Thought leaders converge for latest insightful chapter of Africa in the World festival
The festival brought an agenda deeply concerned with enhancing ways of living on the continent, structuring access to existing and new kinds of innovation, fostering problem-solving, and emboldening broad political will that affects societal change.
As the Africa in the World festival reignited its spirit of exploration and innovation after a two-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the speakers delved into a range of key themes.
Founded by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dele Olojede, the festival brought together thought leaders, policymakers, educators, journalists, and artists from diverse backgrounds and from as far afield as North America, Ghana, Israel, India, Nigeria, Mozambique, Malaysia, Singapore, Uganda, and the United Kingdom.
The programme of the festival, held from 12 to 16 September in and around Stellenbosch, encouraged lateral approaches to a wide range of topics. Speakers and other attendees had opportunities to exchange insights, explore synergies, and find common ground in various spaces. The festival provided a platform for meaningful discussions towards actionable solutions to pressing challenges affecting various countries in Africa and elsewhere, whether political, economic, or otherwise.
The solidarity of the Aspen Institute — a global non-profit organisation committed to realising a free, just, and equitable society — with Olojede, one of its fellows, was clear from the fact that many of the attendees and speakers from Africa and abroad are members of its cross-sectoral, international network of leaders.
Montek Ahluwalia, a prime roleplayer in the economic reforms in India since the mid-1980s, encouraged attendees to take a step back to better see and address structural problems — a viewpoint that resonated with many.
Government and governance
On the programme were diverse topics, including governance and its challenges, education and innovation, and contributions relating to art, culture, hope, and political will. The name of the festival mirrors its overarching theme and, over the course of the week, these topics revealed themselves to be facets of political and cultural life on the continent and of the pivotal role of the African diaspora therein.
At the opening, Ferial Haffajee moderated a discussion on politics featuring South African business leader and presidential hopeful Songezo Zibi, Malam Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai (a former governor of Nigeria’s Kaduna State), and fund manager Francis Daniels. Zibi shared his vision for governance in South Africa, while Nasir El-Rufai reflected on his experiences in government and business. According to him, the best and brightest often shy away from politics, thereby impacting prosperity and peace in countries across Africa.
Zibi also identified this as a recurring problem in post-colonial African states, where politics is often viewed as a sphere in which individuals with talent and ethical standing should not engage. He emphasised the devastating impact of poor politics and bad actors in the political arena: “As somebody who comes from a village where over half of the young men under the age of 25 are either in prison or dead, politics really matter to me.”
When Haffajee asked Zibi about the mood in South Africa during his listening tours, he revealed what he considers prevailing political disengagement driven by anger and frustration with politics and politicians. The remainder of the conversation and other engagements during the week explored challenges to and prerequisites for robust and sustained good governance.
After the political discussion on the opening night, the festival turned its attention to pressing education-related matters, which played a central role throughout the week. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, focused on frameworks for educating the youth, highlighting the threats facing the country if the requisite drastic education reforms are not implemented.
“We have an opportunity in the world today to have universal [access to] education. Technology makes that possible.”
She emphasised the need for the government to do what is necessary to capitalise on this opportunity and also stressed the importance of proper support for teachers.
American education expert John E Deasy, president of the Bezos Family Foundation and former superintendent of the Los Angeles school system, shared his personal experiences of how government, philanthropy, and the private sector catalysed positive changes in American schools.
Arturo Condo explored parallels between South America and Africa, focusing on Earth University’s sustainable agricultural curriculum and its global leadership development plan, hosted in Costa Rica.
Delving into the topic of philanthropy, the festival featured Navyn Salem and her impactful non-profit enterprise Edesia. Based in Rhode Island in the United States, Edesia is combating extreme child malnutrition on a truly global scale.
Discussing SA’s future
As prominent business leaders shared their insights, the festival kindled optimism about South Africa’s road ahead. One such South African, Michael Jordaan, provided the international audience with 10 reasons to be hopeful about South Africa’s future. He touched on the impressive rate of revolutionary technological advancement that is propelling education and innovation in various fields, on the growing awareness of environmental issues and plans to address them, and on the economic potential that proposed regulatory changes can unlock. Certain global risks historically associated with Africa are now becoming prevalent elsewhere in the world, Jordaan emphasised.
Olojede also spoke to John Carlin, author of Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, which led to the movie Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood. In a session titled “Luck: An Admission”, the discussion centred on Carlin’s forthcoming memoirs.
In discussing faith and faithlessness, Bishop Malusi Mpulwana and Reverend Alan Storey critically examined the notion of the “promised land” and the complexities inherent in pursuing it, as well as the extent to which the Egypt of the past still influences (South) Africans as we navigate the current wilderness in our attempts to move forward.
Ubuntu and solidarity
From matters of faith, the festival next shifted its focus to the spirit of solidarity in South Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic.
