With a population of over a billion people occupying a land area of 30.37million km², Africa is the second largest continent in the world. It is also home to most of the world’s deposits of uranium, gold, diamonds, oil and gas, and has large tracts of arable land.
The continent boasts a very youthful population, increasingly high levels of Internet connectivity; an emergence of innovation hubs and, until recently, was home to many of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
However, these high points have been blighted by several socio-economic and political challenges.
Post-independent African countries have witnessed a host of civil wars, internecine conflicts and political instability.
The politics of the Cold War contributed in no small measure to the instability that bedevilled Africa from the 1960s to the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
However, the colonial policy of divide and rule – define and rule, as political commentator and historian Mahmood Mamdani would put it, the arbitrary demarcation of borders, the reification of tribes as a marker of identity and the struggle for control over scarce economic opportunities further combined to weaken state capacity for social cohesion, nation-building and inclusive development.
In over five centuries of encounters with other parts of the world, Africa’s experience has been marked by exploitation, oppression, subjugation and alteration of the distinct identities of the peoples through a long process of psychological distortions.
Both the Arab and European slave trade, which lasted for centuries, effectively truncated the process of population growth, distorted economic development (through the loss of an able and young work force) and militarised the whole continent through the promotion of inter-tribal wars, as historian Walter Rodney described.
The succeeding imposition of imperial domination and colonial intrusion also disrupted the process of economic development as the economies of the continent were organised to serve the interests of the metropoles.
As Nigerian political scientist Claude Ake explained, the introduction of wage labour and the constraints to pay taxes resulted in the loss of opportunity to pass through an agrarian revolution, which could have been a precursor for an industrial revolution in Africa.
The organisation of the global economy since the end of World War II has ensured the continuation of peripheralisation of African countries through the institutionalisation of unequal international division of labour, in which the West and its allies set the rules of the game.
In this regard, the Bretton Wood institutions – the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – and their Geneva-based counterpart, the World Trade Organisation, have imposed financial and trade rules and policies that undermine the capacity of African states to adopt indigenous approaches to socio-economic development.
Although the globalisation processes have created some opportunities for a few segments of African society, through access to more information, the organising principle of neo-liberal globalisation has ensured an inappropriate integration of the continent into the global capitalist order, and in an asymmetrical manner.
Despite the recent optimism and euphoria about “Africa rising”, expressed mainly through the growth in Gross Domestic Product, the challenge posed by the lack of fundamental transformation in the structures of the economies of virtually all the countries has led to a short-lived experience. Many of the fast-growing economies of the early 2000s are back in the throes of debt, poverty and inequality.
For many decades, the parlous state of economic growth has hampered technological development and limited the capacity of African countries to build military hardware etc. – African economies are effectively performing below their potential.
In a world that has continued to be defined by the principle of realism, state-centric power and influence, the lack of economic and military power has kept African countries at the margins of global influence. A classic example of this is that no African country is a permanent member of the UN Security Council today. Neither does an African head any of the main global economic institutions.
While the West remains stubbornly stuck in their supremacist position of privileges, through which they maintain the status quo by rights, African leaders have been complicit in the marginalisation of the continent.
Many of them have stolen their countries blind, while many others have continued to serve as surrogates of the West in acting as destabilising agents in their respective countries.
Lack of understanding of the question of identity and common positionality in the global hierarchy of power has continued to make Africans work at cross-purposes at multilateral levels. Rather than speak with one voice and negotiate as a bloc, African leaders either prefer allegiance with their former colonial masters or resort to their facile national patriotic base when issues of international diplomacy and negotiations are involved.
The few instances where African leaders have taken bold initiatives to advance the interests of the continent, especially under the presidencies of Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and a few others before them, have suffered either discontinuity or outright suppression. The leadership deficit, especially in relation to thought leadership, is widening.
These leaders had tried to take the baton from earlier African nationalists who ensured the political independence of the continent. Nowadays the continent is losing momentum and it is probably worse off than it was 10 years ago.
It is encouraging, though, that there is a new momentum of engagement with Africa, especially from non-traditional partners in Asia and Latin America. Even though this engagement is also motivated by the desire for raw materials and markets, it presents a new opportunity for Africa to redefine its mode of engagement with the rest of the world.
This will require crafting a new strategy that is underpinned by the principle of Pan-Africanism and an African renaissance.
It is in this context that we look forward to Professor Mahmood Mamdani’s lecture in this year’s Thabo Mbeki Africa Day Lecture, which was inaugurated by former president Mbeki in 2010.
Mamdani will lecture on Africa and the Changing World on May 26, a day after the official Africa Day. As has now become a new tradition, a debate on his lecture will take place after his lecture.
*Professor Gumede is head of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute at Unisa. This article was published on the Thabo Mbeki Foundation website and was originally published in the Sunday Independent newspaper.