Africa: ‘No time for excuses’

2009-06-03 00:00

IT might have been the product of some cynical stage management: on the day that hundreds of delegates to the African Renaissance conference converged on the ICC to talk about the impact of the global downturn on Africa’s future development, newspaper headlines carried the news that South Africa was in an official recession.

It was the kind of news that nobody could under-play with nebulous platitudes about Africa’s unique strengths, its untapped potential and its humanitarian value systems.

So it was a relief that in his opening address, Economic Development and Economic Affairs MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu didn’t try. In fact, he did the opposite, announcing emphatically that the “time for excuses” is over for Africa.

Describing as “shocking” the magnitude of the latest economic contraction, Mabuyakhulu drew attention to predictions that the impact of the downturn will be severest in the developing world where reliance on foreign direct investment is high and millions already dice with destitution. We will all be required to make “compromises in the interest of our country and our economy”, he said.

The MEC didn’t shy away from sensitive issues like xenophobic attacks in South Africa (described as “embarrassing” and “shameful”) and went on to quote Amnesty International’s Africa programme director Erwin van der Borght who last month apparently described the human rights situation in many African countries as “precarious” and characterised in many countries by restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

From anyone else’s lips, the tone might have been interpreted as Afropessimistic, particularly when he went on to quote figures suggesting that African workers are earning three times less than their European counterparts in 1820. Today, they earn 20 times less. “Clearly,” he concluded, “this shows that over the past two centuries, instead of progressing, Africa has actually regressed. This should concern all delegates gathered here today.

“This is a conference at which we must stop lamenting our fate and instead deal decisively with the challenges ... while we cannot change our past, we can certainly build a future of our dreams,” he concluded.

Now I was sitting up and taking notice, pondering the galvanising effects of the province’s new leadership, perhaps helped along by a particularly sharp recession.

Mabuyakhulu certainly couldn’t be accused of Afro-arrogance, the flip-side of Afro-pessimism. It was a term used by Andre Fourie of the National Business Initiative later that day in the business “breakaway” session to describe a kind of denial of some of Africa’s problems — declining life expectancy rates, maternal health and literacy rates in certain countries — which threaten to undermine the continent’s future. Fourie described such arrogance and the refusal to draw attention to such problems as “criminal”.

The thrust of Fourie’s economic argument was that Africa cannot follow the development path already taken by the West. “Our planet simply doesn’t have the resources to sustain that kind of development to produce another billion Americans.” He said that believing the onus to cut carbon emissions and address environmental decline falls only on the shoulders of the West is in itself a lost opportunity for Africa which is rich in sustainable energy resources: bio-diesel, ethanol, hydro-electric power, geothermal possibilities, solar potential, wind and recycling of waste for energy. All of these, he said, are all massive potential contributors to an “energy economy”.

Fourie said with the advent of cellphone technology, Africa has the luxury, and advantage, of being able to leapfrog certain developmental stages, like the need for fixed-line telecommunication networks. He called for innovative green thinking around the continent’s transport infrastructural needs and described as “unacceptable” the fact that air travel to many countries in Africa often involves a massive detour to countries (usually former colonisers) in the West. Of course, one of the biggest challenges of conferences on so large a scale, with so grand a theme as a continental renaissance and attracting so broad a spectrum of participants is the clash of expectations. Tourism Knowledge Group CEO Anita Soni’s detailed presentation on the effects of the downturn on European, American and Japanese travel patterns was interesting in and of itself (and came as something of a welcome distraction in the wake of a depressing artistic contribution from film maker Anant Singh which visually revisited many of the world’s most brutal atrocities), but faced the inevitable question from the floor: “What about South Africa?”, “What about Africa?”

Similarly, when CEO of Elan property group Mark Taylor made his PowerPoint presentation in a breakaway tourism session on the “ripple effects” of the proposed development of a R10-billion resort on the north coast called Blythedale, comments from the floor expressed the intense frustration and, at times, despair at the lack of understanding at community level of the economic potential of tourism and the inability of black entrepreneurs to break into what is perceived as a white-dominated industry. African delegates from further north confirmed the view that tourism in South Africa is geared heavily towards whites, with black African tourists still being viewed with suspicion.

A particularly pained comment came from a female delegate from Greytown: “Blacks can only run funeral parlours or taverns. Only whites can have B&Bs. The whites are depriving us and the local municipalities don’t support us. It makes us feel very bad.”

Fresh from a trip to France to investigate that country’s recipe for marina developments, Taylor shared his company’s own “frustrations”, like having to wait two years for the resolution of a land claim in April against the north coast land on which Blythedale is to be built. Referring to the fact that the trip to France was made “at huge cost to his company”, Taylor said the government needs to play a greater role in creating incentives for development, in expediting development opportunities and offering help in seeking investment opportunities.

Eish! It sounds tough being in the mass property development business.

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