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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Some of the challenges for Africa and countries of the South


Carl Niehaus - 2007-05-30

Friday 25th May was Africa Day. On this day every year we celebrate the birth of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on 25th May 1963. This article is an edited version of a lecture that I delivered at the Institute for Social Sciences in The Hague, The Netherlands. I send it to LitNet as my contribution to what I believe to be a critical debate that is necessary about the future and place of Africa as part of the “South” in our globalised world.

I write this article as an African. Together with President Thabo Mbeki I say:

I am an African.

I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.

My body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter-day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine and melted in the heat of the midday sun.

The crack and the rumble of the summer thunders, lashed by the startling lightening, have been a cause both of trembling and of hope.

The fragrances of nature have been as pleasant to us as the sight of the wild blooms of the citizens of the veld.

The dramatic shapes of the Drakensberg, the soil-coloured waters of the Lekoa, iGqili noThukela, and the sands of the Kgalagadi, have all been panels of the set on the natural stage on which we act out the foolish deeds of the theatre of our day.

The pain of the violent conflict that the people of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria face is a pain I also bear.

The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share.

The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair.

This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned.

(Statement by the then Deputy President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, on the occasion of the adoption by the SA Constitutional Assembly of the Republic of South Africa Constitutional Bill, 1996)

Yes, this is a savage road to which no country on the African continent should be condemned!

Yet the bitter reality is that in many of our African countries this is the sad state of affairs.

Notwithstanding their great diversity, the economies of Africa have many features in common. Traditionally an important number of African economies are dependent on the production of a few agricultural or mineral products that are exported to the industrial countries of the northern hemisphere, mostly in unprocessed form and subject to the unpredictabilities of international demand. Many countries are struggling to overcome widespread poverty and destitution, including food shortages, unemployment, inadequate housing, stagnating or even falling standards of health and education, inadequate infrastructures, and escalating public indebtedness. Except for the extraction of oil and minerals, African economies have attracted far too little foreign investment. Even countries with diversified industries, including South Africa, face these problems. Agriculture and mining remain the most relevant productive sectors, with agriculture being the foremost source of employment in most countries.

During the colonial phase the economic development of African countries and peoples hardly featured as colonial policy objectives; instead, they served to strengthen the economies of the colonial powers. Rather, to perpetuate their imperial domination over the peoples of Africa, the colonisers sought to enslave the African mind and to destroy the African soul.

When the new states eventually gained independence, often after devastating wars of liberation, they accorded high priority to development and catching up with the developed world. Most of them saw the creation of their own manufacturing industries as essential to that end. An indigenous manufacturing sector was expected to lessen their overwhelming dependence on the sale of raw materials to the former metropolitan powers, who were also their main source of manufactured products.

Most of the new states were, however, seriously short of indigenous technical, entrepreneurial and managerial skills. A considerable number therefore felt that the state had to shoulder the task of initiating and implementing industrial and other development. However, civil servants were ill equipped for such tasks. The availability of foreign advisers did little to change the situation, because all too often their expertise was not appropriate to African conditions.

For the foreseeable future Africa's prospects for economic development are beginning to look more encouraging, but they continue to be limited. It is, however, important that our analyses must remain sober and our feet firmly on the ground, because there are no quick fixes and simple blueprints. The principal considerations for this assessment are as follows: the prevailing poverty and rapid population growth lead to land degradation and deforestation and subsequently to food insecurity. The demand for food, for instance, is expected to treble over the next 30 years, and previous experience indicates that food shortages have a negative impact on economic, social and political problems.

Even on optimistic assumptions, the overwhelming dependence of African countries on the export of raw materials inhibits growth at a high rate because of adverse terms of trade and the elasticity of international demand for raw materials, bearing in mind that demand for them increases at a lower rate than the growth of output in the industrialised world.

The heavy dependence of the majority of African countries on foreign financial aid makes them vulnerable to the decreasing tendency of that aid. At the same time, much remains to be done to attract and increase foreign direct investment.

The development of human resources is retarded because the strained financial position of many African governments leads to declining spending on education, health and other social services. Beyond that, the ending of subsidies on basic foodstuffs and other necessities has a detrimental impact on the fast-growing urban populations, especially the very poor, and is apt to threaten stability.

