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The Future We Want: Africans Rising to build a New Africa


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

The winds of change are blowing through the forests and plains of Africa, over the mountains and across its deserts. But what is to be done, and by whom? And which are the critical questions we need to answer?

“We are determined to foster an Africa-wide solidarity and unity of purpose of the Peoples of Africa to build the Future we want – a right to peace, social inclusion and shared prosperity. We, the citizens and descendants of Africa in the Diaspora, as part of the Africans Rising Movement, are outraged by the centuries of oppression; we condemn the plunder of our natural and mineral resources and the suppression of our fundamental human rights.”

So reads the preamble of the Kilimanjaro Declaration, adopted recently.

The declaration was the refrain of the Africans Rising conference held in Arusha, Tanzania, this past week that brought together 272 activist leaders from every corner of Africa, from grassroots communities, faith-based movements, women’s, youth, student, farmworkers and trade unions formations.

“We are exhausted by the talk, talk and endless talk of our leaders. Our history and lives are littered with the broken promises of leaders who have used public office as a business opportunity for themselves, their families and a narrow predatory elite. They have captured our states, political parties and even parts of civil society and robbed us of the future we want,” says an activist from South Africa.

An Egyptian activist says, “We have had enough. Africa is a rich continent. That wealth belongs to all our people, not to a narrow political and economic elite. We know that our diverse, rich and powerful heritage has been damaged by successive regimes of slavery, colonialism and now neoliberalism. But now, our own leaders are the dictators.”

So what is good governance, I ask them?

“It is the better life we have a right to”, a fellow activist from Kenya says to me. “We are sick of an economic system where people who are rich treat their dogs better they treat us. Where a cow in Europe has a better life than we do. We walk on gold, diamonds and oil, but we are poor. Governance is not some academic exercise of data collection. It’s about African lives matter.”

I know the statistics well – a quarter of Africa is malnourished and 40% of our children under five are stunted, suffering irreversible physical and mental developmental harm. As urban migration grows at a phenomenal rate, three out of five people will be living in urban slums just decades from now.

Our youth’s anger is legitimate and justified. Eventually, it will explode the bubble we live in. I have listened to our people at the margins of our privilege – the growing underclass. The political vacuum of hopelessness created by the systemic exclusion of an entire generation is growing stronger. They are young, angry and restless.

Many of them, rightfully, feel that civil society, like governments and the economic elites, have become just another layer of officialdom in a system which, while talking about extending lives, may represent worthy charity but continues to perpetuate injustice.

They ask, “Why must I live longer if I have no job and no future?”

This new connected generation moves quickly, often without the kind of structures that slow us down. Their direct experience of challenging the system is always met, at best, with an avalanche of scathing criticism, their views demonised, and at worst, by batons, tear gas and live ammunition.

But they are undeterred. They say, “We are the future. We will be in control one day. Mortality is a reality. Your generation will die. And we will spit on your graves.”

They are right. Half the population of Africa is under 20, but many of our leaders are at an age where they should rather be sharing their beautiful life stories with their grandchildren. These youths know not only they will outlive our generation, but by 2050 a quarter of the world will be African and by the end of the century half the young people in the world will live on our continent.

The state of governance is not a luxury of choice. Good governance and leadership has to be unambiguously on the African agenda today.

Africans Rising’s priority is to mobilise an African Agenda, led by our governments but done transparently in a way that involves citizens, civil society and business. That agenda has to leverage our strategic natural and mineral resources that fuel the global economy and harness our remaining arable land, which is 60% of the global stock. We could place Africa at the centre of the global economy.

We can, like in the telecommunications sector, leapfrog the smokestack and resource economies of old into a new green growth trajectory that makes the 21st century an African one. Imagine the more than 700-million people who are without electricity today in Africa suddenly in possession of energy justice. Imagine the job creation potential of building a solar industry that uses the abundant free resource of the sun, wind, biothermal or hydro electricity. With over half the youth on our continent without basic skills, this is a major bottleneck. Clearly we need industry, academia and government to align our education investment with our new growth path and industrial strategy.

Imagine our bargaining power if we chose not to be 54 fragmented countries, defined by illogical, racist and colonial cartographers, but one African continent bargaining with trading blocs in the world.

And the technology revolution gives us the ideal platform for this.

I have heard Mo Ibrahim, one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Africa and founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, decry, on countless occasions, “We do not understand our strength as the fastest-growing telecommunications market in the world. We have over 750-million users today. Do we have a single telecommunications equipment supplier on the continent?” aks Ibrahim. “This would never have happened in China. They have forced companies to open manufacturing plants there and to transfer technology and skills to Chinese people.”

But what is to be done, and by whom? And which are the critical questions we need to answer?

Here was the Eureka moment. The Africans Rising meeting was the only civil society meeting in Africa I have attended that was organised by Africans themselves – it was Africans finding solutions for the African challenges of development. There were no “big chiefs” armed with PowerPoint presentations and a suitcase. Thankfully there were no celebrities present who imagine they are Gods’ gift to Africans with the divine mission to save us from ourselves.

We resolved to build the “Africans Rising Movement” whose shared vision is fundamental transformation, not the Africa Rising myth that global institutions and media pitched as our growth story of Africa and which reduced social progress to increases in gross domestic product (GDP) that only benefit a few.

The tendency of the “God President” syndrome, our reborn dictators, a sweeping plague across our continent, must be fought to protect space for civic and political action. Expanding women’s rights and freedoms to roll back patriarchy, mobilising our people around our right to human dignity, economic and environmental justice must be strengthened. And the drums of change demanding the end to the culture of impunity and corruption of the leaders in Africa, and the world, is getting louder.

A Sudanese activist related, “We have been abandoned by God. We are brutalised by everyone. There is no trust any more. There are no television cameras venture here and many of our children only know the brutalised existence of a refugee camp. It is not different from a concentration camp.”

So in the reality of this world and violence and poverty in another, he continues, “The inexorable journey of the poor and marginalised in their unseaworthy vessels will never stop. They will continue to stuff themselves in the back of trucks, run by mercenaries and criminal gangs, hoping to get to another place where they can live peacefully, like humans should.”

What we need today is not just to change the system, but to change the human being. As Mandela famously said, “A good leader is one with a good head and a good heart.”

The core of our new philosophy has to be the renewal of African pride. We swoon over social media sites that drive a zombie uniformity, that diminish us, undermine our self-esteem and reduce us into poor photocopies of Western culture.

We discard our ancient knowledge, culture, language and history that we should be proud of. As Africans, we are made to feel inferior. We want to be Americans, Europeans, anything but who we really are and yet we live in a continent that is the cradle of all humanity.

Aya Chebbi, a young activist and blogger involved in the uprisings in Tunisia, chastised me for using the term Arab Spring: “It’s the typical western hijacking of our struggle again, she said. Ours is the revolution for human dignity. We are Africans before we are Arabs. Ours was not a Facebook revolution. Facebook did not die on the streets of Tunis or in Tahir Square. Young Tunisians and Egyptians died.”

There is optimism about the winds of change blowing through the forests and plains of Africa, over the mountains and across its deserts, it will navigate the obstacles in its path. This will be a decentralised grassroots movement that will connect local struggles, that is committed to peace and nonviolent action. As it powerfully advocates in its Kilimanjaro Declaration,

“We assert our inherent rights as Africans and invite our governments, leaders, other stakeholders and institutions to join us in pursuing the Future We Want.”

The time for us to listen very carefully to the voices of the next generation is now. DM


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