A version of this article appeared in The Daily Maverick on 30 May 2021

In my last article, I argued that the African century has not yet begun, based on the state of Africa’s five most populous countries: Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa.

I am no Afro-pessimist, however. I see no reason why Africa cannot thrive.

For decades development scholars have tried to answer the question: How is it, that at the dawn of Africa’s independence era, Ghana and South Korea were at the same level of development, and a generation later, South Korea – far less endowed with natural resources than Ghana – is a rich, highly developed country, while Ghana – despite its dynamic people and all its land, gold, diamonds, bauxite, timber and cocoa – remains a relatively poor, developing country?

Of course Ghana is used here as a proxy for Africa broadly. Why have we been unable to drive rapid, inclusive development in the sixty years since the African independence era?

Generations of brilliant African scholars have analysed and debated the internal and external factors frustrating Africa’s development. It is time we forge the resolve to overcome them. For how many generations will we explain to our children why our continent does not work for so many of its people? Why we could not make it work?

Africa’s citizenry must stand up for democracy and development.

How long will we Africans tolerate poor leadership?

We Africans have shown great courage, ingenuity and resolve in fighting against oppression by those – our former colonial masters – from elsewhere and who do not look like us. In the post-colonial and post-apartheid era, we have found it far more difficult to confront misrule by leaders who look like us.

There is no magical set of leaders who will advance democracy and people-centered development without the constant positive pressure of an active, engaged citizenry. There are few saints in politics. Most African countries are young democracies, it will require decades of sustained, collective effort to build strong democratic institutions, political cultures, and norms. (And even then they can quickly erode if allowed to, as Trump-era America has shown us.) Constitutions and laws are not enough, they need our active involvement as well.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Have you ever been part of a group of people moving something heavy and you are fully aware that if you lose your grip, it will fall to the ground knowing that every hand, with every bit of strength is needed? Heavy as it is, uncomfortable as it is, you do everything you can to hang on knowing, feeling, that you are the difference between success and failure. The same goes for democracy building in Africa. It needs every one of us.

It needs us to: apply our minds to local and national issues; participate in public debate; communicate our priorities and concerns to public representatives, in writing and in person; support pressure groups with our time and money; support capable, aspirant servant-leaders; support political parties (improve existing ones or start new ones if they don’t capture your imagination); run independent campaigns. Participate.

And vote, vote, vote! Above all else, politicians respond to vote tallies. I listened in disbelief in the runup to our 2014 elections when some analysts and activists were encouraging people to spoil votes to communicate unhappiness with the ANC. And when I hear people talk about how they are dissatisfied with the ANC, but will vote for them anyway. Voting is an imperfect mechanism, it communicates only two signals to incumbents. A vote for the party in power says ‘Yes please continue with what you’re doing’, a vote against says ‘I am not happy with you’. It’s an imperfect tool, but a vital one. Use it, or render yourself invisible to the powers that be.

We need a new generation of visionary, technocratic leaders who can build a  new politics.

To build the Africa of our dreams, a new type of leadership is required. The governance failures and missed opportunities we have seen in key periods have shown that our public leadership ranks urgently needs more ethical, socially conscious and capable leaders with new vision, new ideas, a track record of professional accomplishment, rigorous academic training and modern capabilities (digital fluency, problem solving, communication, leading teams, innovation.)

It is difficult for transformational leaders to emerge in dysfunctional systems. In most organisational hierarchies, leaders elevate those who most remind them of themselves, who they feel comfortable with and who do not threaten them.

Many transformational leaders therefore, will be found outside of the existing state institutional and party power structures. Many will be outsiders. As William Gumede observes, our political culture is not welcoming of outsiders. We need to change this.

For those of us who aspire to offer transformational servant-leadership – I say us for I am unapologetically one of these aspirants – the onus is on us to create new pathways. Power concedes nothing, and will not make it easy for new leaders to emerge. We must continue to build our skills and expertise, serve society, craft solutions and seize the moment when opportunities present themselves.

We need patriotic business elites who consider the public good.

Revolutionary intellectual Frantz Fanon warned presciently, devastatingly, of a post-colonial African power elite who would prolong underdevelopment, rather than help solve it. To Fanon, writing in The Wretched of the Earth, unlike a true bourgeois class which wields economic power (the means of production), post-colonial Africa would have “only a sort of little greedy caste, avid and voracious, with the mind of a huckster, only too glad to accept the dividends [Black Economic Empowerment?] that the former colonial power hands out to it.” [My additions in italics.]