On the other hand, the import policies of the industrialised countries which are Africa's most important trading partners have played a major, but sometimes also a negative role, in Africa's export performance. Despite attempts to facilitate access to the EU market, the African share of the ACP countries participating in the EU market has declined relative to that of other developing countries. Notwithstanding the benefits of the Lomé Convention, protectionism and restrictive agricultural practices of the important economic blocks of the world have resulted in an over-supply of some agricultural commodities, and thus inhibited worldwide demand and weakened world prices. Moreover, as incomes increase in the industrialised countries, consumer demand for agricultural products does not advance proportionally. This process has been accompanied by the dumping of agricultural products produced by EU countries, which has caused devastation in the agricultural sectors of many African countries.

There are those in the rich developed world who would like us to believe that we Africans are the creators of our own misfortune. They say: If only those Africans had been prepared to do things differently; if only they had been prepared to accept the corrective guidance of the invisible hand of the unbridled free market, then all would have turned out much better. Yes, for sure we Africans, and many of our corrupt and autocratic leaders, have made awful mistakes. We collectively have to admit our faults. But first I want to make this clear: No, it is not true that we are simply the guilty ones, and solely responsible for our own woes.

It is with the acknowledgement of this basic truth that we must consider the complexity of reasons for the huge inequality gap between the industrialised countries of the North and the developing nations of the South.

I am becoming more and more concerned that developments such as the lowering of tariffs and trade barriers are to a large extent benefiting the North with its strong industrial base and its wealthy consumers, and that the trend is towards fewer advantages for developing countries and a consequent widening of the North-South gap. Increased globalisation and economic interdependence is a powerful impetus to the liberalisation of trade flows, finance and technological change, but the impact of globalisation is very uneven, and some of the least developed countries, particularly those in Africa, are unable to benefit from trade because of weak supply capabilities.

Former President Nelson Mandela referred to the structural disadvantages that Africa is faced with when he addressed the 50th Anniversary Gathering of GATT in Geneva on 15th May, 1998. He pointed out that when the international community created a so-called new order after the Second World War the people of Africa were not consulted. It is still an insult to all Africans to remember that only two African countries, the then apartheid-ruled Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia of all places, signed the original agreement.

With painful irony Mandela quoted from the GATT declaration of 1947, which the then white masters of South Africa had signed:

Relations in the field of trade and economic endeavour should be conducted with a view to raising standards of living, ensuring full employment and a large and steady flow of real income and effective demand, developing the full use of resources of the world and expanding the production and exchange of goods.

Mandela then stated that these noble sentiments would have had our agreement then, as they do now. But what is so painful is that these high ideals have not been achieved on the African continent, or indeed for the vast majority of humanity. Clearly, important as it is, trade as such does not secure a better world.

Madiba went further and declared that while it is important for the reconstruction and development of Africa to strengthen our engagement with the World Trade Organisation (WTO), it is critical that we learn from the lessons of the past. Though international trade and investment have always been an integral part of the world economy, the extent to which all parties have benefited has depended on the circumstances in which they have been conducted. The current process of globalisation is no exception. The extent to which all countries benefit will depend on how we, the member states, act in concert to shape the process.

In making a complex point it is natural to fall back on one's own experience. South Africans fought a horrifying abuse of power and were determined that it should never happen again. We therefore elected to be governed by a Constitution, in effect a rules-based system that protected all in equal measure. However, if our Constitution was simply blind to the reality of inequality and historical imbalances that prevent equal access to opportunity, then it would have become a source of both actual and perceived injustice.

Rules must be applied without fear or favour, but if they contain prescriptions that cannot be complied with by all, or if the results benefit too few, then injustice will emerge.

It is prudent to remember that no number of rules or their enforcement will defeat those who struggle with justice on their side. That, too, is part of our South African experience, and that of all peoples everywhere.

Where there are manifest inequalities when rules are introduced, special and thoughtful measures have to be applied in order allow those who have been disadvantaged to catch up. This care at the beginning will promote the conditions that sustain and nurture a rules-based system.

South Africa therefore believes that the best approach is a constructive one which continues to support the importance of a multilateral rules-based system. However, within the framework of regulations more serious attention will have to be given to granting the necessary opportunity for developing nations to comply with the WTO regulations.

The powerful economies will have to desist from taking unilateral steps, and the developing nations will have to negotiate their specific needs within a jointly agreed to framework of regulations.

