic development, and further the evolution of African institutions.

“MINDS is an organisation that attempts to mobilise our community as Africans, and to take ownership of various issues,” says Moyo. “It really comes down to three basic principles: accept where we are; understand why we are presently in this position; and finally, to come up with viable solutions, other than waiting for other people to tell us what to do.”

Moyo has a strange habit of turning the questions I pose to him back into questions. But it makes for a fascinating conversation. When I asked him what spurred him on to form MINDS, he says it arose from a set of questions he had been asking himself for many years.

“Why have we – as Africans – not [emerged] on our own, without the so-called donor community or developed world? We are not where we should be in comparison to other countries with similar histories. “An objective acceptance of the factual circumstance is a necessary springboard from which [we Africans] need to understand why we have come to where we are. After that, we need to enable ourselves to try and find solutions to whatever those circumstances may be.”

By being an independent, non-partisan organisation, MINDS is rapidly transforming itself from an intellectual aspiration, into a real entity that can fully implement its vision: where all African nations can attain democracy; economic prosperity; social inclusiveness; as well as a rightful place in the global community. The way to do this, he argues, is to get close to the key decisions makers, in both the public and private sector, throughout Africa.

“Basically, we try and influence the people who are actually running countries, because they are the ones who are in a position to do something about it. MINDS also has to be a platform of analysis, because at any given time, the nature of the problem will change, therefore we need to establish a methodology.”

Adapting to the statistics of economies that are rapidly expanding across Africa is paramount, Moyo believes, in understanding how this wealth can be distributed outside of the elitist circle that it currently presides in. But other factors cannot be ignored, he says.

And putting one’s absolute faith in the statistics that currently exist can be problematic. The way most countries tend to calculate the value of a country’s wealth is through GDP figures: the value of goods and services within a state in a given year. But according to the economic historian, Morten Jerven, who published a book last year entitled Poor Numbers, GDP figures in Africa are presently widely inaccurate. Out of the 47 African nations where Jerven conducted his study, only 10 used base years that are less than a decade old. Nigeria, for example, currently bases its real GDP figures on 1990 prices.

A revision of these figures can mean an astronomical change to the country’s GDP. In 2010 when Ghana restructured its base activity, GDP figures rose overnight by 60%. This means previous figures had missed out on $13bn of economic activity. If Nigeria is to do the same this year –which looks very likely – its GDP could increase by up to 40%. Given that Nigeria is Africa’s second-largest economy, behind South Africa, this could have drastic implications. But Moyo warns that these statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt. Two years ago, he learnt a very harsh lesson: the figures on African economies that global institutions tend to churn out to the Western media, bear little resemblance to the actual prosperity of a country. He criticises these institutions because he has worked for two of them.

“I was in Tunisia in 2011, when the North African revolution started. And at that time, all of us – the IMF, World Bank, and the African Development Bank – were giving the country full marks, because of the growth numbers of the country’s GDP. But you have to look deeper in terms of what is happening to the population, and ask two fundamental questions: are these numbers translating themselves into things that people actually recognise and value? And are those people participating in that growth?

“I think the answer to both of those questions is no. You can have lots of food around, and there can still be people hungry. The challenge is to try and make sure that where there is growth, the communities are benefiting from this particular dynamic. We have to look within the countries and see what is happening in spite of these other gross numbers, because they don’t tell the entire story.” When Moyo speaks about the inaccuracies of data, you might tend to trust

him over, say, your average politician. If one was to assess Moyo’s career hitherto, it might be simplified thus: private sector equals success, public sector equals failure. I subtly allude to this fact, and we begin a long conversation about the public/ private sector debate. I also mention an article published on a website that discusses the role of the private sector in transforming African economies. One of the key points made in that article is that African governments are often too inflexible, and unwelcoming to the private sector. Moyo believes we must place the conversation in a historical context. “If you look at countries that have a homogenous population, Germany, or Ireland, for example, you have got a history where the people that lead the public and private sectors are essentially the same. In that dynamic, you are never able to look at differences as implying disloyalties to the country. But when you go into Africa, you know that the private sector was set up by the colonial administrations from other countries.

