Africa:Doing it for ourselves

2011-08-10 00:00

THE two-day African Renaissance conference held last week at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli ICC in Durban was a strange beast — part seminar, part shop window and part ministerial grandstand. Though it occasionally promised to spark into life, by the end of the conference it was neither clear what it was supposed to add up to or what delegates were intended to come away with.

“Connecting Africa” was the theme of this — the 13th — African Renaissance conference and it kicked off with a plenary session addressed by assorted government and provincial ministers.

In his opening address KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize spoke about the need to strengthen the economy of the entire continent and thus create an integrated economy to serve the people of Africa. “Today it is not about throwing off the shackles of the colonists but about throwing off the shackles of poverty.”

Mkhize saw South Africa as the catalyst to open up the African continent, noting that South Africa could not act in isolation but must be part of wider group initiatives such as SADC and the Tripartite Process.

Founder and chair of the African Renaissance Trust and national Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele emphasised the conference’s theme: “While in the past it would have been easy to dismiss Cecil Rhodes’ dream of building a railway line connecting the Cape to Cairo as colonial fantasy, it is now acknowledged that there is a need for this dream to be revived,” he said.

Ndebele said the time had come for Africa to trade within its own borders, an idea taken up by Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba, who said the South African economy needed to be linked with others in Africa, noting that at present only 10% of trade is inter-African while 80% is with Europe. “This is because of an absence of a trading network and because of old colonial ties.”

Gigaba said the future of the South African economy lay in linking with larger regional and intercontinental entities such as the Brics economic grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

The economic geography of the world is changing, according to Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, from a North-South emphasis to a South-East emphasis. “Six out of the 10 fastest growing economies are located in Africa,” he added.

Davies said there was a boom in the export of mineral products to India and China. “But all this is driven by someone else’s development,” he said, cautioning that “we can’t live off what’s driving us forward at the moment”.

Davies said that among the challenges facing South Africa were the need to grow employment, the overvaluation of foreign exchange that was undermining growth, and consumption-based industries growing twice as fast as product-based industries.

Davies agreed with earlier speakers that South Africa had to operate in a broader regional context as it was too small to compete on the global stage; consequently, there was a need to create regional blocs. “We are too small at 39 million to compete ... but think of linking 27 countries, then you have 600 million people with a GDP of one trillion rand.”

Davies also said it was critical to improve the beneficiation of raw materials. “Currently we export raw minerals at R55 a ton but if we took those raw minerals and produced titanium alloy — that sells at R100 000 a ton.”

“Africa is much better placed than before, but we need to exploit regional integration and be bolder than before.”

Following the plenary session the conference split into three threads — business, tourism, and arts and culture.

“The days of countries looking at themselves as individual entities are over,” said Michael Mabuyakhulu, KZN MEC for Economic Development and Tourism, who opened the first business session titled “Creating a Global Gateway into Africa”.

However, Mabuyakhulu was wary of getting too cosy with China, pointing out that the Chinese were driven by their own national interests. In terms of attracting foreign investment, Mabuyakhulu cited the Economic Development and Investment Protocol Strategy in KwaZulu-Natal as a model. “We are the first province to come up with an investment protocol for investors so that they can see what to expect.”

George Mahlela, director-general of the national Department of Transport, explored the various Durban-Johannesburg linkages, including road, rail and port developments; while the department’s Sibulele Dyodo discussed our overstressed road system as well as the previously uncontrolled deterioration of rail services. A solution of sorts was provided by Siyabonga Gama, CEO of Transnet Freight Rail, who punted an improved rail network as the answer to just about everything, including the reduction of carbon emissions. All the speakers emphasised the need for public-private partnerships on the basis that “government can’t do it alone”.

These presentations provided food for thought but the following day’s business session, despite being titled “Corridor Development” failed to build on them. While interesting, the presentations on the Cornubia development, the Dube Trade Port, ACSA and a broadband project in the Ilembe Municipality, were little more than public-relations exercises.

Questions from the floor clearly indicated a level of frustration among delegates, particularly over the issue of public-private partnerships. Property developer Neels Brink said that when it came to large developments there was often a lack of basic infrastructure, such as roads and sewerage, as well as provincial backing.

Others speakers said they would have liked to have heard less about projects in KwaZulu-Natal and more about economic corridors throughout the region. This raised a question about the conference itself: was it simply a showcase for KwaZulu-Natal? Should it be held in other provinces? What is the real purpose of the conference? What are the expected outcomes? These are questions that the organisers need to ask themselves, otherwise the African Renaissance conference is in danger of becoming simply a platform for government to talk to itself. A sterile exercise at best.

 

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