The African Union (AU) commemorates Africa Day to mark the establishment of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on the same day in 1963. This year's celebrations will mark the 50th anniversary of the continent's grouping of states. The theme for the day is Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance.
This theme is appropriate. The twin ideals of Pan-Africanism and the African renaissance, of cooperation and renewal, are crucial elements of the continent's strategy to deal with conflict. In our view, carefully honed and systematically applied reconciliation policies could serve to strengthen both.
An often-repeated mantra at the recently concluded World Economic Forum on Africa was the growing optimism about the continent's economic prospects. There is no doubt that there are some solid reasons for this. Africa, for the longest time seen as a place where the powerful inside and outside the continent ran roughshod over ordinary men and women, is changing. Africans are increasingly democratic and prosperous and are taking charge of their own affairs. Happily it is no longer so easy to organise a coup in some African backwater from your couch in London.
And yet there is reason to proceed with caution. As always, gung-ho optimism is not a good investment strategy. Many risk factors remain. Traditional backlogs in infrastructure, institutionalisation and competitiveness are not going to disappear overnight.
The real potential game changer is conflict. Africa's success over the next few years will depend crucially on whether it will be able to deal effectively with the scourge of violent conflict that persists in various hotspots across the continent. Should the African leadership succeed in resolving the wars in, for example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Darfur, and in Somalia, the prospects for progress will brighten significantly. Fail to do this, and Africa's dreams may still be realised, but at a much slower pace. Globally it will continue to lose, rather than gain, ground.
Add to this that Africa's four largest economies – Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Kenya – each still face crucial reconciliation challenges of their own. Some measure of religious reconciliation between north and south Nigeria, overcoming South Africa's inequalities, placing Kenyan politics on a solid footing, and fostering credible democracy in Egypt, will each in their own way contribute significantly towards the acceleration of development on the continent.
As we celebrate the aspirations of the founding leaders of the OAU/AU, we need to acknowledge that the world's "new investment frontier" has important reconciliation tasks ahead of it. Africa is not yet a continent fully at peace with itself.
At the most basic level, reconciliation recognises the interdependence of people and communities. It can only be achieved through persistent dialogue and working patiently through the deep divisions that afflict societies. But reconciliation, as the South African example shows, means nothing without economic development. There is a mutually reinforcing link between reconciliation and economic revival, or renaissance, which lays the platform for countries to entice inward investment and engage in global trade. It is a well-established fact that reconciled societies that acknowledge the interdependence of their people with one another and the outside world become viable places for doing business. The link cannot be overstated.
The AU, through its African Peace and Security Architecture, has been at the forefront of developing Pan-African policies on peace and reconciliation. As we acknowledge this achievement, we must also note that it is not only foreign powers that sometimes bypass African institutions. Africans themselves must learn to respect their own institutions.
The recent South African National Defence Force intervention in the Central African Republic, for example, would have been much more appropriately driven through the AU. This is with the important caveat that the AU still has significant challenges in terms of improving its professionalism and the execution of its missions on the ground. But that should motivate national governments to invest more in the AU, not less.
The continental body's Protocol Establishing the Peace and Security Council is another important policy framework that the private sector could potentially use as a framework to do business in Africa. It outlines how business can contribute towards reconciliation. The private sector has traditionally been allergic to engaging continental institutions on their policy frameworks and in defining how business can support peace processes across the continent. This when, in actual fact, the private sector can bring a level of insight that is often not available to the public sector, particularly regarding the urgency of executive strategy in a timely manner. This is especially prevalent in supporting reconciliation initiatives. The AU needs the support of the private sector, as well as the wider civil society. Concretely, the private sector needs to organise itself and establish a mechanism to directly engage with the AU on supporting reconciliation efforts.
It is appropriate for the AU to be celebrating 50 years of its existence, despite the fact that the continent has not yet achieved the aspirations of its post-independence leaders. Africa is rising, with the second fastest growth rate after Asia. The only question now is how high we will rise and how soon we can get there. In this regard the private sector can become a game changer in its own right to execute the reconciliation strategies that have been articulated by the AU much more effectively.
Chris Derksen, head of Frontier and Emerging Markets Equities at Investec Asset Management, said that further regional integration on the African continent will boost the continent's economic prosperity. "Africa has tremendous potential in this regard: trade among African countries currently accounts for just over 10% per year – by comparative European or Asian standards, it could grow to multiples of that. Africa also has one of the most favourable demographics in the world – in two years' time our continent will be the world's most youthful. More regional trade will enable African businesses to scale and increase the probability of true sustainable growth and employment creation which will, ultimately, contribute to peace and stability in Africa. Reconciliation is clearly one of the building blocks in this process."
It remains for us only to imagine how we can accelerate an African renaissance, and the sky is the limit for Africa over the next 50 years.
Dr Fanie Du Toit is the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Dr Tim Murithi is head of justice and reconciliation in Africa at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Investec Asset Management supports the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in its mission to build fair, democratic and inclusive societies in Africa.