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Who is to tell Africa what ‘excellence’ is?


Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few bestselling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and adviser to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.

I’m sure many people have heard the idiom, “If it had been a snake, it would have bitten you”. For those who haven’t heard it, it is usually used to mock someone who can’t see something that should be easy to find.

I remember it well because my mother would often send me to look for something in the house, and I could never find it. I would always insist that it actually wasn’t there, to which she would reply, “If I get up from this chair and I find it, you’ll see”. Because I didn’t want to “see”, I would rush back to where I was told to look, and in no time, I would find it exactly where she’d told me to look for it. 

Had it been a snake, it would have bitten me. 

I was reminded of this when I read that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, whose board is directed by the well respected Mamphela Ramphele, had failed for the third year in succession to name an excellent African leader who had left office in the past three years. 

Ramphele is quoted as having said, “It is for exceptional leadership. We are not going to say because someone did a reasonable job we are going to award. The prize committee decided none of them displayed exceptional leadership.” 

But what does this pronouncement actually achieve for Africa and Africans? If we imagine for a moment that indeed Ramphele and her team could not find an excellent leader because none existed, what is the point of such a public announcement? Would it inspire current leaders to comply with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s standards of excellence so as to promote “excellent leadership”?  This seems quite unlikely. 

It seems to me that this interesting, but disappointing remark lends credence to the rather sad insistence by most that Africa lacks in excellence. Surely, just because the Mo Ibrahim Foundation couldn’t find excellent leadership doesn’t mean none exists. Quite frankly, all this could be about is the definition of excellence by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

Sadly, this damning assertion goes against the belief of a former winner of this award, Nelson Mandela, who was always at pains to emphasize that he is not a special case. That he is an African, who comes from many equally, if not more talented people and leaders. 

It seems careless and very self-indulgent that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has exacted upon themselves the high order of defining excellence, and then using such a definition to declare that Africa lacks excellent leadership. 

One hopes that at a time when Africans are in a struggle to lift themselves up from being secondary citizens among other nations, declared unable to lead or lift themselves from poverty, such a bold finding by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation will be regarded as nothing more than the single opinion of that foundation. 

As it was true that the fact that I couldn’t find the shoes I was looking for didn’t mean they were not there, so it is true that just because the Mo Ibrahim Foundation couldn’t find an African leader to award their excellence prize, doesn’t mean none exists. 

In a sense, it will always be up to us to look at things for what they are, and not what authoritative names such as that of Mo Ibrahim and Ramphele suggest. Since excellence doesn’t bite like a snake, we may have to look for it with different eyes, and even work harder to achieve it. DM


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