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Africans are not ‘voting fodder’

- William Gumede

The prerequisite for successful African decolonisation is to put value on every individual African life.

William Gumede, Associate Professor in the Wits School of Governance, delivered the Nadine Gordimer Lecture on Thursday, 14 June 2018, at Wits University. Titled, Decolonisation: Speaking uncomfortable truths to your “own” side and to the “other” side, listen to his full lecture or read the extract below:

Decolonisation: Speaking uncomfortable truths to your “own” side and to the “other” side

South Africa will have to move away from slogan-based debates on policies if the country is to get out of its current economic, social and political stagnation.

Purely symbolic policies, with little chance of practical implementation, like calling for expropriation for land, when the constitution already make provision for this, may temporary burnish one’s radical credentials, but is no genuine solution.

As part of “decolonisation”, many a Left-liberation/independence movement government and leader have claimed to be “radical left”, “anti-capitalist” and “anti-imperialist”, by calling for the nationalisation of mines and banks and the seizure of land without compensation.

Furthermore, African-style populism which has swept many a party and leader into power on the continent following independence from colonialism after the Second World War, has brought very little shared economic development or quality democracies.

Not surprisingly slogan-based, symbolic and left populist policies under the rubric of “decolonisation”, have in almost all cases in the postcolonial period led to the collapse of economies, and recolonization by the World Bank or IMF, or industrial country donors or more recently, by emerging powers, such as China.

There are no simplistic solutions to the intractable societal, political and economic problems we inherited from previous apartheid governments, and which has being compounded by the sometimes terrible mismanagement by the democratic government.  African countries need long-term, pragmatic, practical industrial policies, need to reward skills and hard work on merit and govern honestly. Such an approach will deliver successful decolonisation.

Nadine Gordimer was intellectually curious, forever open to explore new ideas, to question her own assumptions, whether it is cultural, political, community or family upbringing. She was a life-long learner. She read widely. She had the capacity to imagine.

To ultimately decolonize, we have to, like Nadine Gordimer, question our own deeply ingrained assumptions, and imagine new ways of thinking, doing and talking. This may disrupt our sense of self, the warm comfort of fixed ideology and the pleasing sense of community, political and cultural assumptions. 

Nadine Gordimer was critical to both her “side” (the anti-apartheid struggle) and the “other” (the apartheid government) side. She questioned “perceived truths” – whether it be ideological, political or the narrative of history - from her “own” side, as well as the “other” side. This often caused her to be fiercely attacked by both sides. Using the victim card was not for her.

The post-colonial African intellectual/writer/researcher is often expected not to attack his or her “own” side. They are expected not to question what is assumed to be self-evident or obvious “truths” about their “own” side, “history”, “culture”, “traditions” and “ideological” assumptions.

The argument being, that why give ammunition to the “enemy”, to the “other” side, why weaken your “own” cause. The “enemy” typically would be former colonial powers, big business and local opposition parties which were aligned to former colonial powers or the apartheid government.

Yet, critical love for own’s cause, makes it stronger, generate new ideas, new knowledge, which will ultimately make that cause more successful.

In fact, misplaced loyalty has been one of the reasons for not holding post-colonial African governments and leaders accountable – and one of the main causes for the failure of the African decolonisation project.

South Africa and many African countries risk recolonization. This is not colonialisation in the traditional way, but being satellites of both former colonial and new emerging powers such as China, Saudi Arabia and Brazil in perpetuity.

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technology development is faster, Africa’s strategic minerals can be artificially produced and Africa’s labour may be taken over by automation (robots). Losing the battle to create world-class skilled people, continuing to think that minerals and land are silver bullets and not creating new industries that compete with global ones risk recolonization of South Africa.

South Africa is at a ‘tipping point’ moment where the country faces the real danger of remaining frozen as a middle-income country unable to reach high-income status or decline steadily over time like Argentina.

Both scenarios is devastating failure for South Africa, which given the richness of its natural resources, the abundance of its collective talent, particularly in the private sector and its strategic global positioning – the most developed economy in a growing continent and a diverse society with global networks.

Some countries, such as Argentina, were once rich countries, but have steadily declined over long periods. The problem is that because parts of the economy during a steady decline keeps on functioning, some institutions appear to be operating relatively well, infrastructure in well-off areas works like in developed countries, and most of the political and economic elites retain their individual wealth – the illusion is often created that things are going well, bar the few ‘challenges’. This is the case for South Africa.

All of this means that we have to reconceptualise the idea of decolonisation. Singapore in the 1950s was among the poorest countries in the world – now Singapore mathematics is taught in industrial countries. Children at the schools of the former colonial power, Great Britain, now use Singapore mathematics. This is what successful decolonisation should look like.

In sum, it will have to mean taking the best from all parts of the world, the West (former colonial powers), emerging markets, Africa and from our own, and fashioning something. This is what Singapore has done. This is what China is doing. And this is what Japan did a generation before. This, I would argue is successful decolonisation.

Some countries have gone all out to pursue economic development, wanting to catch-up with the former colonial powers as quickly as possible, as a way of decolonising. The objective was to lift the most number of people – the colonised - out of poverty in the quickest amount of time.

Key pillars of such approaches were to provide the best global education to their peoples so they can compete as quickly as possible with their former colonial overlords. They did not debate about “Asianising” education, but focused on how to quickly put together curricula containing the best from all over the world – in order for their citizens to be competitive.

Furthermore, these countries copied the best technology from the West, and eventually created new technology of the learning by copying.

