“Can Africa Claim the 21st Century?” – Excerpt from Thabo Mbeki’s Speech, Former President of South Africa

The African Executive website. Ten years ago, in the year 2000 marking the close of the 20th century, the World Bank published a Report provocatively entitled – Can Africa Claim the 21st Century?
Seeking to answer this question, the Report said: 

“The question of whether Sub-Saharan Africa can claim the 21st century is complex and provocative…Our central message is: Yes, Africa can claim the new century. But this is a qualified yes, conditional on Africa’s ability – aided by its development partners – to overcome the development traps that kept it confined to a vicious cycle of underdevelopment, conflict, and untold human suffering for most of the 20th century.”

In their Preface the authors said:

“This report proposes strategies for ushering in Self – reinforcing processes of economic, political, and social development. Progress is crucial on four fronts: Improving governance and resolving conflict; Investing in people; Increasing competitiveness and diversifying economies and reducing aid dependence and strengthening partnerships…”

They went on to say:

“Claiming the future involves enormous challenges – not least of which is resolving the problems of the past. Much of Africa’s recent economic history can be seen as a process of marginalisation – first of people, then of governments. Reversing this process requires better accountability, balanced by economic empowerment of civic society – including women and the poor – and firms relative to governments, and of aid recipients relative to donors. Without this shift in power and accountability, it will be difficult to offer the incentives Africa needs to accelerate development and break free of poverty.”

It is probably true that all these World Bank observations are in themselves correct and unexceptionable. However, notable by its absence in these observations is an element I consider to be of vital importance if Africa is to Claim the 21st Century – the need for Africa to recapture the intellectual space to define its future, and therefore the imperative to develop its intellectual capital!

One of the tasks which would enable us to give a positive reply to the question – Can Africa Claim the 21st Century? – must be the cultivation and nurturing of an African intelligentsia which understands its mandate.

The African intelligentsia has to understand that it has to carry out a veritable revolution along the entirety of what we might call the knowledge value chain. It must therefore address in a revolutionary manner the integrated continuum described by:

Analysis of African reality and the global context within which our Continent exists and pursues its objectives; the policies relevant to the renaissance of Africa that would seek to transform the reality discovered through analysis; the politics Africa that needs to translate these policies into the required transformative programmes; and the institutions that must be put in place to drive the process towards the renaissance of Africa.

When it proceeds in this manner, seeking both to understand our reality and to change it, our intelligentsia will rediscover its mission as a vital agent of change, obliged critically to re- examine the plethora of ideas emanating from elsewhere about our condition and our future, including what have become standard prescriptions about such matters as the democratic construct, the role of the state and civil society, good governance, the market economy, and Africa’s relations with the rest of the world.

Thus we should depend on our intelligentsia as our educators and no longer mere conveyor belts of knowledge generated by others outside our Continent about ourselves and what we need to do to change our reality.

One of the urgent contemporary tasks that confronts African producers of knowledge is to understand the meaning of the global economic crisis to the African continent and what the continent needs to do ‘to overcome the development traps that kept it confined to a vicious cycle of underdevelopment, conflict, and untold human suffering for most of the 20th century’, as the World Bank had said in 2000.

To claim the 21st Century, the Continent has to ensure that it occupies its rightful place within the global community of nations, bearing in mind the ineluctable process of globalisation. Africa must, practically, regain its right to determine its destiny and use this right to achieve the objective of the all – round upliftment of the African masses. In June 2000 we attended the meeting of the European Council, the EU Summit Meeting, held in Feira in Portugal.

The central objective of our mission at this meeting was to mobilise the EU to support what ultimately became the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, NEPAD. Immediately prior to our interaction with the EU Heads of State and Government we held discussions with the leadership of the European Commission.

These leaders surprised us with an unexpected message about the attitude of the EU towards Africa. They warned us that the EU did not have any strategic perspective relating to Africa, as it did with other areas of the world such as East and Central Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the United States.

In short, in their view, the EU did not consider Africa to be of such importance to its future that it was compelled to place the continent within a conscious and deliberate strategic framework. The EU knew that whether it liked this or otherwise, Africa would continue to provide Europe with raw materials and serve as a market for its products. Beyond this, the continent had no possibility to act in a manner that would threaten Europe’s interests.

This communicated the very stark message to us that for Africa to assume its rightful place among the community of nations, especially in relationship to the developed countries, she had to demonstrate in theory and practice that she was a strategic player in the ordering of human affairs, globally. Thus would we defeat the pernicious view that Africa was but a hapless appendage to the rest of humanity, condemned to survival as an object of pity and benevolent charity, and contempt, and the actions that derive from this perspective.

We took this important advice into account when we engaged the EU Heads of State and Government, determined to convince them that we had not come to them as supplicants but as partners they needed in their own interest. In the result, the Final Communiqué of the European Council said:

“The European Council, agreeing that the challenges facing the African continent require extraordinary and sustained efforts by the countries of Africa helped by strong international engagement and cooperation, reaffirmed its willingness to continue to support measures aimed at rapid economic growth and sustainable development. This will only be possible in a proper environment of peace, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.”

Understanding the strategic imperative facing the EU, the then President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, said in 2003:

“The Africans are not asking Europe or the US for charity. What I hear from my African colleagues is a clear appeal to the rich countries to put policies in place that will allow Africa’s peoples to take their destiny in their own hands.”

In this regard, in a March 31, 2001 Address at the Third African Renaissance Festival in Durban, I said:

“(The) response (of the EU) to the imperatives Africa faces as part of the global hinterland, are driven by considerations of conscience and guilt rather than fundamental necessities to which it must respond, in its own strategic interest.”

I then said that to respond to this:

“It is necessary that the peoples of Africa gain the conviction that they are not, and must not be wards of benevolent guardians, but instruments of their own sustained upliftment. “Critical to this is the knowledge by these peoples that they have a unique and valuable contribution to make to the advancement of human civilisation, that…Africa has a strategic place in the global community.”

This excerpt from Mr Mbeki’s Africa Day lecture was published on the African Executive’s website.

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