/ 21 May 2015

A day to weigh up the continent

Show of hands: A huge crowd of Tunisians protest in the capital
Show of hands: A huge crowd of Tunisians protest in the capital


It has been most heartening to wake up during this month of May to the sounds of the African Union anthem. I believe that the SABC should be applauded for this initiative. One hopes that South Africans will in due course become familiar with the AU anthem, rendered alongside our own anthem, Nkosi sikelel’iAfrika.

This is important for South Africans because the anthems become aids on our journey towards self-discovery and help to grow our consciousness and identity as people of this continent. By their nature, anthems speak to the heart and emotions, about all that is best and ­beautiful about one’s country. They engender a sense of pride and patriotism, connecting one emotionally to one’s roots and giving one a sense of belonging and identity.

On May 25, Africa remembers the day in 1963 when the then independent nations of the continent came together in a bold and progressive move to establish the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Many of the nations had recently achieved independence and many were battling with the effects of neocolonialism. All were struggling to establish their economies and political systems to meet the needs of their people and to free themselves from the apron-strings of the colonial powers. Soon all of Africa was caught up in the convulsions of the Cold War, alongside the struggles for liberation and the struggle to shake off the stranglehold of apartheid, especially in Southern Africa.

While it is true that the political history and economy of Africa has had mixed fortunes, for which African leaders must, in part, take responsibility, the continent can justly claim some sterling successes. Among them is the truism that not a square inch of Africa can be said to be under colonial domination – something that looked like a pipe dream in 1963. The second success was the transformation of the OAU into the AU by means of the Constitutive Act (2000). The 21st century was said to herald the dawn of the African century.

The greatest legacy of the Constitutive Act was precisely that Africans could, by their own intelligence, dream of an Africa that was truly African and that was determined to break free from the economic, scientific and intellectual tutelage of Western nations. It was an instance of Africa once again believing in itself and holding its destiny in its own hands. The African century heralded the Africa we could be proud of and that would collaborate, share resources and promote interdependence to enhance the wellbeing of its people.

To achieve that, the AU established appropriate governance instruments and monitoring systems. These included the Constitutive Act itself that specifically barred any unconstitutional change of governments, and whose structures, for the first time, had powers to sanction members who are in breach of the Act.

Arguably, the best of these structures was the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, by which the continent sought to harness its resources for the development of the common good.

Alongside that, the Peer Review Mechanism enhances the accountability measures, especially in matters such as governance, human rights, peace and security.

In more recent years, though, one must honestly attest to some disappointment with the effectiveness of the AU regarding the agenda it had set. Africa has been beset by internal conflicts in countries such as South Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and coups d’etat in countries such as Mauritania, the Central African Republic and Burundi, to name only a few. More prominently, we have seen the resurgence of religiously motivated acts of terrorism in East Africa and in Nigeria. With the possible exception of Madagascar, somehow, Africa’s own peace-keeping and peace-making mechanisms do not appear to have borne fruit.

Winds of change
Having said that, a spirit of freedom has been raging across the continent – the winds of change have become unstoppable.

The Arab Spring in North Africa signalled that grass-roots communities are capable of revolt and of taking freedom into their hands. The results may not be totally as expected, but they do put all Africa’s rulers on notice.

In Burundi, a head of state who dared to pronounce himself available for another term in office was met with a popular revolt and an attempted coup. In Kenya, a perception that the elections were not credible led to a wholesale resistance, with the resultant deaths of hundreds of people.

The 2015 World Happiness Report highlights the importance of the integration of sustainable development with human wellbeing. This is an advance on the millennium development goals that are set to be superseded by the sustainable development goals at the United Nations general assembly in September.

Human happiness is more than mere hedonism or individualism – the report measures human well­being and the factors that make for the best environment for human fulfilment. The 2015 report states it well when it says that “happiness” is “the proper measure of social progress and a goal of public policy”. It is correct to assert that the introduction of “happiness” as a measure of human development is a progressive one that makes sustainable development no longer a detached and disinterested phenomenon that hardly touches peoples’ lives.

Social capital
In the chapter in the report by economist Jeffrey Sachs the point that had earlier been made by the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, is given emphasis: namely that societies with a high level of social capital, by way of general trust, good governance and mutual support by individuals within society, are conducive to enhancing social conduct.

Those societies that do not have the benefit of high social capital are pervaded by general distrust, pervasive corruption and lawless behaviour. Corruption happens because those who have power over public resources do not trust that the system will benefit them, or they are so greedy that they are willing to deprive others to benefit disproportionately from the common purse.

The report’s rankings of happiness for 2012-2014 are revealing. In the top 100 countries, Libya appears at number 63, the highest-ranked African state. The country, which has become a basket case without a properly functioning central government and is a playground for human traffickers, is the happiest African state. The irony is that this would be the result of the late Muammar Gaddafi’s discredited policies.

The next African country on the list is Mauritius at number 71, even with its reputation as a playground for the rich and famous.

The third surprise is that South Africa, the continent’s best performing economy at the time and previously number 96 on the rankings, does not make the top 100 list, falling behind Zambia (85), Morocco (92) and Lesotho (97) at number 113. It is important to note that on measures such as gross domestic product per capita, social support, level of social generosity, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make choices and a perception of corruption, South Africa performed poorly.

The political lesson is that even though some 12-million South Africans are unemployed and that the elderly and indigent receive state grants and housing, it clearly is not enough to make them “happy”. More is needed. That means a quality of life that must include not just employment but also a decent livelihood, safety and security, peace and an environment conducive to prospering as human beings. The absence of these weighs heavily against us.

Africa Day provides an opportunity for a sober assessment of where the continent stands in the critical areas that measure progress and development for its people. This year, the Thabo Mbeki Foundation and the University of South Africa have sponsored the annual Thabo Mbeki Africa Day lecture at Unisa on May 25. The guest speaker is Mohamed ElBaradei of Egypt, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nobel peace prize winner in 2005, and an activist for democracy in his home country, Egypt.

ElBaradei’s talk will appeal to South Africans of all races, to scholars and intellectuals who are searching for solutions to the challenges Africa faces and to all who are impatient for change and wish to experiment with ideas and strategies that will produce lasting solutions.

Barney Pityana is the Thabo Mbeki Foundation’s programme adviser, honorary visiting professor at the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and professor emeritus in law at the University of South Africa.