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Jay Naidoo reflects on the state of the continent on Africa Day 2018

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Jay Naidoo reflects on the state of the continent on Africa Day 2018

I feel the Spirit of Change blowing from our oceans, through the forests and plains of Africa, over the mountains and across its deserts. It embraces us with its warmth and wisdom of the beginning of time for us humans. In this Cradle of Humanity we will find the ancient wisdom and indigenous knowledge our ancestors held in their hearts and guided their relationships between themselves and our Mother Earth. Our continent holds the key to healing Africa and restoring the balance and harmony we need in the world. Holding our Past makes us Understand our Present and Protect our Future. 

For the past 500 years Africa has lived under the shadow of a colour-coded slavery, colonisation, apartheid and a brutal economic system that saw both our people and the enormous natural and mineral resources as just commodities to be abused, exploited and traded for the benefit of those outside our continent.

Our indigenous knowledge systems, which gave rise to some of the greatest testaments of civilisation, from the Kingdom of Mutapa in Great Zimbabwe to the Benin, Timbuktu or Nubian and Egyptian civilisations were great learning and cultural models based on foundations of peace, social cohesion, harmony and understanding. Many of these natural and deep healing wisdom systems were ridiculed, demonised and destroyed as we were forced to conform to what Africa’s new masters wanted. Their goal was to obliterate our identity, guillotine us from our roots and make us poor copies of what they were.

Today we have a rising tide of anger of a younger generation that is alienated from the political and economic narrative of the day. A system that more often than not leaves them behind. I hear them. I see them. They say:

“We are exhausted by the talk, talk and talk. Our lives are littered with the broken promises of leaders. Our current leaders are out of touch. We are the richest continent under the ground but we are the poorest in the world. It’s time for leadership and governance. It’s time the older generation moved out of the way.”

They are right. Half the population of Africa is under 25, but many of our leaders are at an age where they should rather be sharing their life stories with their grandchildren. These youths know that not only they will outlive our generation, but by 2050 a quarter of the world will be African and by the end of the century half the young people in the world will live on our continent.

“We are exhausted by the talk, talk and talk. Our lives are littered with the broken promises of leaders. Our current leaders are out of touch. We are the richest continent under the ground but we are the poorest in the world. It’s time for leadership and governance. It’s time the older generation moved out of the way.”

Many of them, rightfully, feel that civil society, like governments and the economic elites, have become just another layer of officialdom in a system which, while talking about extending lives, may represent worthy charity but continues to perpetuate injustice. They ask:

“Why must I live longer if I have no job and no future?”

This new, connected generation moves quickly, often without the kind of structures that were invented to slow us down. Their direct experience of challenging the system is always met, at best, with an avalanche of scathing criticism, their views demonised, and at worst, by batons, tear gas and live ammunition.

But they are undeterred. They say:

“We are the future. We will be in control one day. Mortality is a reality. Your generation will die. And we will spit on your graves.”

So how do we co-create a conversation with this generation that acknowledges their hurt and where we learn to listen with empathy to their cries of pain? The question of who we are is at the heart of the challenges we face. What does it mean to be Human? What does it mean to be African? What is the Purpose of my Life?

I understand today that I missed essential lessons that my Mother, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and the countless others shared with me. When Steve Biko articulated the powerful notion that, “the mind of the oppressed is the main weapon in the hands of the oppressor. That we have nothing to lose but our chains”, he was referencing not just the notions of political freedom but a deep identity of our culture and understanding for all of us what it meant to be African and what are our roots. Like Nkrumah:

“I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me.”

Similarly when Tata Madiba spoke to me about the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) of the Soul, I should have listened more carefully as he talked about “the psychological damage and human toll we have all suffered over hundreds of years has left all of us wounded. We will have to heal”.

“Imagine our bargaining power if we chose not to be 54 fragmented countries, defined by illogical, racist and colonial cartographers…”

Today I know that we have to deal with the trauma of the misaligned feelings of superiority or inferiority, the low self-worth we share, the racism, sexism, tribalism, violence against women and children, xenophobia that all flare up into a festering wound at the smallest disagreement into the fault lines of our past. We cannot have a shared identity when we are always referring to the next person as the other, the “them”. We have to debate what it means to belong, to be part of us, before we can talk about a Nation. We have sacrificed our spirit in the mindless pursuit of consumerism and material accumulation.