These conditions will make considerable demands on both the developed North and the developing South. But it is absolutely critical that a formula, or formulas, will have to be found to break through the vicious cycle of enrichment and impoverishment.

Ultimately when stripped of all the talk about rules, structures and negotiating processes, we are simply talking about the international context in which all of us have to work to eliminate poverty in our countries, to improve the quality of the lives of millions of people, to close the gap between the rich and the poor within our countries, within our continent and universally.

At the same time the very fact of the process of globalisation in all its forms means that Africa's own success in terms of improving the lives of our people cannot be achieved in conditions of autarky or self-contained development within our national boundaries or regions.

It cannot be achieved through opting out of the world economy and therefore extricating ourselves from the process of globalisation.

Therefore the question arises what interventions African countries can make to ensure that a process which by its nature will favour the rich, addresses also what are clearly the more urgent needs of our peoples.

We cannot make the intervention by autonomously affecting capital or trade flows or unilaterally altering any of the variables which make up the totality of the world economy.

The stark reality is that the power to influence the markets lies exclusively in the hands of those who dominate the markets, which we in Africa do not, even collectively.

In its Annual Report the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) makes some startling revelations which emphasise the extraordinary imbalance in the control of economic resources between the North and the South:

A hypothetical shift of 1% of equity holdings by institutional investors in the G-7 countries away from domestic equities would represent slightly more than a 1% share of the total market capitalisation. The same funds would be equivalent to a 27% share of the market capitalisation in emerging Asian economies, and a share of over 66% of Latin American equity markets [and Africa is in a considerably worse position].

Reflecting on these figures the BIS pointed to the asymmetry between the investor and the recipient perspectives, especially in the case of emerging economies. The high concentration of institutional assets in some of the most financially developed countries contrasts with the relatively small size of many recipient markets. It warned that this asymmetry, coupled with the ebbs and flows that have historically characterised portfolio investment in emerging economies, highlights the potential for instability as a marginal portfolio adjustment by the investor can easily amount to a first-order event for the recipient.

A marginal portfolio adjustment by the investor can easily amount to a first-order event for the recipient! A slight turn by the sleeping elephant to make itself more comfortable can result in the complete annihilation of an entire universe of a colony of ants!

The question arises: What must we do?

The critical consideration on which we must base the answer must start with the realisation of the fact that the process of globalisation ineluctably results in the destruction of sovereign states, with the weakest ones, in many cases African states, being the biggest losers.

If this is correct, it must follow that for us to be able to influence the process of globalisation so that it also favours the interests of the poor, to be able to do something, we must ensure that ours becomes an important voice exactly at the places to which we are losing some of our sovereignty. Our voices must be heard and influence the way in which the world economy should be managed to ensure the transfer of resources from those who have them to those who do not, so that both end poverty among their peoples and achieve or maintain sustainable rates of growth and development.

The untapped markets in the world economy are those of the developing world. Therefore the qualitative new expansion of the world economy must derive from the expansion of these markets. There is no logical reason to assume that this would not also benefit the countries of the developed North. Indeed the opposite is true, namely that the poverty of some may very well become a threat to those who are well off.

A recent article in the Financial Times made this point eloquently:

At present the west, in general, and the US, seem blessed even by the dire misfortunes of others. But the stability of this world of divided fates is doubtful economically and ultimately politically. Either sustained prosperity in the west will bring stability and renewed growth to Asia and elsewhere, or the spreading crisis is all too likely to export instability to the west. Today's western complacency could tomorrow look mere vainglory.

The question we should all seek to answer is whether a stable world of divided fates is possible, but more importantly, whether such a world, even if it was possible, is desirable. I very firmly include the developed countries of the North in this challenge.

Is it possible for some to maintain and expand their prosperity while billions of others are victims to dire misfortunes?

The answer to that question is NO!

Inasmuch as the slave cannot ask the slave-master to provide the strategy and tactics for a successful uprising of the slaves, so we, especially we in Africa who are the hungry and treated as minors in a world of adults, must also take upon ourselves the task of defining the new world order of prosperity and development for all and equality among the nations of the world.

For the weak to challenge the strong has never been easy. Neither will it be easy to challenge powerful vested interests on the current and entrenched orthodoxies about the modern world economy.

As African states we must develop a joint approach to make our interventions into such important organisations as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank. These organisations have to set a new agenda focused on the sustained and sustainable development of our countries.