The idea would be that once the former subjected country is at economic par with the former colonial master, that country would have successfully decolonised. Singapore and South Korea are examples of such countries.

The prerequisite for successful African decolonisation would be to put value on an African life. Colonialism, slavery and apartheid dehumanize, reduce the value of Africans, compared to whites. An African life has less value than a white life. In the post-colonial period, new African leaders, governments and elites have continue to bestow less value on their fellow African counter-parts, seeing them as “subjects”, or voting fodder.

Africans appear to be only outraged when Westerners, white and non-Africans violate Africans. However, they appear not to care, if Africans violate Africans in whatever form – corruption, violence and gender crimes. This will have to change.

There has to be social equality – all Africans must be equal. Presidents, kings and traditional leaders cannot be more equal than the ordinary rural African. They cannot have mansions, while ordinary people live in shacks. Ordinary people should not call leaders “honorary” this or that. Leaders should not wake up one morning and come up with a policy on the hoof – which then becomes the country’s official policy.

All great transformations the past 100 years changed the position of women. South Africa, like most of Africa operates under 50% capacity, because the leadership, ideas and energy of women are not productively used.

We should look at the concept of wealth differently. Africans say Africa is wealthy. Wealthy is seen as minerals, having land. Human capital not seen as wealth – this is wrong. This means that skills, education are often not concentrated on.

Unless developing human capital as widely as possible is at the centre of all South Africa’s or Africa’s development strategies, efforts to raise economic growth rates, bring ‘economic freedom’ to the black majority and political peace will come to nothing. 

For successful decolonisation, there will have to be several mindset shifts among South Africa’s governing elite. Kenichi Ohno, one of the leading Japanese economic development strategists, calls the collective mindset change necessary for a country to move from poverty or middle-income to becoming a developed and high-income one, “a national movement for mindset change”.

One of the mindset changes needed is the thinking popular among some policy makers that because South Africa has the natural resources – rich land, minerals and established private companies - it will automatically become high income, and that all it needs is for the state is to take control of these resources, or for locals to take it from ‘outside’ control whether through nationalization, black economic empowerment or suck them dry through taxes.

This attitude which is often prevalent in many African countries, breeds complacency, stifles innovation and development. It suffocates countries from thinking seriously about cobbling together industrial policies, to build new bricks-and-mortar factories or create new economic sectors that were not there before, but which could produce for the global market. 

But this attitude often also leads to the kind of corruption where local political elites are bought off, either through getting slices of the resource companies, or patronage opportunities’.

Another shift is to accept that the developing human capital, through genuinely and determinedly giving all citizens the best quality education, similarly or better than our competitors, is not only the greatest empowerment policy, but it is also the greatest economic growth driver.

But also using human capital to the best ability, genuinely using all the best talents possible in a country – and putting them in the right places, is crucial. Talented individuals can think through difficult development problems.

There is a very strong trend in most of Africa liberation movements turned governments to appoint political allies, friends, family, and ethnic allies, without the technical skill, to lead complex entities, public service programs. Those more benevolent argue, well, cadres have done well as guerrillas, so they can pick up technical skills along the way, and manage complex government departments, entities and programs.

As part of successful decolonisation, South Africa will have to be more pragmatic, rather than ideological in coming up policies. And policies must be fit for purpose. China, supposedly a communist party-led country is most probably the most pragmatic government on earth, adapting the market to their purposes, appointed talented individuals, even if they are not party members to key positions in the state to accelerate growth, learning from every ideology to see what will work best for them.

William Gumede is Associate Professor in the Wits School of Governance and Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation. He is also the author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).

Professor William Gumede delivers the 2018 Nadine Gordimer Lecture  

About Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

Nadine Sylvia Gordimer was a precocious talent who began writing at the age of nine. She published her first story at 15. She was an occasional student at Wits in 1946 when she studied English literature and English language.  In her lifetime she wrote nine collections of short stories, eight novels, two volumes of literary criticism, and several plays for television. Her work was translated into 19 languages.  Virtually all of her works deal with themes of love and politics, particularly concerning race in South Africa.

Wits awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1984 and Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Among many other literary awards, Gordimer received the Chevalier de la  Légion d'Honneur (France) in 2007, which despite not being literary, “recognised perhaps the other side of my life”.

This “other side” was Gordimer's political activism. She was a member of the ANC, which she worked with often while it was still an illegal organisation.

Gordimer told WITS Review in 2008: “The world thinks the problems began at the end of the 1940s when we invented apartheid, but the problems that we inherited go back centuries, of oppression, of totally unfair education...this backlog from the past, I always kept I mind, that with our wonderful new constitution that we're so blessed with, you can't possibly refuse to face the problems we have.”

About the Nadine Gordimer Lecture

This lecture series was inspired by the first round of lectures that Gordimer, with Pippa Stein, organised between 2004 and 2006. These were duly delivered by Susan Sontog (2004), Carlos Fuentos (2005) and Amartya Sen (2006). The lectures discontinued after Stein's passing in 2006.

When Gordimer died in 2014, 10 friends gathered annually for dinner to pay tribute. Among the 10 were Colin Smuts and Maureen Isaacson. They were nominated to approach the School of Literature, Language and Media at Wits to resurrect the lectures. Out of this came The Friends of Nadine Gordimer Committee.

The lectures are intended to become an annual series featuring both local and international distinguished speakers. The focus of the lectures will continue to reflect Gordimer's interests.