“So when the struggle for independence came about in many African nations, it became almost synonymous with wanting to destroy the economy as well. The problem then arises when independence is gained. Psychologically we have then internalised the economy as being owned by the enemy, and we feel that we must destroy it. So the relationship for the local people and the economy has become polarised with the colonised, and the coloniser.

“That is why the tensions in the public and private sectors have this added complication of distrust. We need to get to a situation where the future of a nation is easy to identify: to a place where you can agree that your destiny is tied in together, irrespective of what sector you are in. Given that colonisation is mutated from not wanting to do things with local traditions, you can see why it continues to be an issue.”

Throughout our conversation, Moyo has continually talked about the need for Africans to take a step back if they are to be in control of their destiny. He says that by equating the West with modernisation, and local African traditions as backward, a fundamental problem arises that immediately prohibits progress of any kind.

Before we go our separate ways, I decide to leave Dr Moyo with a question that I stole from the MINDS website. It is one that I am almost sure he crafted himself, so I figure he would probably give me an adequate answer: “What is and should be the role of African cultures in shaping the development of governance debate across the continent?”

As with most of his responses, Moyo goes the long way around to explain his point of view, and short anecdotes often turn into lectures. But they are worth listening to nonetheless.

“If a Western multinational company or a governmental department is sent to the Middle East, or Asia, they have induction programmes for the employees they intend to send there: in order for them to make it clear that there is a culture that is completely new to them. But when those same Western companies are sending people to Africa, that appreciation is not there. There is a continued imposition of [Western] culture on Africans, as if we have no distinct characteristic. Our culture is neither respected nor even acknowledged. Although colonisation does not exist today, the mentality of the Western world is still very colonial.” In Moyo’s worldview, the likelihood of Africans taking back their sovereignty, and sense of self-worth, is dependent on two things: learning the history of their own culture, and using that history as a source of economic power.

With all of this talk of colonisation, I am somehow left thinking of a phrase that was, ironically, coined by a man who actually benefited from the British colonial system, George Orwell: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”


Dr Nkosana Moyo

He began his career in physics, where he earned a PhD from Imperial College, University of London. It was then that he decided to move into the world of finance. Just some of the senior management positions he has held to date in the finance sector include: associate director at the International Finance Corporation; managing director at Batanai Capital Finance; and managing director at Standard Chartered Merchant Bank, Zimbabwe. Until August 2011, he was the vice president & chief operating officer of the African Development Bank. And he also had a very brief career in politics. One evening in July 2000, whilst watching television, Moyo discovered that he was named as minister for industry and international trade in the Zanu PF government in Zimbabwe. The appointment came with no prior warning, or consultation from President Robert Mugabe. But Moyo gratefully accepted the position, believing he could make a valid contribution to his country. There was also the fact that President Mugabe was a leader he held in high regard up until that point. “From an ideological point of view, there was very little one could argue with, in terms of the initial politics that Mugabe was engaged in. I don’t think anybody can claim that he didn’t do any good during the first part of his public life, as both prime minister and president.”

Moyo says that while he initially agreed with Mugabe’s ideology about land distribution, he could not condone the violent tactics the government encouraged its foot soldiers to use, in order to get the white farmers off the land.

“I only stayed in cabinet for 10 months,” Moyo says. “I left because I knew that it was not working, and that I was wasting my time. Most organisations both inside and outside the country – the World Bank being one example – accepted the principle that land should be distributed in Zimbabwe. There was no argument when it came to this.

“Where my opinion differed with Mugabe’s, was in his approach. The undisciplined way he went about things, in terms of both pace, and how land was actually acquired, became an issue. Once you start killing people, you begin to undermine the value system of the population. If you can’t take an approach that is accepted by everyone – under a fairly structured, disciplined, and legal framework – then you are going to destroy the fabric and framework of a community.”

After Moyo finished his very short career as a public servant, he returned to Washington, where he went to work for the World Bank Group.

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