Defend Truth


Tragedies notwithstanding, the trajectory of humanity is that of progress


Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

The progress of humanity should be measured by what is done for the marginalised and not for ruling elites who capture states to further self-interest.

This column is based on the opening remarks at the 2018 Seminar on Governance Capacity for African Countries at the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, 23 October 2018.

The choice of the title of these short remarks is deliberate — to affirm the idea of human advancement as a zeitgeist that should inspire all efforts to strengthen governance and increase co-operation between China, the nations of Africa and other progressive forces worldwide.

I have mentioned before that history matters in building an understanding of how economies develop and nations advance.

The historiography of human relations tells us that notwithstanding tragedies of racial conflict, genocides, slavery, plagues and imperialism, the trajectory of humanity is that of progress, solidarity and advancement.

The yearning is for peace, co-operation and coexistence. Working with others to improve the human condition remains a universal a virtue.

Speaking about universal virtues of human advancement and solidarity, no greater a figure than Nelson Mandela embodies these. We invoke him because this year, 2018, marks 100 years since his birth in the village of Mvezo in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

Aptly, progressive forces around the world have celebrated this Madiba centenary, from Beijing to Ethiopia, from Cuba to New York. These are a people who understand that an injustice in one part of the world blots the whole of humanity.

They appreciate that Mandela extended the bonds of solidarity beyond his region, declaring when he became president in 1994 that South Africa’s freedom is incomplete until Palestine is free. They embrace Mandela’s paradigm of peace as being pro-humanity, instead of the anti-human paradigm of war that shaped much of the 20th century.

If we argue that Mandela negated the paradigm of war which characterised much of the 20th century by advocating the paradigm of peace, are we then necessarily saying, Mandela embodied what Steve Biko earlier predicted — that we will “give the world a new human face”?

Should we not accept and locate Mandela’s ideas within this broader revolutionary philosophy; revolutionary because revolutions are about advancing humanity and the negation of retrogression. Revolutions are not about revenge and the subjectivity of others.

So when Biko said we will give the world a new human face, could he have meant a truly decolonised and developed Africa will remember the oppressor from his inhumane acts and the oppressed from the inhumanity of slavery and colonial oppression?

In which case we can than argue that China’s expressed intent to strengthen mutual relations with other nations is a tacit embrace of Steve Biko’s philosophy and Mandela’s praxis of rehumanising the world, a significant shift away from the Euro-American paradigm of war.

In that connection, the rare honour given by the United Nations to the founder of the new South Africa by erecting a statue of him at the UN headquarters in New York suggests one conclusion: that even as some leaders envision the world and their countries as securitised gated suburbs (a ruse disguised as a fight against potential terrorists and criminals), the majority of nations see Madiba as a global symbol of peace, co-existence, unity and solidarity.

The unveiling of the statue was crowned by the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit which preceded this year’s UN General Assembly. Through this summit, the UN, working with the South Africa-based peace-building NGO, African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, propagated Madiba’s paradigm of peace as a universal aspiration that transcends time and space.

In today’s world where isolationist tendencies are flaunted, the majority of UN member states subscribe to the principle of multilateralism as a leitmotif of international development.

Scholars have long established the correlation between peace and human development. Evidence of nations’ interdependency to achieve socio-economic advancement is equally beyond dispute.

Hence President Mandela prioritised the task of establishing mutual relations with the international community, from China to Brazil, Sweden, Indonesia, Canada, Jamaica, Chile, Angola, Iran, Nigeria, Egypt and many more.

In fact, this year of Madiba’s centenary coincides with the marking of 20 years of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Pretoria.

By the time he retired in 1999, South Africa was no longer “a skunk of the world” as he once observed — a fine example of a leader with the capacity and vision to govern a country on the principles of solidarity and mutual co-operation.

Through efforts like BRICS and FOCAC, these principles are taken forward and given practical expression. Their recent hosting in Johannesburg and Beijing respectively, solidified the bonds between the peoples of Africa, Brazil, China, India and Russia. Let us colloquially call these developments the ABC of international relations.

For its part, South Africa has used its Nelson Mandela Peace Summit membership (and that of other multilateral foras such as the G20) not just to further its strategic geo-political objectives, but to advance the developmental interests of the whole continent and the people of the Global South in general.

