Comment and Analysis

Time for Africa to go back to its roots

Vusi Gumede

The continent needs a new economic model that will benefit all its inhabitants – not just a few, writes Vusi Gumede.

Socioeconomic development has largely been a function of the repulsive political history of the continent.

As a point of departure, it is important to acknowledge that we know a lot about the challenges confronting the African continent today. Equally, we know more about the world today. It is in this context that a call to rethink Africa's political economy is made.

Such a rethink is timely because the world economy and geopolitical affairs suggest that a different socioeconomic development model is needed. Also, as Africa celebrates 50 years since the formation of the Organisation of African Unity, it is fitting to ask and answer the ­questions pertaining to Africa's post-independence development.

Three salient characteristics of Africa – south of the Sahara specifically – are worth ­noting. First, socioeconomic development has largely been a function of the repulsive political history of the continent. Walter Rodney, Bade Onimode and Claude Ake are among the scholars who have written extensively about the extent to which the West impoverished Africa. Thandika Mkandawire has, furthermore, demonstrated how the West and its institutions (the Bretton Woods family and the Washington Consensus) slowed socioeconomic progress in sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, as Asongazoh Alemazung would argue, there are internal factors that have also constrained progress in Africa.

A philosophy of pan-Africanism and a hope of African renaissance should shape Africa's approach to development and global affairs. Given glaring tendencies towards neocolonialism and neoimperialism, the project of decolonisation and Afrocentricity is ever more critical. This does not mean an anti-West stance. It simply means, as Molefi Asante puts it, that Africans are (to be) fully conscious of their Africanity and always cognisant of the ground they are standing on.

In the recent past, Africa has been performing relatively well economically.

After significant setbacks caused by the structural-adjustment programmes of the Bretton Woods institutions, Africa has pulled through. Yet the recent global ­economic crisis and the ongoing eurozone crisis are affecting the continent's economic growth – currently around 5% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Optimistic
Arguably, Africa's overall economy remains relatively robust because of the resilience of Africans. This as the so-called advanced economies are  projected to rebound by a mediocre 1.5% of GDP this year – and that is probably optimistic.

The last key issue is that, politically, Africa remains divided. The unity that Nkrumah, Nyerere, Pixley Seme and others pursued is elusive. The external hand of the West, in concert with the majority of Africa's leaders, is ensuring that the vision of a united Africa remains a dream.

The heterogeneity and diversity of the continent are a challenge that only Africans can address, even though the challenge is in part a creation of the colonialists and continues to benefit the West. To address this challenge we may have to go back to Afrocentric or pan-Africanist approaches, as articulated in the works of Archie Mafeje, Molefi Asante, Amilcar Cabral, Tiyambe Zeleza, Samir Amin and others. Mahmood Mamdani's new book, Define and Rule, also offers useful insights.

I argue that the start should be to embrace authentic African approaches to social and economic development, for instance communalism: Africans functioning as a ­single entity to address pertinent challenges. Indigenous knowledge – a source of Africa's resilience – could be the basis for the Afrocentricity or pan-Africanism that should be the framework shaping Africa's affairs.

On a practical level Africa owes herself a robust developmental paradigm that is authentically and indigenously African. The current economic system has failed the world and constrained Africa's ­development. A peculiarly African socioeconomic developmental model is needed. Africa should reject outright advice from the West and those captured by the West. The West developed through an interventionist economic development approach, as Ha-joon Chang recounts, but today the West tells Africa to follow an economic system in which the state is hands-off; a system prone to further impoverishing Africa.

It is clear that Africa needs leaders different from those we currently have (with some exceptions). All Africans need to go back to the drawing board. To embrace Afrocentricity or pan-Africanism or black consciousness, the frame of reference and the point of reference for Africa and Africans must be changed.

Robust public policies
Africa and Africans need to go back to their roots, so to speak. This might mean that Africa disengages from the rest of the world temporarily as she gets her house in order. The pre-colonial African economy, disrupted by colonialism and imperialism, was vibrant and served Africans well.

What might a social and economic development model for Africa contain? A major component should be social policy – broadly, robust public policies. The second major component is economic policy.

Many African countries do not seem to have visions for their economies. Many African economies have not transformed themselves: economic transformation must mean that the majority takes part in the economy and that all Africans benefit. At the core of this model should be effective social-protection systems, quality education and healthcare. Africa should reconsider its social pacts in the context of the new (and old) challenges confronting the continent. Without a single vision shared by all of African society and the diaspora, and owned by every member of society, development will remain a pipe dream.

We owe it to ourselves as Africans and to our forefathers and foremothers to make Africa work. To make Africa work better African cohesion is paramount.

The African Union, working with all Africans, must ensure both renaissance and unity. Leadership is critical lest, in Ayi Kwei Armah's words, we still cry that the "beautyful ones are not yet born".

Professor Vusi Gumede is head of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute at Unisa

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