This must include the struggle to democratise the system of international relations, encompassing such organisations as the United Nations (especially with regard to the nature and composition of the Security Council, where Africa must get a Permanent Seat), the WTO and the Bretton Woods institutions, so that the voice of the poor is strengthened; the agendas of these important bodies must be made more responsive to the needs of the developing world and the reduction of national sovereignty, especially of the smaller countries, must be counter-balanced by the ability effectively to influence the institutions of the system of international governance.

But – and let me turn now to the errors of our own ways – we will be able to face none of these great challenges if there continues to be those among the political leaders and elite of Africa who are preoccupied with denying their people their democratic and human rights. As long as there are those in Africa who are fixated on waging wars against others, who are too busy looting the public coffers, or who think that they must bow in supplication for charity to those whose wealth sets them aside as the mighty, we will continue to inflict mortal wounds on ourselves.

No, Africa has no need for the criminals who acquire political power by slaughtering the innocents. Nor has she any need for such as those who, because they did not accept that power is legitimate only because it serves the interests of the people, laid vast parts of the continent to waste and deprive its citizens of a sense of wellbeing and the pride of being able to chart their own destiny.

Neither has Africa any need for the petty gangsters who proclaim themselves our governors by theft of elective positions, as a result of fraudulent elections, or by purchasing positions of authority through bribery and corruption.

Yes, we must challenge the huge inequalities between North and South, but can we do so with integrity if we do not challenge the chasm between rich and poor within our own countries? I have seen the poverty of the South African townships Orlando East and Alexandra and only a few kilometres away the wealth of suburbs like Sandton. In Lusaka I have seen the poor of Kanyama and the prosperous residents of Kabulonga. I have seen the African slums of Surulere in Lagos and the African opulence of Victoria Island. I have seen the faces of the poor in Mbari in Harare and the quiet wealth of Borrowdale.

We all know the stories of how those who had access to power have robbed and pillaged and broken laws and all ethical norms with great abandon to acquire wealth, all of them setting themselves the aim to climb, if need be, over the corpses of others to Sandton and Borrowdale and Victoria and Kabulonga.

In this equation, the poverty of the masses becomes necessary for the enrichment of the few and the corruption of political power the only possible condition for its exercise. It is out of this pungent mixture of greed, dehumanising poverty, obscene wealth and endemic public and private corrupt practice that many of Africa's coups d'état, civil wars and situations of instability are born and entrenched.

Africa cannot renew herself when its upper echelons are mere parasites on the rest of society, abuse their political power and in their exercise only help to ensure that our continent remains on the periphery of the world, poor and underdeveloped.

We have to say no more! We must purge ourselves of such parasites and maintain a permanent vigilance against the danger of the entrenchment in African society of this rapacious stratum with its social immorality according to which everything in society must be organised materially to the benefit of the few.

A couple of years ago, when I was South Africa's Ambassador in The Hague, I had lunch with the editor in chief of one of the largest newspapers in The Netherlands. I did my best to promote my country, and I thought I was managing to convince him that we are making good progress. Then, as we were leaving the restaurant and I greeted him he said to me with a slight smile on his face, "Ambassador, it is still early days. In the beginning after independence it also went well in many other African countries. I'll wait and see."

Having bashed my head once again against an almost impenetrable wall of Afro-pessimism I left with a deep sense of frustration, but especially sadness. While prejudice is unacceptable, we Africans have to acknowledge that we largely contribute to our own woes.

I repeat: We have to say no more! We must stop the condescending smiles, we must stop the humiliation of being written off as the Dark Continent. The only way to stop it is to rebel against political instability on our continent, because when something goes wrong in a particular African country they do not say something has gone wrong in that country, they say the Africans have done it again. And when the pictures of hunger and poverty and devastation flash across the television screens they do not say it is occurring in this or that country. They say it is again occurring in Africa.

The political parties, the religious leaders, the trade unions and all other elements of society, our intellectuals … we must all be able to say together we want to stop this once and for all. And to do that the people of Africa will have to act together to ensure that indeed the concept of power to the people becomes part of the reality of our continent.

It becomes necessary that as Africans, because of our interdependence, we must together understand what the challenges are of the modern economy. What it is that we must address together, to ensure that our continent takes its place in the modern world economy.