Hence this year’s summit saw an increased number of BRICS outreach countries in attendance, both from within and outside the continent: Argentina, Jamaica and Turkey among others.

Since Mandela, the leaders of South Africa have recognised that the country cannot prosper unless the whole continent develops. Calls for greater regional integration, increased intra-Africa trade, improved South-South and North-South relations are key to this strategy.

As far as FOCAC is concerned, South Africa has worked with sister countries in the continent to champion the developmental aspirations of the African people who need sustainable energy supply, clean water, efficient transportation systems, job-creating investments, skills development opportunities, technological advancement and lifesaving healthcare.

Just as the people do not struggle for ideas, FOCAC will be dubbed successful if it delivers these developmental outcomes to the people — hence the emphasis on the abiding principles of mutual co-operation and solidarity.

Of course these are impossible in the absence of visionary leadership, responsible governance and policy certainty, matters we will reflect upon in the coming days of this 2018 seminar on building governance capacity for African countries. The vistas of increased trade, commerce and people-to-people contact must open wider.

The current Chinese maxim of “building a community of shared future for mankind” resonates with Mandela’s ideals of solidarity and universalism. We further note that the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China declared:

We will strengthen people to people and cultural exchanges with other countries… while also drawing on other cultures…”

This pluriversal approach to managing human relations negates the zero-sum game of colonialism, whose matrices of power condemns developing nations into neglected stepchildren of the empire.

Back to Nelson Mandela, the flag bearer of responsive governance, peace and international solidarity: We have mentioned above that by the time he left office South Africa was no longer a scallywag state that bullied southern Africa. It was a full member of the international community mounting efforts to transform global governance institutions and to improve the general well-being of developing nations.

Further, it is a matter of public record that by the time he finished his term, he had transformed the South African state. There was a unitary state incorporating previously race-based bureaucracies and tribal Bantustans. Armed and police forces were integrated.

He created a single basic education system and within three years there was a single national secondary education certification programme. The social security architecture was reformed, thus regularising and equalising social assistance grants from a race-based to an inclusive system covering the aged, children and people living with disabilities. The labour market had opened up for blacks and women in particular.

Measures to stabilise the fiscus were introduced. An unprecedented public housing scheme was set in motion. He built important institutions, including an independent judiciary, whose resilience has recently been tested and proven.

It should go without saying why I recount these Mandela moments on this occasion: they remind us of what is humanly possible in the realm of mastering state-craft in pursuit of peace, solidarity and human advancement.

They serve as inspiration and necessitate inquiry — if Mandela could do it under circumscribed conditions, why can’t future generations of public sector leaders do better in conditions of technological advancement, increased certainty and better national budgets? Why can’t we govern better and put the interests of the people first in the infrastructure development, trade and investment deals we engineer?

Cutting our feet to fit into Mandela’s shoes is no option. It is the shoes we should modify, to better traverse the long walk to responsive governance and sustainable development.

Some may argue that this affirmation of humanity triumphing over tragedies is predicated on three dialectics: the power of ideas, the power of visionary leadership like in the case of Presidents Deng Xiaoping and Nelson Mandela as well as the power of credible institutions that act to advance society.

Again we assert that even with the tragedies of colonialism, capitalist greed, religious chauvinism, misgovernance, inter- and intra-regional conflicts, outside interference, poor public policy outcomes and stunted growth rates, the trajectory of humanity is that of progress.

The people expect leadership to govern their affairs better, to inculcate racial and religious tolerance, to strengthen global co-operation and solidarity, to build better futures characterised by epistemic and socio-economic freedoms. The people await the fulfilment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the global blueprint for human development.

For his part President Deng Xiaoping offered a “three criteria” theory against which the public policies we choose should be tested: Are they beneficial for political stability? Do they advance economic development? Do they improve the living standards of the people?

In other words, the progress of humanity should be measured by what is done for the marginalised and not for the ruling elites who capture states to further self interests.

We should be responsive and accountable to our people lest we cede the ground to regressive populist forces. This means promoting the trajectory of human progress while at the same time resisting the temptation of easy solutions offered by right-wing populism.

That is our generational burden — to build a better Africa and a better world. DM

Ngcaweni is head of policy and research services in The Presidency. Views expressed here are private.


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