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By Ronnie Ntuli, South Africa
Without underestimating the challenges that African people go through on a daily basis as a result of poverty, I am always reminded of a visit to the Eastern Cape province of South Africa a few years ago. After a long drive in the most rural of areas in between small towns, I had occasion to stop at a small and dingy shop to buy refreshments. Having selected all the desired goodies, I headed for the till to pay. Between myself and the man behind the counter stood an elderly woman on whose face was sculptured the narrative of poverty and suffering.
Ma Khumalo, for purposes of this article, was carrying in one hand a loaf of bread and in the other a carton of milk. The man behind the counter rang the till and told Ma Khumalo the price. Having pulled her piece of cloth from her chest, Ma Khumalo untied its knot, opened it and laid it on the counter and began, in a torturing manner, to count her coins, all copper. After completing the count, she painfully looked up at the man behind the counter. Staring straight into her eyes, with what appeared to be a standard emotionless answer, he told her: “It’s not enough, do you want the milk or do you want the bread?”
Regardless of the intervention I made at that time, I walked away with an enormous void, not only because people have to choose between bread and milk, but more so because I was certain that Ma Khumalo would be standing in front of that same counter, under the same circumstances again in the very near future; and that neither her, nor any other person dependant on her had any reasonable prospect of altering their destiny for the good.
Without food in their stomachs, how dare we preach GDP growth, democracy, and macro-economic fundamentals to our fellow citizens? For this reason, I argue that our generation must dedicate itself to planting the seeds that will ensure that more than just a select few move up the economic ladder, but that all Africans achieve access to education, gainful employment and the liberty of living in an environment of prosperity.
This pursuit however cannot be viewed or understood in a vacuum. It must be seen within the context of our continent’s recent past of oppression and colonialism. Leadership on our continent must be viewed in continuity over many years, decades and centuries. In taking a leaf from generations of Africa’s past leaders, so too must our generation identify its task correctly, and thus bequeath to future leaders the appreciation for their true patriotic mission. The only time there is silence in the records of history is when history itself has been misrepresented or when a generation has failed to correctly identify and confront its task.
This generation’s calling
As a generation, we must set off from a place where our efforts continue to push back the ills brought on by many centuries of colonialism and the attempted permanent domination of our peoples and nations. I say this not only in the political sense but, considering today’s global challenges, more so in the economic sense. Earlier generations of African leaders focused on resistance against oppression and succeeded; later generations focused on liberation struggles and the fight for independence and succeeded; and subsequent post-independence generations worked to deliver peace, equitable systems of governance and to establishing the rule of law and they too succeeded. Today we must continue the quest for self-determination against the backdrop of enormous challenges in the economic sphere.
Many nations on the African continent continue to face difficulties in designing and establishing functional economic structures that deliver viable and permanent livelihoods for people like Ma Khumalo.
Considering the abundance of natural wealth, it is extremely difficult to comprehend the continent’s gap between natural wealth and actual poverty. Quoting history extensively, many have argued that the scales are tipped against countries endowed with natural resources becoming wealthy.
They call it ‘the curse of natural resources’.
This is an argument that I personally do not subscribe to. In my mind, the gap is the issue of leadership. Recognizing the desperate and urgent need to uplift our peoples and nations from minus ten to plus ten, in economic terms, Africa’s leaders must in the immediate term find the courage to take very difficult decisions and develop the strategies and economic architecture that will ensure that their countries turn away from the burden of aid. Africa’s leaders must work to ensure that they have viable, disciplined and self sustaining treasuries and that their populations do not survive only as a result of grants from the state or elsewhere, but rather from viable enterprises that employ people at all levels, especially that of Ma Khumalo who can then ensure that even if she is unable to pursue her own dreams, she has the confidence that if she invests in the education of her dependents, they will certainly have an opportunity to realize theirs. Our leaders must accept the painful fact that the longer we delay making these tough choices and decisions, the longer we extend the pain endured by ordinary Africans.
As the recent political history of our continent has shown (virtually across all countries), the cold reality is that as Africans we are on our own. No foreign persons, institution or nation will come to our rescue. Our story shows that whenever they have said they will, they have been merely pursuing their own interest, an interest seldom aligned to our own. This view must not be interpreted as an argument against cooperation amongst nations. It simply means that unless and until we Africans (and consequentially Africa) have the courage to do the things we must do in order to construct ourselves economically, we will never be taken seriously in the global trade and investment arena. We must accept that we shall never plead ourselves out of mass poverty and into our so called rightful or equitable place in the trade and investment world.
The way forward
This being the case and with the objective and vision of ensuring a sustainable livelihood for the majority of the citizens of our continent, our leaders must focus on three primary tasks (all broadly defined), and these are Education en mass, deepening the industrial base (including manufacturing and infrastructure) and regional integration within the continent.
The need to ensure that all citizens are empowered with relevant education is self explanatory. This is imperative since education and skills create the base of knowledge and self reliance for Africa’s future generations. Education creates the foundation from which ordinary Africans can set off. Importantly, although a number of African leaders have laid this foundation successfully, the challenge of adequately rewarding engagement inside a country has forced many Africans to seek opportunities elsewhere. We must ensure that countries in Africa are able to present our educated compatriots with competitive opportunities domestically, once they are qualified. We must preserve their expertise in order to ensure that we build critical mass on the continent.
As demonstrated by global history, productive enterprise continues to be the single-most viable foundation upon which all modern economies are built. If the architecture of any future economy on the continent is to be viable, it will have to be set on the plan to develop and entrench employment- generating and diverse domestic industries, both small and large.
Critical mass will be important if we are to sustain the development of Africa’s economies. Away from the emotion and the need to be the ruler, our leaders must accept that certain border-lines as demarcated today will only serve to hinder the development of our economies. Although desirable, the integration of the entire continent into a single market is not practical in the foreseeable future, but there are ready foundations for integration of regions within the continent.
On a medium term basis, the single most important matter for resolution by Africa’s leadership is the issue of sustainable livelihoods for the citizens of the continent. As young Africans, we must insist on a future beyond poverty alleviation, and strive for a future of prosperity. This is the calling, the purpose and the task for our generation, and in its pursuit we dare not fail.
Ronnie Ntuli is chairman of Thelo Group, an independent company with investments in the aviation and resources sectors. Ntuli is also chairman of the National Empowerment Fund, a development finance agency established by the government of South Africa to promote transformation of the South African economy.