Stimulating judicious co-operation and mutually beneficial economic relations among African countries is indispensable for renewal. It is in this context that we find the essence of what is meant by an African Renaissance.

The elaboration of realistic developmental programmes that are likely to succeed, rather than ambitious but unrealisable social policies, is the principal challenge facing Africa's leadership. There can be no place for grandiose, ill-conceived construction projects and social engineering exercises which serve little other purpose than to feed the hungry egos of corrupt despots.

An African Renaissance entails Africa catching up with the rest of the world. To do this, Africa, like Europe before it, will have to stand on the shoulders of the rest of humanity's achievements.

A continent-wide cultural revival based on the spread of literacy, numeracy and the sciences, and the mastering of appropriate modern technology will be necessary ingredients. The schools, adult education projects, technikons, the universities and other tertiary institutions on our continent should lead such a revival.

An African Renaissance without popular participation, or at the very least popular intervention, is therefore inconceivable. The challenge facing our continent is to pursue rapid economic growth and development while keeping faith with democratic norms.

Africa must exert greater control over its resources through multilateral co-operation agreements among the African countries, while discovering mutually beneficial arrangements with regions other than its traditional trading and investment partners in Europe and North America.

Thus, some of the key elements in this Renaissance vision are:

  1. The economic recovery of the African continent as a whole, and the establishment of political democracy on the continent.
  2. The need to break off neo-economic relations between Africa and the developed world.
  3. The mobilisation of the people of Africa to take our own destiny into our own hands, thus preventing the continent being a place for the attainment of geo-political interests of the world's most powerful countries.
  4. Development of a people-driven and people-centred economic growth aimed at meeting the basic needs of the people.
  5. Developing a common agenda for African renewal which is accompanied by a clear realisation in Africa itself that no revival is possible in an environment of conflict and instability.

In spite of many obstacles, there are also positive signs that an increasing number of African countries are taking the necessary realistic steps to overcome them. On the whole, Africa has entered a period of faster economic growth, though the gains to date remain fragile. After two decades of economic downturn in most countries on the continent, Africa's growth since the 1990s has shown a convincing upswing. Even if growth were to slow down over the next years, Africa's performance thus far is commendable, and a tremendous improvement from the 1980s and before. With continent-wide average growth rates now having a real chance of exceeding increases in population for the first time in many years, Africa has the chance to escape economic marginalisation and impoverishment if it keeps on the path of reform and if it wins a necessary boost from the international community.

African countries are also increasingly organising themselves into regional economic groupings in order to strengthen their abilities to face future economic changes. The integration of several national economies into one larger market may be expected to yield important benefits by promoting a more efficient allocation of resources.

Gains and drawbacks unavoidably are unequally distributed among member countries forming part of regional economic organisations, and many challenges remain. The benefits from integration may thus only be apparent in the long run, whereas costs have to be met in the short term. Functional co-operation among states in spheres such as transport, power, water, health, training, tourism and research may present a good platform to build upon, as it should deliver benefits at an early stage. As this implies that some aspects of sovereign national decision-making have to be delegated to supranational institutions, political commitment to integration objectives remains important.

There is little doubt that Africa needs a combination of enhanced internal reforms as well as international assistance. It is encouraging, therefore, to note that an increasing number of African leaders are putting economic reform at the top of their policy agendas in the realisation that the pace of change in the world is such that the continent cannot afford to be complacent.

Although Africa is still largely on the periphery of the global economy, the region has tremendous potential. The upturn, although slow, has definitely begun, and the prospects for a true economic renaissance for the continent are constantly improving.

It is up to all of us to ensure that the positive trends are strengthened and negative ones weakened. It is up to all of us to ensure a mass crusade for Africa’s renewal.


At the beginning of this article I called on my fellow African brothers and sisters to join me in saying with pride, "I am an African."

Let’s end where we began. Let the voice of the Sengalese, Sheik Anta Diop, be heard:

The African who has understood us is the one who has felt a birth in himself, of another person, impelled by an historical conscience, a true creator, a Promethean carrier of a new civilisation and perfectly aware of what the whole earth owes to his ancestral genius in all the domains of science, culture and religion. Today each group of people, armed with its rediscovered or reinforced cultural identity, has arrived at the threshold of the post-industrial era. An atavistic, but vigilant, African optimism inclines us to wish that all nations would join hands in order to build a planetary civilisation instead of sinking down to barbarism.