We will have to talk of the sacred feminine that has been crushed by patriarchal, oligarchic systems. Graça Machel did not mince her words at the Women Advancing Africa conference of 300 African Women Leaders in Dar Es Salaam in August 2017, but she nailed her colours to the mast. Women must lead the next revolution in Africa. If not the world.

“Our first liberation was for political freedom and led by men,” said Machel. “Our second liberation should be the social transformation, economic emancipation of women and all those left behind. Women must re-imagine what the future of Africa will be and redesign the systems that govern us. One without violence and war, one at peace and where our wealth is shared equitably and develops the human potential of all Africans.”

She was talking about a new system, one that values all living things and our environment; that Africa holds great ancient wisdom and that we need to remember where we come from to hold our present and protect our future.

So across Africa I ask, what is good governance?

“It is the better life we have a right to”, a woman activist from Kenya’s Mukuru settlement says to me.

“We are sick of an economic system where people who are rich treat their dogs better they treat us. Where a cow in Europe has a better life than we Africans do. We walk on gold, diamonds and oil, but we are poor. Governance is not some academic exercise of data collection. It’s about African lives should matter.”

I know the statistics well – a quarter of Africa is malnourished and 40% of our children under five are stunted, suffering irreversible physical and mental developmental harm. As urban migration grows at a phenomenal rate, three out of five people will be living in urban slums just decades from now.

I support civic organisations operating at a grassroots level like Africans Rising whose priority is to mobilise an African Agenda, led by our governments but done transparently in a way that involves citizens, civil society and business. That agenda has to leverage our strategic natural and mineral resources that fuel the global economy that could place Africa at the centre of the global economy.

We can, like in the telecommunications sector, leapfrog the smokestack and resource economies of old into a new green growth trajectory that makes the 21st century an African one. Imagine the more than 700 million people who are without electricity today in Africa suddenly in possession of energy justice. Imagine the job creation potential of building a solar industry that uses the abundant free resource of the sun. With more than half the youth on our continent without basic skills, this is a major bottleneck. Clearly we need industry, academia and government to align our education investment with our new growth path and industrial strategy.

“We are sick of an economic system where people who are rich treat their dogs better they treat us. Where a cow in Europe has a better life than we Africans do. We walk on gold, diamonds and oil, but we are poor. Governance is not some academic exercise of data collection. It’s about African lives should matter.”

Imagine our bargaining power if we chose not to be 54 fragmented countries, defined by illogical, racist and colonial cartographers, but one African continent bargaining with trading blocs in the world.

And the technology revolution gives us the ideal platform for this.

The global toxic burden on humans is rising and we are now consuming more than 1.5 times what nature can replenish. If we all lived like the Americans, we would need four planets.

It is absolutely clear that the new growth path has to protect Mother Earth as its core. It is, after all, the only source of life we have providing the air we breathe, the water and food that nourish us. Africa has to lead the way to re-imagining a new global economy that respects our ecological boundaries.

Africa has 60% of the remaining uncultivated arable land in the world – yet we sit in Africa with one of the biggest burdens of malnutrition in the world with more than one in four going hungry. And 90% of our food is grown by women subsistence farmers. Why are they not successful? The barriers are clear to them. They lack legal ownership of land, lack the finances to buy their proper seed, to establish their own community seed banks, access water and irrigation and, even when they are productive, to get a fair price for their crops in the marketplace.

In the end we have to ask the question – what does it mean to be free? Are we free when we all live in fear? Surely we have the choice to make a difference – all of us. If we all just chose love over fear and committed to give one small gift of compassion and generosity that recognised the thread that connects all living creatures and Nature itself, what a wonderful continent we would leave as a legacy to the future generations. 

Jay Naidoo is a former Minister in the Nelson Mandela Cabinet in the first post-apartheid government. He is the founding General Secretary of COSATU and political and social activist.

This article first appeared on the Daily Maverick 

 

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