He continues: “It must simply, be stoutly opposed because, literally, it is good for nothing. This bourgeoisie, expressing its mediocrity in its profits, its achievement, and in its thought tries to hide its mediocrity by buildings which have prestige value at the individual level, by chromium-plating on big American cars [now German], by holidays on the Riviera [now Dubai] and weekends in neon-lit nightclubs [Cubana?].”

Put simply, a small rich class of insiders has emerged in the democratic period, and done very well for itself. Mainly hidden from public view, we’ve caught glimpses through the Zondo Commission, the Free State asbestos case and now the Eskom files, how rent seekers feed off of the fiscus – the resources you and I provide to the state through income taxes, VAT, the fuel levy, our electricity tariffs among others – to fund elite consumption: mansions in gated communities, supercars, holidays and the like. Meanwhile the economic structure that continues to produce underdevelopment – high unemployment, poverty and inequality – does not change.

Our task of inclusive development will be made that much more difficult, if we have a business class focused selfishly and narrowly on its own short-term interests. We need businesspeople with social conscience, that see inclusive development as being in their enlightened self-interest.

One thing that is striking about countries like Nigeria and South Africa is the small bubbles of opulence – Sandton in Johannesburg, Ikoyi in Lagos – amid a sea of poverty and struggle. At some point, the owners and managers of large companies who insist on paying workers the least they can get away with, while paying executives enough to enjoy the best living standards on Earth, should ask themselves: don’t you want to do business in an economy where there are more than a handful of consumers with money to spend? Don’t you want to stop having to go to Australia and the UK to expand because our tiny consumer base isn’t growing?

Do we want to live forever behind high walls, electric fences and armed guards because half of the young men in society are unemployed, poor and desperate?

Similarly, our emerging business class – most of whom are not corrupt – should ask themselves: don’t we want to create sustainable business and industries we can be proud of, rather than be middlemen, selling goods and services to the state at prices inflated by hundreds of percent?

We must shrewdly navigate the new, great power politics.

“Africa must avoid being the place where vultures feast.”

These were the words of Prof Funmi Olonisakin during the 11th Thabo Mbeki Africa Day Lecture last week. Many of us are hypervigilant about the motives of the United States and Western European powers in Africa because of the malign colonial and neocolonial role they played in previous centuries. We must not make the mistake of fighting the last war, and neglecting to prepare for the next. Prof Olonisakin reminds us that Russia, Qatar, the UAE and China, among others are pursuing geopolitical, military and economic objectives on the African continent. Our societies should reflect and interrogate what roles these powers play in Africa. As the young people say, stay woke!

Many would argue, that in international relations, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only interests. Past ‘enemies’ of African independence and development – the West – present opportunities to advance our interests: more than 30% of South Africa’s exports to America and the EU are manufactured goods, which is favourable for our industrialisation. Less than 5% of our exports to China are manufactured. (This is structural. The world’s leading low-cost, high-volume manufacturer is not a natural market for our manufactures.)

America in particular wants to reduce its dependence on China-based manufacturing for geopolitical reasons. African countries, with preferential access to the $22 trillion US market through AGOA, should be working strategically at diplomatic and commercial levels to position ourselves as a new base for manufacturing.

The ANC gravitates towards long-time friends such as Russia and China, and so South African foreign policy follows. But is Russia playing a constructive role in Libya? Or is it merely advancing its geopolitical and economic interests?

It is good for Africa that China is a trade and development partner. This gives African countries new options for trade and investment, and has forced America in particular to rethink its paternalism in Africa relations, engagement models and commitment to fund African priorities such as catalytic infrastructure rather than the traditional Western aid model (with all of its issues and limitations.)

China however, is no benevolent angel funder. It is primarily interested in securing access to raw minerals for use in China-based manufacturing (a model we decry as colonial and anti-developmental when practiced by the West), distributes much of its African ‘investment’ to Chinese-owned companies building infrastructure in Africa (often using Chinese labour), and is a hard-nosed negotiator. Chinese companies also sign opaque deals with African politicians which may undermine our efforts to entrench good governance as well as obscure risks on the value and impact for our countries and local communities.

In the new great power politics, Africa must not be naïve. There are few angels or demons in international politics, only countries pursuing their interests.

African governments should therefore put our strategic interests – carefully and objectively analysed – above all else in relating to foreign powers. We should remain independent and avoid being beholden to foreign powers. Ideally, African countries as a bloc through the African Union, or at the very least our leading powers, should form a united front on key strategic issues so as not to be easily divided and manipulated.

In conclusion, I believe we can create an Africa in which all who live in it can thrive.

I believe we can develop Africa into the continent, the civilisation, of ours and our ancestors’ dreams, in a single generation. This can be the African century. We can and must make it so.