An engaging discussion between the Solidarity Fund’s chair and deputy chair, Gloria Serobe and Adrian Enthoven, highlighted the fund’s agile and ground-breaking structure. The pair also showcased the capacity for generosity and problem-solving within the country that fostered this collaboration between government, civil society, and the private sector. Enthoven singled out Martin Kingston, executive chairman of Rothschild & Co, without whose selfless involvement “there would not have been a Solidarity Fund, the largest mobilisation of private funding the country has ever seen”.
Various applications and lessons from the world of finance were also discussed by American finance expert, Christopher Varelas. Representatives from start-ups operating in various African countries convened to discuss financial developments and challenges in Africa.
Author, speaker, and journalist Laurie Garrett and bioinformatics leader Tulio de Oliveira discussed Covid-19 and its impacts, as well as how technological advances in Africa are positioning the continent for the future.
Conflict and freedom of expression
Throughout the festival, there were discussions about transitions in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. Carlin and fellow journalist Justice Malala explored the complexities of President Ramaphosa’s leadership and its impact on public confidence as he navigates the long game of politics.
The festival also engaged with pressing global concerns, including the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine. Liubov Abravitova, Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa, shed light on the war in her country and the ongoing genocide perpetrated by Russia in a panel discussion with Olojede, Carlin, and Mondli Makhanya. Also featured at the festival were playwright Hope Azeda and her Ubumuntu Festival, which commemorated the Rwandan genocide and explored the double-edged role of art in spreading inhumanity, alongside its ability to help survivors process and transcend the horror of events.
In a multi-faceted interview conducted by novelist Okey Ndibe, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka discussed his concerns as a writer about freedom of expression, as well as Africa’s contemporary challenges, including the recent presidential election of Peter Obi in Nigeria. Soyinka highlighted the prevalence of fake news and incorrect “famous sayings” online. He humorously shared his many “guises” and the mistaken identities he’s been assigned. (He’s been spotted as supposedly Kofi Annan, Don King and, of late, Morgan Freeman.) The conversation encompassed issues such as the “real” sources of funding for African writers, how misled some African leaders are regarding Russia (it’s not the same Russia today and Putin isn’t Gorbachev, he said), and his view of Russia as a “feudalistic, terrorist-led nation”.
Academic Awam Amkpa interviewed Nobel Prize laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, delving into his life before and after receiving this recognition. As he explored narratives of consequence, Gurnah discussed his life experiences and the lens of literary art. He emphasised the role of stories in expressing views of the world, even if they don’t necessarily reflect reality, and how perceptions of “home” can be complex for those who have travelled from formerly colonised territories to Europe or North America.
“If you were to wake me up in the middle of the night where I live [in the UK], I would say Zanzibar is my home but, on the other hand, if you asked me that same question here [in Stellenbosch], ‘home’ would mean the UK. I don’t see any conflict in that,” he said.
Literature and history
Regarding history and the novel, Gurnah believes that, rather than merely presenting the past, historical novels often reflect contemporary concerns. He welcomed being seen as a writer who explores history.
The festival furthermore celebrated Dominique Botha as this year’s winner of the Ingrid Jonker Prize for Poetry. She read poems drawing on memory and landscape against a backdrop of histories writ large.
Amid melodies and poetry, the festival prompted deep reflection on structural issues. Neo Muyanga, a South African composer, explored the origins of “Amazing Grace” and its connection to the American civil rights movement and struggle-era songs. This sparked a lively discussion about the complexities of origins, given the enduring impact of the song and the fact that it was written by a slave owner.
Rokia Traoré, a versatile vocal artist from Mali, and her band delivered memorable performances that showcased her diverse roots as she embodied the role of “a modern-day griot”, as discussed in Muyanga’s introduction.
The political scientist Richard Joseph, someone who has researched governance and democratic transitions in Africa for many years, proposed the concept of NISA (Nigeria, India, and South Africa) in light of BRICS’ involvement in the G20.
Koyo Kouoh, executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, discussed the confluence of modern African art and lived experiences as portrayed in the recent exhibition “When We See Us”. This stimulated a discussion around canonisation processes and the concerns of modern artists from Africa.
Africa in the World showcased both the organisers’ and speakers’ remarkable ability to bring hope, practical solutions, and effective collaboration to a world grappling with numerous crises. It underscored the role of political will to drive meaningful change and illustrated the importance of collaboration between the private sector and government in areas such as education and governance.
The festival also emphasised the power of dialogue, innovation, and collective action in shaping a better future by transcending the confines of party politics.
Ultimately, Africa in the World brought an agenda deeply concerned with enhancing ways of living on the continent, structuring access to existing and new kinds of innovation, fostering problem-solving, and emboldening broad political will that affects societal change. DM